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Daniel Johnston: Pop culture anti-hero

June 29, 2011
By Dave Mistich
“I talk about my ideas all day long,” said Daniel Johnston. After speaking with him, there is little doubt.

Johnston is a dream subject for any music writer. He’s one of the most recognized cult artists in the entire world — he’s infinitely fascinating, his songs are timeless and his catalogue is widely appreciated by some of pop music’s finest. He’s one of those guys that makes listening to pop music an experience — an intellectual endeavor that somehow never gets satisfied. His music is a puzzling journey into the mind of an artist that is troubled, yet undyingly hopeful.

But Johnston is an artist that lives almost entirely in his own head. As a manic depressive, Johnston works on projects with little re-sculpturing or without any regard to their quality or artistic merit. He pays little attention to anything but the songs he sings and the pictures he draws. In the end, this makes him a nightmare to interview.

Born in Sacramento, California but raised in New Cumberland, West Virginia, Johnston now resides in Waller, Texas, under the care of his immediate family. It’s been a long — and sometimes tragic — road for Johnston, who celebrated his 50th birthday in January. When speaking for a moment about the messages left for him to celebrate his birthday, it sounds almost as though Johnston is moved to tears. “People just being kind, you know, that was awesome,” he said.

When asked about his formative years in West Virginia, Johnston responds by speaking about his time vying for spots in Pittsburgh bands. It’s clear almost instantly that Johnston doesn’t answer questions as much as he speaks in random tangents about whatever he recalls about his career and his ideas.

“In West Virginia, when I was young, there was no bands that would play that didn’t play Top 40 music. There weren’t any original music bands. I had bought a synthesizer and I had an organ and an electric piano trying to get into one of those bands. And I knew ‘Freebird,’ but I didn’t quite make it into these bands all the time,” he said.

Those shortcomings in the area led Johnston away to college — first at Abeline Christian University in West Texas and then later a branch of Kent State University in nearby East Liverpool, Ohio. It was around this time that Johnston’s mental instability became apparent, paralleling his growing talent as a songwriter.

From here on out, anecdotes of Johnston’s life are somewhat mythical, a set of stories so unbelievable few would question their genuineness: Johnston hopped in front of an MTV film crew in Austin in 1985, believing they were there to tell the world about his talents. He crashed his father’s plane on a trip home to West Virginia when he removed the keys and tossed them out of the plane. He wandered out on his own in New York City while recording with Jad Fair. He’s even spent time in the now-closed state mental hospital in Weston, W.Va. In 2006, a feature length documentary, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” was released exposing the world to his struggles and his music.

Despite Johnston being recognized most often as a musician, his interest in visual art has become increasingly known to his dedicated following.

With funds raised with the help of the website, “Kickstarter,” Johnston is set to release his first comic book, Infinite Comic Book of Musical Greatness. It is of little surprise that his interest in comics is rooted in his time as a child in West Virginia.

“When I was growing up, I always bought comic books in East Liverpool, right across from where we lived in New Cumberland. I would buy all the (Jack) Kirby’s. I really loved ‘Master of Kung Fu,’ too. I never missed an issue,” Johnston said.

Even though Johnston is arguably one of the most prolific artists and musicians in recent years, his status remains underground and his quest for (or maybe even obsession with) celebrity defines his motivation.

It’s slightly misguided but it’s difficult to find him anything but endearing.

“I’m famous but I’m still not on the cover of ‘Rolling Stone’ yet. I’m not that popular as far as the big time, but that’s what I’m going to try.”





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