Genius and Jive

My roller-coaster relationship with Daniel Johnston

Daniel Johnston's story is now so well-known, at least to the greater creative community, that it seems almost generic to some. The rise and fall, the innocence trumped by experience, the gifted one who produces extraordinary work but strains himself too much in the process until he cracks.

Johnston – singer-songwriter, cartoonist, artist – grew up mostly in West Virginia. Something of an outsider, he spent a lot of time in the cellar dreaming and creating. After high school, he eventually enrolled in the art department at a nearby branch of Kent State. There, he met some similar souls; there was a small group that hung out in the cellar with him. They shot movies, wrote songs, and made tapes of each other.

Crucial to his own personal mythology, as well as to his actual story, he met and fell in love with a woman during this time. She left him to marry an undertaker. After 2 1/2 years, Johnston dropped out of college, moving down to Houston to stay with a brother. Soon, he left Houston to travel with a carnival for five months before moving to Austin, where he began passing out his homemade cassettes to almost everyone he met.

Johnston and his work became better known. The best Austin bands covered his songs. In July of 1985, MTV's Cutting Edge came to town. He was not only on the show, he was a standout. The future he had long dreamed of seemed within reach.

Then, he went crazy. He was institutionalized, released, and left Austin to live at his parents' home.

Legendary incidents followed. Johnston went to NYC to hang out with Sonic Youth and Wayne Kramer, but ended up wandering the streets homeless and being arrested for covering the inside of the Statue of Liberty with graffiti. Returning by bus from a recording session with Jad Fair, he got off in the wrong town and ended up driving an old woman out of her second-story window. He came back to town to play the Austin Music Awards during SXSW 90. On the way home, he caused his father's small plane that they were flying in to crash. He ended up in a mental hospital in Arkansas. He got out of the hospital. He continued to write and record. More bands covered his songs, more artists championed him, and his fame kept spreading.

The Dead Milkmen recorded "Rocket Ship," Yo La Tengo "Speeding Motorcycle." Kurt Cobain wore a Daniel Johnston T-shirt all the time, including to 1992's MTV Video Music Awards. Members of Sonic Youth played on Johnston's Kramer-produced 1990 album released on Shimmy-Disc.

Having met him early on during his stay in Austin, I lived through a lot of what follows. Some of it was great, but much was only heartbreaking. The intensity of emotions that was so attractive in his music proved mild compared to those generated in his life. I loved him and his music, though sometimes I hated him: Almost always I was being played, enthralled, burnt, excited, softened, and tortured by him.

This effort – along with a piece in the print paper more focused on the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston ("Visions Holy and Damned, Innocent and Experienced") – is not a straight-ahead biography or essay. Instead, it is a nonlinear ramble with threads often lost where others are found. The intent is to try to make sense of some of the many contradictions (not) defining Johnston, to offer some perspective and context.

Crucial to this is trying to remember Johnston when we first got to know him. Who and what he was two decades back when he inhabited only the space of a person rather than now, when he is an enshrined and media-consecrated larger-than-life cultural figure. Back then, we were all interested in Johnston, but only he thought he would become famous. He also didn't think that, but we're just getting there.

There are stories told that aren't true and narratives laid out wherein most of the facts may be right, but not in the way they happened. There are the considerations of art and mental illness; creativity and insanity; what is genius and what is gullibly bought empty jive?

I guess what I mean is that he was this intense, wired (in many different ways, none of them cranked) kid who showed up one day with these tapes he passed around that blew everyone away. But the heavens didn't open and no solemn bells pealed when we first met.

Often Daniel was a pain in the ass. Daniel's focus was Daniel, Daniel was Daniel's cause, Daniel was Daniel's story. Ugly, manipulative, innocent, Adam and Eve, Dr. Jekyll and Casper the Friendly Ghost, he looked like a child and seemed a little slow.

There were other aspects to his personality, as well. He was not only aware of everything going on around him, reading it on any number of levels, he could judge the odds better than a Vegas veteran. He was truly overwhelmed by the attention, yet he expected nothing less and would compare himself to the Beatles. He was the snake and the peacock, the demon's child and Pan's running mate, both halves of the Solomon baby. He was innocence and experience, good and evil, the child of Blake and Bosch as much as Marx and Coca-Cola as well.

You have no idea. The reality was that there was not one Daniel Johnston but so many, and it wasn't like they took turns. This wasn't Sybil. This was a stampede not simply defined by oppositions but more like a card deck of personalities fanned in a circle, always moving, fading in and out of each other.

He was a genius, a savant, an unspoiled noble savage, and the ultimate con man. He was selfish, sweet, mean, and open-hearted. Johnston knew what was going on in empathetic and astonishing ways, which didn't mean he was in any kind of coherent state – quite the opposite. Knowing didn't liberate him but was a virus that flared irregularly.

He would starting talking in one direction, sucking me in. I'd offer advice, listen to his history, talk comics, but gradually he would be moving the talk to his greatness, gradually his obsession with himself would start drowning the conversation, soon I would be yelling. I don't even remember the details. I do remember screaming at him in the office as he pushed my buttons. I would turn red yelling at him in person. As I talked to him on the phone, within seconds, sometimes, I would be slamming my fist on the desk.

