Daniel Johnston's in Love With a Mad, Mad World
Editor's note: Last November Daniel Johnston missed a flight and was forced to reschedule his stop at Crescent Ballroom. But time flies, and this weekend, on Sunday, February 3, he's slated to make up his date with a special performance. We ran this piece from New Times contributor Chris Parker in November, but wanted to share it again for those getting pumped for a performance from the legendary outsider artist. Enjoy.
There's no better illustration of the fine line between brilliance and madness than Daniel Johnston. Indeed, the childlike simplicity and directness of his lyrics suggests the two are inseparable at times. A talented cult fave who spent years and years listening to and dissecting the Beatles, Johnston has a gift for melody that even the rudimentary nature of his early-'80s lo-fi tape recordings can't hide. But it's the vulnerability and honesty of the lyrics that are most striking.
Johnston's songs are typically emotionally arrested -- still trapped in the mind of a gawky, sentimental, daydreaming (and frequently lovelorn) youth. He's hoping for Leslie Gore's "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows," but in reality is facing his own "Tears Stupid Tears." In his most popular song, he suggests that "True Love Will Find You in the End" if only you keep looking. The temptation is to call him naive, but who wants to come across as jaded? (Indeed, such affectless sincerity is the very heart and soul of Hollywood rom-coms.)
Therein lies a substantial part of Johnston's appeal. He's the pie-eyed boy who wants to believe, and that unabashed earnestness is alluring. It's not that he's immune to cynicism, self-doubt, and self-loathing. But even on "I Hate Myself," he offers to "be right by your side if you want me to," prostrating himself without the embarrassment and abasement many of us would feel. It's quite similar to Jonathan Richman's oft-naifish manner, fueled by perky good spirits and hopefulness as a salve against looming disappointment, only more authentic. (Maybe.)
Art by Daniel Johnston
There is no doubt that Johnston has a mental illness. During the '80s Johnston was institutionalized for beating his manager with a metal pipe while under the belief the manager was the devil. (The battle between good and evil is a recurrent theme in Johnston's music, dovetailing with his comic book fascinations Captain America and Casper the Friendly Ghost.)
In Johnston's most notorious story, his father, a WWII fighter pilot, was flying them to West Virginia in a private plane after a feted appearance during 1990's South by Southwest festival. The bipolar Johnston had a hypomanic episode and wrested control of the plane from his father. Claiming he was Casper (a comic he was reading at the time), he threw the key out the window. His father managed to crash-land the plane in a heavily wooded area, and they walked away unharmed. Johnston subsequently was institutionalized in Arkansas.