Daniel Johnston has just returned from his first British invasion -- a transatlantic journey that had all the personal importance of a trip to Mecca.
"I just got back from London, home of the Beatles," he says over the phone from the house he shares with his elderly parents in Waller, Texas -- a small rural community about sixty miles from Austin and the nearest shopping center. "They were such charming personalities. We drove around and saw a lot. We saw Big Ben. And I was thinking a lot about John [Lennon]. He was the best -- you bet."
Johnston's career as an unwitting self-made cult icon, champion of closet recording and tortured tramp songwriter has been peppered with plenty of reverent, nasal-tinged nods to the Fab Four. Those who've followed the breadcrumb trail of his recordings over the past twenty years know that the Beatles occupy a special space within Johnston's life, along with such standbys as Frankenstein, Captain America, the Big Bopper, Casper the Friendly Ghost and other characters who populate the crowded corners of his exhaustive and often obtuse imagination. Yip Jump Music, released in 1983 by Homestead Records, contained an entire lengthy homage to the band, simply titled "The Beatles." Backed by a humming, church-style organ, he wrapped his own adolescent devotionals around a sincere, if simplistic, assessment of the band's worth and career trajectory: "They really were very good/They deserved all their success/And they worked so ha-ha-hard/ They didn't buy their success...Everybody wanted to be like them/Everybody wanted to be the Beatles/ And I wanted to be like him.../But he died."
15th Street Tavern, 623 15th Street
With Harvey Sid Fisher and the Bobby Collins Death Metal Armada
9 p.m. Saturday, March 9
"The Beatles are the main ones for me, and I want to make it show more and more," Johnston says. "I'm not going to do it as a copycat, but I'm just going to study -- just for basic ideas, and the energy and inspiration. It's par excellence. So I'm just going to carry that weight, because they really saved my life."
There may be more to Johnston's statement than the excited exhalation of a hardcore fan. In the Beatles' music, he found some relief from the manic depression, innate oddness and emotional disquiet that have been a part of his life, like a persistent psychic itch, for most of his 41 years. As a teenager whose social awkwardness sailed far beyond the usual level of adolescent geekdom, Johnston found solace in music, art and other subjects he encountered in the stacks of the school library, a dusty refuge from the cruelty of other kids.
"When I went to high school, I had my first depression," he says. "I didn't have any friends and was just a total dork. I became a loner, just really depressed and shy. But I loved art and the library; I would always be drawing. My art teachers always encouraged me to do my art. They said that it was part of my ego, to keep me alive. When I got into the Beatles my senior year, I started pretending I was the Beatles, like talking in a British accent and coming on to girls. I started writing Songs of Pain, and I felt like a superstar. And five years later I was on MTV. So I guess it was really the Beatles that did it."
Though it took a while for Johnston to approach anything resembling superstar status, stories of his frequently bizarre behavior did give him a sort of backward social cachet as a charmingly unpredictable local weirdo among the hipster underground in Austin. (Johnston and his family had moved there from West Virginia in the late '70s.) He bolstered that role by hawking homemade recordings (beginning with Songs of Pain, later released by Stress in 1980) at the record store across the street from the McDonald's where he worked.
Many of those tapes wound up in the hands of scenesters in the still-small Austin music world and, later, in the bins of underground retailers in New York City. Aided by periodic bursts of publicity, including an appearance on MTV's The Cutting Edge in 1985, Johnston slowly found his way into the awareness -- and the record collections -- of a grassroots network of fans who shared a taste for "outsider" music. His work has been praised by fellow artists from the late Kurt Cobain (who never seemed to tire of wearing his black-and-white line-drawn Daniel Johnston T-shirt for photo shoots) to Simpsons creator Matt Groening (who has repeatedly cited Johnston as his favorite songwriter). Recently, people have been discovering Johnston through an unlikely source: "Speeding Motorcycle," his ode to love and automotives, currently provides the soundtrack for a frequently aired Target commercial. (That rendition is a cover performed by Boston songbird Mary Lou Lord.) Readers have discovered him as well. Two versions of Johnston's life and work appear in book form: Tarssa Yazdani's Johnston biography, Hi, How Are You, was published by Soft Skull Press in 1999, while Irwin Chusid devotes a chapter of Songs in the Key of Z, his guide to contemporary oddball musicians, to the songwriter.
Trained musically by his siblings and his churchgoing mother, who wanted her children to learn Christian hymns, Johnston first began making music for a very small audience consisting of himself, his friends and his family. His initial creative endeavors involved sitting in the living room and banging out songs on the family piano in kind of spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness concerts with no real beginning or end. Johnston's recorded output now stands at sixteen CDs. With the exception of 1994's Fun (an inexplicable outing for Atlantic Records), all but one have been released on independent imprints.
Johnston doesn't put out CDs the other way people do -- by, say, letting go of one carefully polished collection every year or two. Rather, he sheds them, in imperfect and uneven batches, like the final products of an almost physical purging process. Over the past twelve months, that process has intensified significantly. In late 2001, Johnston released Rejected Unknown, his first studio album in eight years, as the inaugural offering from the New York indie label Gammon Records. Two months later, he unveiled Daniel Johnston & Jad Fair and Lucky Sperm -- a variously successful and virtually unlistenable pair of recordings, respectively -- that he made with the former Half Japanese founder. In late spring, Johnston plans to unleash Lost and Found, a collection of songs originally intended as a companion to Rejected Unknown. And if producer Paul Leary (of the Butthole Surfers) is available to produce later in the year, Johnston will commit two original offerings from his new band, Danny and the Nightmares, to CD. Oh, yes: He also recently entered the studio with Sparklehorse frontman Mark Linkous for a collaborative album that is due to hit sometime this year.
