Daniel Johnston: Music and Mania - Flashback Week


Official album art from Songs of Pain by Daniel Johnson.

The world of art provides the most fertile ground for strange stories to grow. Some of the first things children learn about artists are that Van Gogh cut off his ear and that Beethoven was deaf and rather moody. Now, from the contemporary art world, comes one of the most unique and heart-wrenching stories that can be told. This story belongs to artist and musician Daniel Johnston.

Jeff Feuerzeig, director of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, told BreakThru Radio that he’d been mocked by his peers for making a documentary about Daniel, a footnote of musical history at the time of filming. Daniel’s popularity had always been primarily in the underground world of music, and his name was not in many people’s mouths when Feuerzeig set out to make the film early in the millennium. Soon after The Devil and Daniel Johnston was released, the world was given a flashback to the 80’s when Daniel Johnston first began creating his music. Songs that were covered by more than 150 artists, including Nirvana, The Flaming Lips, Tom Waits, David Bowie, Beck, and Yo La Tengo.

Daniel is currently on the road and touring again. Those who are unfamiliar with him now have the opportunity to relive (or experience for the first time) his music and his mind, as artfully delivered in Feuerzeig’s film.

Born in 1961, Johnston is the subject of  Feuerzeig’s award-winning documentary, which reveals Daniel’s life to be a wonderfully bizarre kind of hero’s journey. Johnston’s creative genius and prolific output were both hampered and influenced by a lifelong battle with manic depression, Feuerzeig explains:

Whenever Daniel was in his manic state, that’s when he created his great works of art and great music, but then he’d get too high and then he’d crash. He wrote about his illness so openly. It’s so raw that we’d never really heard that in song before, to feel that low or feel that pain; he captured that in his words and in his music and his vocal phrasing, and that’s why he touches people.

Johnston’s religious and conservative family from West Virginia did not condone his early obsession with art and wanted a more “productive” life for him. Their basement turned into Johnston’s creative space, where he drew, painted, played piano and created Super 8 home movies and audio tapes, which often comically depicted his mother rebuking him for being, among other things, an “unprofitable servant of the lord.” He began making music cassette tapes during his time at Kent State art school, where he met the ‘goddess’ of his journey, Laurie Allen. Johnston’s tapes Songs of Pain and More Songs of Pain, as well as countless other songs and pieces of art, are the creative manifestation of his obsessive, unrequited love for the art student who married an undertaker.

Daniel gained local cult-fame in Austin from passing out his cassettes to radio stations and friends, and his most mainstream public exposure occurred when Kurt Cobain began wearing a t-shirt of his album, Hi, How Are You. However, his manic mental illness fully surfaced after being given LSD at a Butthole Surfers concert. Shortly after, he was institutionalized for hitting his manager in the head with a metal pipe. From that point forward Daniel’s life would remain in constant flux between traveling from town to town performing music, and staying involuntarily in mental hospitals to treat his delusions, which caused him to obsessively fear Satan and demons, as well as believe himself to be Casper the Friendly Ghost.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston uniquely portrays Daniel’s life by using his own video footage and audio recordings as a framework. Feuerzeig explains the filmmaking process and what it was like to work with the middle-aged Daniel:

It was difficult– it’s not his fault, he’s not well, and heavily medicated now, and was while I was working with him. He’s a very difficult person. Part of his art form is that he likes fucking with people, even his closest friends, and I knew he was going to do that to me as well, and he did. But that’s why he’s Daniel Johnston, he doesn’t paint inside the lines. But in his own way he really did help collaborate on the film and was helpful. What’s interesting is that Dan was creative, obviously, but he chronicled his mental illness into art and into song. He was not able to do contemporary interviews, or tell stories from the past, but what was more interesting was he that kept those audio diaries, so I used those as an internal monologue, which is more interesting than listening to a 45 year old guy tell horror stories. So he’s not even interviewed in his own film; he’s an enigma.

It is evident to anyone who hears Daniel’s quivering voice in “True Love Will Find You in the End,” or views his wildly imaginative art, that they are suffused with an emotional fragility and sometimes childlike innocence, which can be extremely rewarding while being difficult to bear. Feuerzeig recalls first gaining interest in Daniel’s work in 1985:

It was much more than just the songs; I thought he was a great artist and a great comedian, and he was using all these different mediums, and he just sucked you into his life because the songs were so autobiographical. It was so much deeper than just listening to a great song, though he was clearly a brilliant songwriter. He was so off-putting tp so many people, because even now people’s expectations of great art.. they think virtuosity is some sort of asset to being talented, and it’s just not. He touched a raw nerve with me and a lot of people in the underground. People call him an outsider artist because he’s mentally ill and his work is primitive, but the fact is he’s a fine artist, and more importantly a prolific artist. No one has devoted more time to their work than Daniel, because he has no life outside art. He writes songs everyday and he draws everyday, and has no life outside of art, period. Which is why he has such incredible output.

The film gives insight into Daniel’s incredible, tormented journey.  Leaving one wondering if Daniel’s illness was at all alleviated by his artistic success. Feuerzeig gives his thoughts:

For Daniel, the success is the creation of the art and the moment of creation. He lives to write and create, so that’s his catharsis. When he was young he wanted that fame desperately, but not for fame’s sake, like contemporary fame. He wanted to write the greatest song in the history of the world, that’s his goal. And arguably he did. So that’s why people like Tom Waits or The Flaming Lips or hundreds of other people have covered his music. Nobody forced them to do this, they obviously were moved by him. The important part is he lives to create, so that’s the healing part of that. He was definitely out of his mind when he was younger, but he wasn’t medicated, and the cocktail of medicines changed over time. How his illness affected him is interesting, because, as you see in the film, one of the books I read and I agree with by Kay Redfield Jamison said that all these great artists and musicians and writers throughout history all suffered from manic depression. So it’s a blessing and a curse.

Daniel’s journey now consists of tours and concerts around the world. When Daniel sings “True Love Will Find You in the End” Feurzeig has witnessed sold-out theatres without a dry eye in the house,  “It’s just a sad irony: you see this overweight, unhealthy guy up there, shaking, singing this song about love, and it’s one of the greatest love songs about unrequited love, and it just rips you in half.”

Daniel’s strange story is still finding new fans, especially after the release of the documentary and his art is featured in galleries globally. Perhaps one day young art students will also be told the story of the manically afflicted Johnston, as Feuerzeig feels, “Daniel Johnston, to me, is one of the great artists of all time, and if you study art or music I feel there are just some things you have to experience, and he’s just one of those very important things you don’t want to miss in your life.”