Daniel Johnston's Beautiful Honesty
Jeff Feuerzeig, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, Inc.
We're flying down US 2, through the Cascade Mountains—flying because I'm driving, and when I drive a rental car, somehow normal rules and speed limits don't apply. My friend is fiddling with my ancient iPod Mini. I break out the iPod Mini only for road trips—it's sorely NOT updated, or current, with songs.
"Who's Daniel Johnston?" she asks.
"Ooh, play that!" I wish, in my head, that I have the Hi, How Are You album from 1983, but I only have Fun from 1994.
"This guy sounds crazy. And the music is NOT good."
"No, but it is..." I say, almost crossing lanes because I see a waterfall. "I wish I had my cassette tapes." Daniel Johnston is meant for listening to on crackly old cassette. I try to plead my case by saying, "Remember that white T-shirt that Kurt Cobain always wore, with the drawing of a creature with eyeballs dangling at the end of long tentacles—that was a Daniel Johnston shirt." "Oh yeah, I sorta remember that. He still sounds crazy. Pretty, but crazy."
It's impossible to talk about Johnston, of his brilliance and honesty and songwriting, without talking about his mental illness. Yes, Johnston has some serious psychiatric issues. Yes, he's been institutionalized and is manic-depressive. And his diseases have been a source of contention for critics and fans for decades.
In October 2000, former Stranger music editor Everett True wrote an article titled "Watching the Sufferer"—a review of album Rejected Unknown:
"This album is so desperately bleak, it makes for almost impossible listening, despite its vivid flashes of beauty. Often I have said that hearing Daniel's music makes me feel voyeuristic. Rarely has that been truer than here, despite the accomplished, sensitive backing from musicians like the Dead Milkmen's Brian Beattie. They can make his songs sound complete, rounded-out, and grown-up—but they could never do the same for Daniel himself."
He goes on to say, "Everything about this record disturbs me, from the cover drawing of a girl with a skull face to the headless, armless torsos, to the absolutely wonderful 'Favorite Darling Girl,' a song that should be number one in anyone's heart. I cannot live with it. I cannot leave it behind. Daniel, please take care of yourself and your friends."
There is something absolutely voyeuristic about Johnston's music and artwork—it's so devoid of pretension, it's almost painful. It's so honest and raw, you sometimes feel guilty for enjoying it. This is especially true when you see him perform live. I saw him in 2006 at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and was moved to tears. Others, however, were not: In a Line Out post by former Stranger music editor Eric Grandy, commenter rk states:
"And biggest disappointment Thursday: Daniel Johnston. Yeah, I know the man's an Austin legend and all that, and yeah the crowd went apeshit, but come on, be serious. Massive pot belly, in stained T-shirt and dirty sweatpants, needs the lyrics to his own songs right in front of him the whole set, only played guitar himself on one song and flubbed it badly, pretty serious Parkinson's disease tremor, and kept apologizing for 'not practicing' before the show. If it hadn't been for the decent backing band, it would have been a total mess. Honestly, even legends should know when it's time to retire."
Reading this, it was hard to believe that rk and I were at the same show. I thought that show was truly moving. It could have been wilder, sure—but then most anyone who's seen the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston would likely feel a bit guilty hoping Johnston gets too overly passionate. The scene where it's revealed that he would stop taking his meds in hopes of performing better, followed by flying home in his father's small airplane in which he yanks the key out of the plane's ignition, forcing them to crash—well, it's heartbreaking. I've seen the movie several times, and when Papa Johnston starts crying, I do, too.
It is fair to say that some of his live shows are not always excellent. But I think it's important to remember Johnston's magic, and what makes him true and real is that he creates art spontaneously. He's about the process and not product, and the magic lies in his process. You never know what he might sing or say. It all just rolls out of his brain. Nothing is feigned or derivative. What you get is 100 percent Daniel Johnston and nothing else.