Genius singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston died of a heart attack. Johnson was lauded by Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and covered by Tom Waits and Bright Eyes. His ongoing issues with schizophrenia and other mental health issues were chronicled in the documentary "The Devil and Daniel Johnston."
I remember this interview and the subsequent concert at Slowdown very well. I loved his music, and I'm going to miss him.
This story was originally published on Aug. 6, 2009.
— Kevin Coffey
Daniel Johnston talks about his cat. He talks about comic books. He talks about his house.
What Johnston doesn’t talk much about is what he’s known for: his music.
Portrayed as eccentric and mentally unstable — yet musically genius — in the documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” Johnston is credited as an influence on everyone from Beck to Bright Eyes.
Simple guitar and piano combined with straightforward, personal lyrics sung with Johnston’s childlike voice made a big impression on Kurt Cobain (who constantly wore a Johnston T-shirt). Johnston’s songs have been covered by Death Cab For Cutie, Tom Waits and many others.
Johnston’s problems with manic depression kept him from touring for years, but he’s been back on the road since the release of the successful documentary in 2005. Johnston stops in Omaha on Tuesday.
“Hi, how are you?” Johnston said — his trademark greeting — as he picked up the phone at his home in Waller, Texas. Jovial as ever, he talked about comic books, shopping, the documentary, pretty girls and his cat, Spunky.
Johnston, 48, moved out of his parents’ home a year ago into his own house, where he spends his days with Spunky watching monster movies, drawing and writing songs.
“I feel the best when I write songs and draw, and I just want to get better and better at it,” Johnston said.
He’s dedicated to writing music every single day, and themes of unrequited love and good battling evil repeatedly pop up.
Johnston insists that his songs are about himself.
“For the most part, I usually just write about something that happened, and the lyrics come pretty easy. I’ll think about something that happened, you know, and then I’ll just write it all out. It starts rhyming and stuff and I put it together. It’s fun to do,” Johnston said. “I write and the music writes at the same time.”
While he’s influenced numbers of artists, Johnston doesn’t realize his importance or how he got to where he is. When asked about his success, Johnston mostly dismissed it, preferring to talk about shopping or his house.
Even when speaking about his tour, Johnston was unsure where he was going, when he was leaving and how long he’d be gone. He didn’t know what songs he’ll be playing. But he is looking forward to shopping.
“That’s the ultimate. I get to go shopping when we’re in town. I’ll be after comic books and records and stuff like that,” Johnston said. “That’s the highlight of the whole thing. I’ll get three hundred dollars worth of comics. I love it.”
Johnston is finishing up an album, “Death of Satan,” with his band Danny and the Nightmares, and an EP, which he says will be out “very, very soon.”
“I’m really happy that it may be entertaining,” Johnston said. “It’s real different. I like working with different people to get a different sound, so I tried to do that. The new album is really cool. It sounds Beatle-ish, you know. It’s really cool.”
Out on the road, Johnston looks forward to playing some of his new songs for his fans.
“I’ve been trying to get some good shows together,” Johnston said. “It’s happy. It’s a happy feeling to have a sellout crowd.
“Things are better than they’ve ever been.”
Daniel Johnston on ...
His movie, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston”:
“It’s all kind of funny. There’s no escape from it, you know. Like, the title and everything. I’ve watched it 10 or 11 times and it does have a sense of humor, it seems like.
“It was reviewed on Siskel and Ebert. You know those guys? The Sneak Preview guys? They gave me two thumbs up! I was happy about that. Pretty cool.”
His mental breakdown, which led to him obsessing over the devil:
“I had a bad experience. I was taking some drugs — acid — with my girlfriend. We went to this concert and they started singing songs about Satan and I just went completely mad. I was real scared and my dad brought me home to West Virginia. It was pretty scary for some reason. I don’t know.”
“I still love the Beatles the most. I’ve got every kind of record set from the ’60s and the ’70s.”
While Johnston practically worships the Beatles, he also lists Metallica, the Butthole Surfers, the Beach Boys and Elvis Presley as his favorites.
Omaha’s own Bright Eyes did a cover of Johnston’s “Devil Town,” released on a covers compilation called “The Late, Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered.” Johnston said he liked the cover but had never heard of Bright Eyes before.
“It was a good version. I enjoyed that tape.”
“It’s real fun with me and my cat, Spunky. We love watching monster movies. I even plan to get a swimming pool.”
“Sometimes they all wait in line for me to sign something. There’s a whole bunch of them. I usually try to take care of it or they’d be disappointed, I guess. They have the old albums. Even now, those albums are 20 years old — ‘Hi, How Are You?’ and ‘Continued Story.’ They have those and I just sign them.
“And a lot of pretty girls. It’s really cool.”
Singing his praise
Among musicians, Daniel Johnston is considered one of the best songwriters around.
Kurt Cobain once sported a “Hi, How Are You?” T-shirt at MTV’s Video Music Awards, which directed loads of attention at Johnston and majorly raised his profile. Cobain also told magazines that Johnston was his favorite songwriter.
All of the attention from Cobain caused Johnston to be courted by record labels, even while he was committed to a mental hospital.
Other musicians have also taken a liking to Johnston, including Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie and Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips.
Here is what they have said about Johnston:
“I played a show with Daniel once, and it was unlike anything I had ever experienced before.” — Oberst
“I wonder if Daniel has some sort of fancy calculator, like the TI-84 we had to get for calculus, that he uses to compose his songs. I can’t see any other way that so much truth, melody and unassuming charm could possibly live in the same space.” — Gibbard
“With Daniel, you hear that thing that makes a person say ‘I want to sing’ in its purest form. It’s like a baby crying in the night.” — Coyne
His other art pursuit
Johnston draws constantly, creating pictures of everything from comic book characters to monsters and headless torsos.
His artwork has been shown in galleries all over the world, and Johnston has been featured in art magazines almost as often as music magazines.
“My dream was always to make a living off the art of comic books. I’ve had a few offers,” Johnston said. “It’s very exciting that I could do that.”
Johnston’s originals can be purchased at www.hihowareyou.com, starting around $200 for a black-and-white drawing and even more for pieces in color, watercolor and on notebook paper. Apparently, they sell very well.
“We were part of an arts show last year, and we were getting $1,500 for a big poster board drawing. I was going, ‘This is great,’” Johnston said. “They were really selling, so it was really cool.”