1985/86: It was at the Beach, the center of Austin's New Sincerity scene; around the room that night were more than a handful of Austin's hippest musicians. The place used to be a convenience store. Now it was a bar. They were not there by accident. The headliner was Glass Eye, very popular and worthy of seeing, but this turnout of musicians wasn't close to what they would get at a normal gig. Glass Eye didn't care: They were watching the stage. They were all there to see this kid. The musicians and writers who filled the room were leaned forward

Someone asked, "Who is this?" They were shushed. Some weren't sure if this was a joke or not. He only plays three songs. He announces the last number as a new song:

"And no one knows who they are

They come from afar

They do what they have to do

And turn into big stars

And no one can stop them

The marching guitars"

Daniel Johnston, finishing his first live gig, bolts from the stage as soon as he so hesitantly finishes.

"A song haunted by itself," I wrote in the Oct. 4, 1985, Chronicle. "Nightmare into pop observation, abstract into cultural admonishment. The singer finishes the song, the room bursts into applause. ... Daniel Johnston, former carny worker, one time art student, would-be comic artist, transplanted West Virginian, and extraordinary songwriter has arrived."

My roller-coaster relationship with Daniel accelerated. MTV's Cutting Edge came to town. Many folks told them they had to include Daniel. They did. When it became clear that Daniel was the unexpected star, his national reputation spread. He was working at McDonald's, where they had cut his hours back dramatically because he wasn't good at much. Now they increased them dramatically. He would be called from mopping the floor to the phone at McDonald's (it was the only way to reach him). MTV, Rolling Stone, A&R executives, journalists, and well-known musicians would be waiting on the line.

He was riding high and becoming famous, just like he'd always dreamed. In March of 1986, he won the songwriter category in the Chronicle's Music Poll. It turned out that whenever he got too close to the sun, it was always more than dangerous for Johnston.

November, 1986: Daniel was into the "happy smokes" again (his name for pot). Girls liked him, which both excited and bothered him. His weird grip on the day-to-day was starting to slip. At a Butthole Surfers show, he was given acid. A couple of weeks later, he took a bus to visit a sibling and nieces and nephews. Sooner then expected, he returned. His family sent him home early because he was scaring the children. He told me about looking out the bus window, seeing cow skulls everywhere. He told me that he realized that they were the mark of the devil, and Texas was the devil's state.

A few days before Christmas, I was lying in bed with a temperature of 103. The phone rang. Someone asked if I knew Daniel. I said "yes" but that I was sick. I hung up. They called back saying I'd better come to the UT campus. Daniel was there standing in the middle of a creek. I remember a light drizzle. His eyes had gone mad white. He was singing, he was testifying, he was demanding our baptism. He sang:

Running water

Running water

What are you running from?

You always seem to be on the run!

You always seem to be on the run!

Then he sang a hymn. I tried to talk him into coming in out of the creek. You can't reason with a crazy person. He talked of God and the devil. Of being lost and being saved. I have no idea how long we were there.

Finally, the UT cops showed up. They said we had two choices: We could go in and drag him out, or they would go in. But if they went in, they weren't going to be very happy about it. Another guy and I strode into the creek. We dragged Daniel to shore. As soon as we got close, the cops grabbed him and took him off. I went home to bed.

The last week of 1986, Johnston's manager Jeff Tartakov called me. He had just finished visiting his client, who was under observation in the Austin State Hospital. He told me that when he got there, the social worker assigned to the case came up to him to talk about Daniel, saying he was suffering two serious delusions. The first was that the military was going to take over the country. The second was that he was going to be on MTV the next week.

"Well," Jeff offered, "I don't know about the first, but the second is true."

Only weeks before, I had met the woman to whom I am still married. It was a time when I had no money, no car, no shorts (this is Texas). I lived in a one-bedroom apartment within walking distance of the Chronicle.

She was a lawyer who owned her house, had a new car and an extensive wardrobe. She traveled to Europe and attended dinner parties that didn't feature either spaghetti or barbecued chicken. On our second date, I revealed that I made less than $10,000 a year. She thought I was kidding. I wasn't. I was 36.

Still, despite her better instincts, by Christmas we were dating seriously. She left town to visit her family. She missed the whole Johnston-in-the-creek incident. When she got back to Austin, she called to confirm our dinner plans, saying we should meet around 7:30.

Minutes later, I called her back asking if we could make it 8:15 instead. She asked why. I answered that it was because visiting hours at the Austin State Hospital weren't over until 8pm.

There was silence on her end.

I visited Daniel often. He seemed to be getting better. In ways, he seemed very happy. He would give his visitors lists of things he needed. He made demands.

But so much of the above is only in disconnected fragments in my memory, the structure and details came from Jeff Feuerzeig's research and notes for The Devil and Daniel Johnston. One of the days we shot, the crew took me to the creek on the UT campus where I pulled Johnston out of the water. I wandered the creek up and down and back again, but I couldn't remember where it happened. The film is now the reality. end story

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