The Austin Chronicle

Spotlight: Daniel Johnston

1am, Maggie Mae's

By Greg Beets, March 18, 2005, Music

In Jeff Feuerzeig's new documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Johnston's sister Margy says Daniel is definitely going to heaven because he's already been to hell. You may not believe in hell, but it becomes a lot harder to doubt its existence after watching the songwriter's epic struggle with bipolar disorder unfold.

While most people struggling with personal demons do so in relative privacy, Johnston's struggle is now immortalized on the silver screen. How does he feel about that?

"Well, it sure was embarrassing," Johnston says. "Every terrible dilemma, every fabled mistake. Nothing I can do about it now, though. I wish they'd added a laugh track to it, because it sure is funny."

Johnston's sublime songwriting first came to appreciation in mid-Eighties Austin. Handing out tapes of Hi, How Are You? while working at the Dobie Mall McDonald's, he wound up featured on the pivotal Austin episode of MTV's The Cutting Edge. Unfortunately, the specter of his illness grew right along with his notoriety. Today, Johnston lives with his parents in Waller, a small town northwest of Houston.

"We love it out here in Waller," he says. "Some friends came to visit me today and we went to some of the antique shops and stuff. It's a lot more peaceful out here in Waller, and I don't get in quite as much trouble as I used to when I lived in Austin. I was always getting arrested or winding up in the mental hospital or something crazy."

Last year's multilayered Discovered Covered (Gammon) served as both tribute and best-of. Acts such as Tom Waits, Beck, Bright Eyes, and Death Cab for Cutie covered Johnston's songs on disc one, while Johnston's own versions were featured on disc two.

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