Daniel Johnston is a bi-polar, schizophrenic musician whose life was opened up in the 2005 documentary ‘The Devil and Daniel Johnston’, directed by Jeff Feuerzeig. The documentary is an insight into the life and work of Daniel Johnston whose self-sabotaging antics which have consistently set back his career, also solidified his reputation as a near legendary figure within the alternative music scene. It can be hard to watch the documentary at times. From Daniel believing he was Casper the friendly ghost in a small plane with his father and turning off the engine and tossing the keys out the window causing an emergency landing in trees to his unrequited love. which has been his muse for his music, the documentary holds very little back from its audience.
Daniel Johnson was born in 1961 and quickly became very well known in his community as a vibrant artistic teenager. His house was often filled with teenagers from the area and from this time he had felt he was going to become famous. His homemade films which poked fun at his mother and his art were all his expressions of his surroundings.
During his tentative years he met the love of his life ‘Laurie Allen’ who would never love him but would always be an inspiration for his music. Almost like Yeats in a sense who had also written artistic works on the issue of loneliness and unfrequented love, so too would Daniel Johnston’s obsession bring him a muse that would inspire his every album. Watching him talk about her in his forties was a bit daunting and almost creepy but it is obvious he sees her as a desire to desire, and not a desire to have, otherwise her artistic value in his mind would be diminished.
Of course by this time his parents knew there might be something not right about Daniel. During his first year of college he didn’t attend lectures and became very solitary and eventually dropped out. Eventually he became closed off and in the basement of his parents’ home where he began to make music. During this time, he made his first cassette album ‘Songs of Pain’.
His life’s story after this sounds like something from a film. After joining a carnival and travelling around America, he was forced to leave after being beaten and had with the help of a local church stayed in Austin where his music career took root. He worked in a McDonalds to makes ends meat and slowly over time he became a part of Austin Texas’s music scene. Many people were not sure if he was a joke or not. His music was extremely ‘odd’ even by today’s standard, but there is something so raw about it that after the initial curiosity, you begin to admire it.
This was the case in Austin and Daniel worked around the clock to promote his music. At the time he couldn’t copy his cassettes. This had meant that every time Daniel wanted to give someone his music, he would have to compose an entire album live again for a new cassette. He had done this for years and made a name for himself. He had even ended up on MTV with a live performance and this had only gone so far as to tempt his ego.
It was already well known that Daniel’s mental health issues were becoming worse but when he had taken acid at a Butthole Surfers gig in 1986 his mental illness. Daniel now believed unconditionally that the Devil was out to get him. After taking more acid and becoming more unstable, he eventually knocked his manager unconscious with a pipe. He was subsequently institutionalized.
This episode stood with Daniel and even when he was recording an album in New York he again sabotaged himself and through the ramblings of the Devil and God and alienating everyone around him, he again put his career backwards. Again he was institutionalized and would spend a lot of time inside the system. His album ‘Hi How Are You’ gained a lot of momentum with the help of Kurt Kobain in 1993 wearing a t-shirt of the album with the well-known frog on it. This created an unprecedented amount of attention which saw Daniel Johnston’s manager get into a bid. He would turn down many deals, most notably with Elekra Records because they had signed Metallica who he thought were under the control of Satan and they wanted to hurt him. He alienated his Manager and fired him and signed on with Atlantic Records who dropped him in 1996.
Up until 2005 when the documentary was directed, Daniel Johnston has grown a massive cult following. His music has an unbelievable ability to draw the listener in because of its sheer raw emotion. His mental illness may have aided him in his artistic vision much like a great many other artists, but it has also destroyed so many bridges between people, it is a wonder that he has ever gotten as far as he has today. For many people today, mental illness almost seems like a great thing to have for an artist, as if somehow being mentally unstable is fashionable. Watching The Devil and Daniel Johnston would make anyone naïve to believe this think twice. His life story is just as raw, complicated and insightful as his music and the two are so interchangeable you can appreciate both this documentary as much as you can his music. By the end of the documentary he is travelling abroad to promote his music. All in all, the documentary is a great watch, not only for the world of alternative music, but for issues of mental health, which go very unchecked in our modern society.
His latest album ‘Is and Always Was’ was released in 2009 and is worth a listen and recently in November 2015 a short film was released about his current activities called ‘Hi How Are you Daniel Johnston’.