From an article I wrote last summer for the Savannah Morning News about rock idol Daniel Johnston . . . —J.S.
I’ve been given the brushoff over the phone before, but never by a mad genius.
That, perhaps, is getting ahead of my story.
When I first learned Daniel Johnston was going to perform in Savannah, I had no idea who he was. All I knew was his picture.
It showed an extreme close-up of an overweight and prematurely gray white man badly in need of a haircut. He was smiling through a disheveled beard. The curve of his upper lip suggested the absence of quite a few teeth.
So I did what I normally do in this situation: I Googled him.
I soon got a sense of who Daniel Johnston is.
The first Web site I came across greeted me with a friendly salutation: “Hi, How Are You?” It had bright colors and round shapes and drawings of cartoon animals. It gave the impression of being cute, innocent and fun.
But that was before I took a second look.
Some of the cartoons, it turns out, implied inner turmoil and a deranged mind: a jaundiced woman’s torso, a human skull, an eyeball with fins and a tail, a grinning, four-headed lizard.
Then, ironically, there were these: a mouse, Captain America and a boy dressed in red and white, polka-dotted underpants with a deformed ear.
At the center of the page is another female torso. She’s bleeding and perhaps pregnant. Attached to the stump that was her left arm is a string rising into the air. The string leads not to a balloon as you might think. Instead, it leads to Johnston’s disembodied (and smiling) head.
Oh, and did I mention the little green creature in the background?
“Hi, Daniel!” it says, cheerfully.
Skeptical, I started asking around. Ever heard of Daniel Johnston?
“He’s coming, really?”
“He can’t sing or play the guitar, but he’s a brilliant songwriter.”
“He’s influenced a generation of indie rock. Kurt Cobain loved him.”
“He lives with his parents.”
“He’s really disturbed.”
“He crazier than a s–thouse rat.”
Clearly, I had some homework to do.
Who is this guy?
Daniel Johnston has been called the most innovative songwriter of his time. He music has influenced a host of indie rock bands and musicians, from Spiritualized to Yo La Tengo, from Tom Waits to Sonic Youth, from Beck to Nirvana.
“Untainted,” “free” and “completely lacking in pretense” – these and more have been used to describe Johnston’s music for the past three decades. In this praise, however, can be found an awareness of a force that influences Johnston’s haunting music and plays a large role in making it what it is.
That force is a deep and profound form of bipolar disorder.
Growing up, Daniel seemed like any other creative child. He liked to draw, make movies and sing. By the time he was 18, his creativity turned to music as the result of his falling in love with a girl named Laurie Allen.
His output, which was enormous, didn’t seem unusual until Laurie got married to the local undertaker. According to the 2005 documentary made about his life, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” this period was the first in which his obsessive creativity seemed to be a sign of worsening manic depression.
A product of that period was a self-made tape Johnston called “Hi, How Are You?” It featured one of his drawings of a cute frog-like creature with googly eyes. He gave away copies in Austin, Texas, where he lived. After appearing on an MTV show focusing on that city’s music scene, he became a minor celebrity.
Meanwhile, his reputation for writing heart-felt, innocent and painfully honest songs grew beyond Austin. Kurt Cobain often appeared on MTV wearing a T-shirt advertising Johnston’s “Hi, How Are You.” His music would go on to accompany the adolescence of Generation X on the soundtracks to the movie “Kids” and the popular TV show, “My So-Called Life.”
But his illness remained close to the surface. His life during the 1980s and ’90s alternated between intense productivity and being institutionalized. During one horrifying episode, recounted in the documentary, Johnston suddenly came to believe his father was Satan. That wasn’t so bad except they were in a small aircraft flying home at the time. Bill was at the controls. Johnston, in his hysteria, grabbed the keys from the ignition and threw them out the window.
With this in mind, even his biggest fans realize being a mad genius is perhaps not all it seems to be, especially as it can come at a price.
“The simplicity of his lyrics comes from true inner anguish,” Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips told the London Guardian two years ago. “Madness shouldn’t be thought of as people in mental hospitals peeing on themselves. Who’s to say at what level all of us don’t have some inner struggle?”
Talking to Daniel Johnston
Back to my story about being brushed off.
Way before we talked, I was warned.
“I’m not sure how familiar you are with Daniel’s relatively fragile situation,” Jim Reed of Tiny Team Concerts, the group promoting the local show, told me in an e-mail. “Due to his emotional difficulties, he rarely speaks to the press. He does not use e-mail, so anything sent to him must be printed out, read to him, and then they transcribe his spoken responses.”
This was going to be a tough interview.
I was told to try making arrangements with his dad, Bill Johnston. On Wednesday, I called. Bill said conversations with Daniel are tricky. He might be up for a formal interview; he might not. Committing to a specific time wasn’t really an option, he said. Better to have a range of a few hours the following afternoon.
“If he’s not here, I’ll get him for you.”
At the appointed time, I dialed the number. It rang many times. Then someone picked up. It was Bill. I asked if Daniel was ready. He said he’d go out to the backyard and see if Daniel was around.
While waiting, I heard a TV in the background, the creaking and slam of a screen door, ice cubes clinking in a glass, footsteps and then Daniel’s high-pitched and weary-sounding voice.
“Hi, how are you?”
Oddly, the next 15 minutes seemed almost normal. There was nothing in our talk about the music-making process, the appeal of certain lyrical topics, the burdens of touring and the urge to create something novel and new that seemed any different from conversations I’ve had with other artists over the years.
The only difference was my acute awareness of his bipolar disorder.
“Writing songs is the funnest thing I can do,” he said. “I write at home alone mostly but sometimes I write with the band. I start by playing some chords and just mumbling, you know. Get some words out and write them down and go back and play the chords again and go back and forth. That’s how I do it.”
I asked about his heavy tour schedule. It has been made more difficult by unexpected bouts of mania and depression, he said. In the past, his illness forced him to cancel show dates. But he takes medications now – a cocktail of anti-depressants and mood stabilizers – and he says they help quite a bit.
Even so, he said, he has to be careful. Depression has returned of late.
“I’m not sure why,” he said, sounding fatigued by the idea.
As I was thinking of my next question, about the accident of fate that made him an icon of America’s Indie Rock Legion, that’s when it happened.
Exactly 15 minutes later, Daniel Johnston gave me the brushoff.
“OK,” he said, interrupting my next question.
“OK,” he said again, waiting patiently for me to finish.
“It was great talking to you. Thanks for your time. Have a nice day.”
And that was it.
The end of my interview with a mad genius.
Interviews with celebrities, especially indie rock celebrities, rarely last 15 minutes. Usually, they stretch to half an hour at least. But I didn’t remember this until moments after hanging up. I realized how smooth the brushoff was, so subtle as to be imperceptible. And there’s something else I realized.
I’ve never been brushed off like this before.
As a journalist, I’m the one who’s supposed to be in control of the interview. I’m the one who’s supposed to signal that I have enough material. I’m the one who signals the end of the interview with an “OK” and a “Thanks for your time.”
Not this time, though, and I began to wonder.
Perhaps this mad genius isn’t so mad after all.
(images courtesy of Daniel Johnston and www.hihowareyou.com)