Daniel Johnston overcomes his fears to keep rocking
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When discussing Daniel Johnston’s music, mention of his bipolar disorder usually prefaces its description. That can overshadow the impact of the uncomfortably fragile, eerie, bare-bones chord-organ songs he’s recorded for the past three decades, but it can’t necessarily explain them. True, his condition has been a lifelong struggle that’s only recently gotten under control—and was chronicled in the 2005 documentary The Devil And Daniel Johnston—but the singer-songwriter has built a career around perseverance despite absurdly incredible odds: He forced his way onto a 1985 MTV special in Austin, survived a self-inflicted plane crash after playing South By Southwest in 1990, and has released a dozen albums since. Before Johnston came to town, The A.V. Club spoke to him about whether his condition gets more attention than his music and why his documentary is actually a comedy.
A.V. Club: Are you tired of people asking, “Hi, how are you?”
Daniel Johnston: [Laughs.] When I was growing up it seemed like everybody would say, “Hi, how are you?” Did you ever hear that before you heard of the album? It was just the common thing to say. Then I worked at [Six Flags] AstroWorld in 1983, and I was walking past a garbage can. It had this cardboard box with rubber frogs. A frog [was] saying, “Hi, how are you?” I thought, “Hey, that’s pretty cool!” I already had this frog character I’d been drawing, so that ended up on the cover.
AVC: What does the frog symbolize?
DJ: I called it the “innocent frog.” It represents me in my mind sort of like an innocent that saw with two eyes, and everything seems normal. On the back cover was his guardian angel that was a little bit evil because he had more eyes. He saw more, and [that] made him more evil. And, also, he was a boxer. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did the documentary change your life?
DJ: Well, it really did, you know? Now, I go to the grocery store and girls will say, “Hey, there’s that guy from the movie.” That’s pretty cool. It was on Ebert & Roeper. They gave me two thumbs up, and I thought, “Hey! That’s great, ’cause I always watch that show and it was really great to see that—two thumbs up!”
AVC: You’ve said the documentary would be better with a laugh track.
DJ: It was kind of humorous. I think people think it’s a little bit funny because when I come out at the beginning, I get an introduction, and the guy says, “Now: The greatest songwriter in the world!” And I come out, and I’m so fat. It’s unreal. I haven’t always been fat, except for the last few years. I was always the skinny guy and I never got used to it, but I just thought it was funny how fat I was. [Laughs.] Like a heavyweight champion.
AVC: That “greatest songwriter” intro wasn’t your idea?
DJ: They said it themselves. It was funny to me because that was the fattest I’ve been. It’s like Abbott and Costello. Fat dudes—somebody to laugh at. The whole film, I looked like some kind of monster. [Laughs.] I’m trying to lose weight, and it really makes me mad because I haven’t been able to. I want to get some girls and try to look all right. I’m drinking diet soda and everything.
AVC: How has your life changed since the documentary?
DJ: We’ve got a lot of offers. I’m working on some new material now. I’m working on a couple of albums at the same time, me and my band. Oh, it’s a lot of fun!
AVC: Some have complained the documentary didn’t focus enough on your music, but focused on the more dramatic episodes of your life. Do you feel those two are linked? The drama and your music?
DJ: I’ve been in trouble before. But I’ve got my own home, and I’m living right next door to my parents. Things are going a lot better. When I lived in Austin, I was always getting into trouble. I got into a fight with the police. I’d end up in the hospital. I was in jail twice. It was a nightmare. I thought, “Man, how am I going to get out of here!”
AVC: Do you think your condition gets more attention than your music?
DJ: Yeah. In the film that’s true. It’s more like Hard Copy. [Imitates Hard Copy theme.] In the hospital. In jail. It hardly mentions my music, and every time I try to play a song, it stops. I never make it through a song. I wish it had complete songs on it. It would have been a lot better.
AVC: Your original tapes have been re-released as CDs.
DJ: Yeah! I think it’s great. There are a lot of bootlegs that have come out. Somebody brought to my house about 15 Daniel Johnston bootlegs I had never heard. It was live performances. I started to get suspicious. Maybe they stole some tapes from my house? “How’d they get this tape?” It was like a lottery bootleg. I was real happy because they had really cool covers of just my drawings.
AVC: Have you gotten any closer to your goal of becoming a comic-book artist?
DJ: I really want to, but I’ve been lazy. In my life I always thought that I could make a living from it. That’s what I was shooting for. When I was writing songs I always thought I’d make more of a career out of the drawings, the comics even more than the music. When I moved to Austin and recorded Retired Boxer, I was thinking, “Hey I’m going to try and get into the underground comic-book scene here,” ’cause of [’60s comic Fabulous Furry] Freak Brothers. Then I found out about the live venues my friends would play their original music. I met them and started doing shows with them. I was on MTV, The Cutting Edge, with all my friends. They came to town and just filmed us all. I was working at McDonald’s at the time, and I was like, “Hey man, I’m on MTV!” [Laughs.]