Dancing with the devil

Austin, Texas cult musician Daniel Johnston has spent around 30 years creating magical pop and battling mental health problems.

Daniel Johnston370 (photo credit: Tim Broddin )
Daniel Johnston370
(photo credit: Tim Broddin )
‘Just think of him as a typical teenager and both of you will be fine,” the person arranging the telephone interview with Daniel Johnston told me. Of course, the Texas-based singer/songwriter who blurs that thin line between childlike and childish is actually 52. But it’s that man-child quality, as well as a knack for writing rudimentarily performed but penetrating and painfully honest songs, that has spawned a cultish aura that has kept him in the indie limelight for decades, despite chronic mental illness that has plagued him nearly his entire life.

Who did you used to listen to as a kid that first turned you on to music?
Well, um, The Beatles. .. I liked just about everybody that was famous and stuff… you know.

Like a latter day, more grungy Brian Wilson, Johnston has managed to overcome his demons to a certain extent to create indie “symphonies for teenagers.” And like Wilson, he’s mesmerizing because he’s so erratic and unpredictable while at the same time displaying flashes of musical and lyrical brilliance.
Faring better than infamous rock & roll casualties like Syd Barrett and Roky Ericson who unsuccessfully fought mental illness, Johnston – who suffers from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia – has been able to forge a steady, dependable career ever since his first homemade cassette was released in 1980 in Austin.
How did you start to make your own music?
When I was a kid I used to bang on the piano and pretend I was making up cartoon music, and then over the years, I just taught myself how to play the guitar.

A local hero and destined to remain so, Johnston’s fortunes took a turn when MTV aired footage of him in 1985 in a special on the Austin music scene. He soon became the darling of the indie underground in the US, with the late Kurt Kobain further propelling him into the limelight by regularly being photographed in the early 1990s wearing a Daniel Johnston T-shirt.

Did the publicity you received from Kurt Kobain and others prove to be not such a good thing for you and your health?
I don’t know… yeah, but I just kept on playing all the time.
Another blurred distinction developed as to why Johnston was suddenly so “cool” – because of his music or because of his illness? Regardless of the motives, Johnston’s cult following increased and helped unleash a floodgate of songs and albums.

How did you start to write songs?
I started writing songs because I was listening to The Beatles a lot.

I like Beatles songs so I started writing them myself.

Is it difficult being so prolific and churning out so many songs?
Yeah, it takes a little bit of work to write songs.

His success didn’t necessarily make life better for him, and in the late 1980s, he was institutionalized twice.
That troubled period was captured with the 2005 release of the gripping feature-length documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and which still pops up occasionally on a HOT or YES movie channel.

Did you think ‘The Devil and Daniel Johnston’ presented an accurate portrayal of your life at the time?
Yeah, it was kind of funny to watch.

The film brought Johnston’s plight and his music to an even larger audience and has kept him working at his own pace ever since. Today, according to The Guardian, British filmmaker David Miller is in the midst of pre-production of a biopic of Johnston. So far, he’s been approached by Johnston fans Phillip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly to play the lead role, and another fan, Johnny Depp, to play Johnston’s older brother.
Johnston will bring his personal songs and his fragile world to Israel for the first time for a show at the Barbie Club on May 28. Promoter Eran Arielli said that he had been “chasing” Johnston for five years before the right conditions worked out for a show. Despite his relative anonymity, Johnston has a strong following in Israel, according to Arielli, pointing to robust ticket sales for the show.

“Daniel has been an inspiration to me and to most of the artists I have brought to Israel over the years,” said Arielli. “You could never be certain if an artist will do the business... but in this case I trusted the local scene to make the right judgment and I had a good vibe about this from the beginning.”
When asked if he was concerned about Johnston’s ability to perform, Arielli said that the proof is out there in cyberspace, for all to see.

“We live in a digital era – and the answer is out there on YouTube, Vimeo and social media,” he said. “I’ve seen his show twice and I think that is one of the most beautiful and emotional concerts I’ve seen in the past few years.”
Johnston will be performing a few opening songs by himself on acoustic guitar and will then be joined by local indie rockers Soda Fabric, focusing on Johnston’s electric material from the 1994 album Fun and onward.
Soda Fabric and a handful of other local bands, including The Anglecy, Bill and Murray and The Aprons, will be performing an evening of Johnston’s music Tuesday night at the Ozen Bar in Tel Aviv.

Do you enjoy performing and appearing before an audience?
Well, ah... yeah, it’s a lot of fun.