"The record with Sparklehorse is freaking great," Johnston enthuses. "It was a four-day recording session, and when Gammon asked me to do it, I thought, 'Wow, man, that sounds like a lot of fun.' I had all these albums I'd been working on with Danny and the Nightmares, so I just packed it up and went on down.
"Everything I've been doing lately is good," he adds. "Lost and Found, that's even better than Rejected Unknown. I just feel like everything I do right now is gold."
All of this newfound energy isn't entirely organic. Though Johnston still struggles to diminish internal demons and occasionally "acts out," as he puts it, he has found a chemical combination to help him better manage his mental illness.
"Now that I'm on medication, I haven't had severe depression for five years," he says. "Many years ago I was on so many pills, I was a Frankenstein monster, a guinea pig. It always just got worse and worse. When Paul Leary came in to produce Fun, I was so drugged up I couldn't even play. I just gave him my parts and he did it."
Those who view behavior-modifying drugs as poison arrows pointed at the right side of a creative brain may find some comfort in the knowledge that Johnston's artistic output is at an all-time high. If Johnston's career can be likened to that of his mop-topped idols, it may be safe to say that he's entering his Sgt. Pepper's period. The recent Rejected Unknown finds him collaborating with other artists more openly than ever before, experimenting with recording techniques and adding color to the once-gray areas of his notoriously Spartan songs.
With a folk-art cover done by Johnston -- a compulsive sketcher whose original works are now considered collectibles and grab as much as $150 a pop -- Rejected Unknown still gives loyal listeners a rare, quizzical glimpse inside the songwriter's cracked mindscape. But it is polished and melodic enough to appeal to those who might not find his upper-register voice and non sequiturs so easy to digest. Many of Johnston's usual topics remain: "Funeral Girl" is an ode to a woman named Laurie, whom Johnston met in high school and has pined for in song ever since, even though "she married an undertaker and disappeared"; and "Some Time Spent in Heaven" recalls Johnston's early days of splicing sentiment from his parents' Christian hymns into fundamentally sad songs about hope and loneliness.
As always, Johnston's work on Rejected Unknown is unmarred by intention or pretense. But it is a more normal-sounding effort, a fully instrumented departure from the days when Johnston recorded into a Radio Shack-style recorder armed only with a piano, an organ and some Playskool toy or other. The album was completed over a three-year period and produced by Brian Beattie, who sometimes camped out in the Johnston family's Waller basement, sharing a roof with Daniel and his conservative Christian parents: Bill, a retired WWII veteran who now serves as Daniel's manager, and Mabel, who once forbade Daniel to play the piano upstairs, relegating him to the basement where his recording projects began.
"Brian would come and then leave, and it was a lot of fun," Johnston says. "Brian was bringing over session musicians, a lot of different musicians, and we had a lot of bands that would rock. My friends always love to say hello and goodbye to my parents, and my parents would just treat my friends like gods. My dad has made me rich. He has made things happen like never before. I'm just traveling the world, and I sit here and make drawings, and people send me money for them. I remember the first time I could ever hand my mom a hundred-dollar bill. That was the greatest. I'd love to be a millionaire someday. I wish that all my musician friends didn't have to work so that we could go on a world tour and just make music and have fun all day."
It may be a while before Johnston's bandmates can join him on the road, but that hasn't prevented him from touring. Last month, he and his father left home for an abbreviated European tour that made stops in Sweden and England, and Johnston is currently in the midst of one of his first-ever swings around America, performing solo in small clubs across the country. Still skittish in a live setting, Johnston spends entire sets with his eyes fixed upon a music stand, twitching and reading lyrics from songs until he simply runs out of them. Audience requests can throw him off guard. The minimalism of Johnston's performances may remind longtime listeners of a lyric from the Yip Jump era: "I'm a loner/I'm a sorry entertainer." Still, there's a thrill in witnessing a gig from a musician as naturally unaffected as Johnston. And so far, audiences haven't seemed to mind his stripped-down stage show. At least, they didn't in Sweden.
"I think the people there are just a lot more friendly, a lot more enthusiastic than they are in the United States," he says. "I think it's because there is more music going on overseas, and more of the music is from Europe. They're more crazy over there. It's packed houses and -- yoo-hoo! -- do they get screaming. They show up after the shows. And, there's a lot of good-looking girls. I know I'm lucky now, with what I'm doing. It's pretty fun, and it's a living. I haven't worked at a job since 1986. But in a way I still feel like I have to make up for lost time and get out there."
Asked if he expects to return from the road with a new batch of ideas for songs, Johnston is incredulous.
"I don't really write, like in a diary. Things just happen to me," he says. "Writing a song is just like making a drawing for me. I'll just start sketching, and something turns into something. It's just like a big blank piece of paper when you start.
"I don't ever throw anything I do away," he adds. "I'll never throw away some idea for a song, because I think that everything I do is a masterpiece."