He was different, said his mom, I noticed that right from the start.
He was precocious as a kid and creative pretty much from the start and he’s still singing and drawing. He has a remarkably young voice for a portly, grey haired guy. You might know him from Kurt Cobain’s tshirt with a Daniel Johnston album cover on it.
As a kid, he made films at home, so we hear him discussing manic depression right from the start (as a teenager). In 1982, sounding like a young and raw Bob Dylan, he wrote this song.
I Had Lost My Mind
I had lost my mind.
I lost my head for a while was off my rocker outta line, outta whack.
See I had this tiny crack in my head
That slowly split open and my brain snoozed out,
Lyin’ on the sidewalk and I didn’t even know it.
I had lost my mind.
Why, i was sitting in the basement when I first realized it was gone.
Got I my car rushed right over to the lost and found.
I said “pardon me but I seem to have lost my mind.”
She said “Well can you identify it please?”
I said “Why sure its a cute little bugger
About yea big a little warped from the rain”
She said “Well then sir this must be your brain”
I said “Thank you ma’am I’m always losing that dang thing.”
I had lost my mind.
A skinny little kid who looked a little demented, it wasn’t long before he had a recording contract and a reputation for being crazy and weird. And a musical career ensued … with a day job at McDonald’s.
There you have it, he said in the throes of mania, I’m a manic depressive with grand delusions. At age 21, he was on MTV singing about what he called his nervous breakdown. And it became more and more obvious that there was something wrong. And drugs happened too.
(I have no idea why we had to see into the lead singer of the Butthole Surfers’ mouth during his interview.)
By 1986, he was taking lots of acid and delusional. His actions confused those who knew him and worried them as well. He accused relatives of being satanists and the police were called. There’s footage of him manic, describing his psychosis; friends began to think he needed to be in hospital. And then his friends feared suicide.
Depressed, he announced his retirement and started taking meds, describing the feeling as groggy. And then off he went on the meds-go-round, for what he calls his lost year. (Surprise, surprise, he put on weight.) After returning to New York, he lost it again and after a bad meltdown, went missing. Sonic Youth found him. Lather, rinse, repeat, right? He was homeless and resisted all attempts to help him. In my head I am a negative superman …
Home again, hospital again, but he had managed to become successful in an underground cult kind of way, as well as badly psychotic in religious ways. Don’t play cards with satan, he’ll deal you an awful hand …
And so it went, round and round and around; police, hospital, meds. Shit got serious. He sent audio letters, so there’s first hand material from the psych hospital too. Demons drink the Mountain Dew …He got fatter, his career became more successful and he stopped his meds a few weeks before every performance, figuring his audience preferred him batshit. His voice was out of tune, but still he was a hit. His father wept recalling it.
The whole train wreck is documented (rather like Boy Interrupted), but – as usual – mania gets more time than depression does. Well, it’s far more camera friendly. I guess Kurt could have become interested in Daniel Johnston for the same reason he was fascinated by Frances Farmer, but initially Kurt was just wearing a shirt that Daniel’s manager sent him. Kurt wearing that tshirt made Daniel’s reputation explode, even though he was in a mental institution at the time.
Religious delusions kept reappearing and he decided that Metallica wanted to kill him. During the 90s, his career bombed. Dependent on and living with his parents, Daniel continued to make music and perform. I don’t even know my old songs. He began to have art exhibitions all around the world, as well as performing and having his songs covered by all sorts of luminaries. Still the religious psychoses and still unrequitedly in love with Laurie (since he was a teen).
Given that the documentary ended in about 2003, obviously the next question is where is he now … well he is 54 and shaky, uses a zimmer frame and I guess he’s here on his official website, except that it hasn’t been updated since last April. A cursory search shows gigs and art in late 2014 though. He’s described variously as a bedroom troubadour, a garage pop singer and outsider artist and I think all of those labels fit. The word genius is a subjective term, and I was glad to see this article respectfully challenging it. I like some of his music, lots of his songs covered by other artists, and almost none of his art.
I’d have liked more info about his depressions, his treatment and his steady decline, but of course, the documentary is certainly not only about bipolar. I found it sad, ultimately. There’s plenty of writing online about his ‘successful comeback’, but it’s the music and art that has come back, not necessarily the man. The final interview with his elderly parents was nothing short of heartbreaking. I hope Daniel is in good shape now and I’m sorry I couldn’t find any current info about his folks – please let me know if you can. If his father is alive, he’s 94.
I’m not sure what I think of the documentary’s title either, because it is born of his delusions. He is already described too often as insane rather than unwell and it’s a far cry from the Robert Johnson myth.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston is on YouTube, don’t be alarmed that it says El Diablo y DANIEL JOHNSTON, that’s just the Spanish subtitles. I couldn’t find you a freebie without ’em. Anyway I enjoyed oh my lord in a song, being translated as señor.