Waking Up Daniel Johnston

The tales of this singer-songwriter’s idiosyncracies are not exaggerated.

Anyone who thinks the man at the center of the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston exaggerated his idiosyncrasies for the camera is flat-out wrong, as I found out before we'd exchanged one word.

To schedule an interview with Daniel, I contacted his father, Bill Johnston, who manages his son's career with assistance from Daniel's brother, Dick. Bill told me to call Daniel, who lives in a house next door to his parents' place in modest Waller, Texas, at 10:30 a.m. the following morning. When I did, Bill revealed that Daniel was asleep and suggested that I try again five hours later — at which point he was still unconscious. Nevertheless, he remained hopeful that Daniel would rise by 10:30 a.m. the next day, and while he wound up being wrong, he promised that if I called back in fifteen minutes, Daniel would be conscious. And he was, more or less.

"Every now and then, I hibernate like a bear," Daniel explained in his distinctively high voice. "I can sleep up to four days. When I'm depressed, it happens to me."

Daniel's continuing struggles will come as no surprise to those who've seen The Devil. During his teens, around the time he first exhibited symptoms of bipolar disorder, he self-recorded tunes whose simplicity and directness were summed up by the title he gave to his first cassette, 1981's Songs of Pain. Four years later, things began looking up after MTV featured him in a special about Austin, where he was living at the time; he became a local celebrity and a favorite of famous folks such as Kurt Cobain. But stardom was never a realistic possibility. After a brief flurry of mainstream attention spurred by his major-label debut, 1994's Fun, which underperformed in a big way, he settled into life as a cult figure, albeit one whose profile has risen since the film's release.

"There are much more people now," Daniel confirmed in his trademark grammar-defying way. When he first saw the movie, he says, "I thought it was too much of exploitation," in part because it focused on mental breakdowns and other "bad stuff. The music wasn't enough. There wasn't enough of the music in my contribulation."

Even so, Daniel said he was glad to have participated in the film and is looking forward to touring — if he can shake off the blues, that is. Fortunately, the pills he takes help, as does the act of making art or music. "Sometimes I just get too lazy to do it," he conceded. "I won't even try. But once I try, I go, 'Oh, yeah, I remember this. It's fun.'"

And when it stops being entertaining? He can always go back to bed.

Visit Backbeat ONline for more of our interview with Daniel Johnston.

 
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