"He was smiling through his own personal hell
Dropped his last dime down a wishing well
But he was hoping to close and then he fell
Now he's Casper the Friendly Ghost"
Daniel Johnston, "Casper the Friendly Ghost"
It's hard to say what's more jarring when one first experiences Daniel Johnston: the large, intense fellow who bears a distinct resemblance to the gray version of the Hulk; the simplistic yet surrealist and introspective drawings; or the beautiful, heartbreaking, stripped-down songs.
Perhaps it's just the fact that he's still here.
No matter how many of his songs are covered by Beck, Pearl Jam or Tom Waits, or how many of his works are exhibited at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, or how many people see his triumphs and struggles in the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Johnston begins and ends each day the same as the next constrained by his illnesses and confined to his home.
His brother Dick and father Bill function as his primary contacts and caregivers. They manage his tours, oversee his earnings and tend to his health as well as that of his mother, who suffers from severe Parkinson's disease.
A manic depressive and Type 2 diabetic, the 47-year-old Johnston spends much of the time he isn't touring at home.
"The harsh reality is that Daniel is taking insulin up to four times a day and could lose his eyesight, could lose a leg, and he doesn't understand it," says Don Goede, Johnston's collaborator, former tour manager and co-author of Hi, How Are You: The Life, Art, & Music of Daniel Johnston. "He will never break out of that pause unless you take his medication away from him, and who would do that?
"Right now, Daniel is lucid."
"He was always polite to the people who'd tell him
That he was nothing but a lazy bum
But goodbye to them he had to go
Now he's Casper the Friendly Ghost"
That lucidity hasn't always been intact. At the same time his first tapes became popular in and around Austin, Texas, and MTV picked up on his story for a special, Johnston's life was dotted by frightening episodes.
There was the time that he beat his former manager with a pipe and was institutionalized. Or when he lost out on a deal with Elektra because he believed Metallica was being controlled by Satan.
In 1990, after the South by Southwest festival in Austin, he was flying home in a plane piloted by his father when he took the keys from the plane's ignition and threw them out the window forcing his father to crash land and leading to another stretch of institutionalization.
There was the time after Sept. 11 that he pulled out and fired a toy gun in the middle of Heathrow Airport, leaving Goede to do some quick talking with British authorities.
"The first time I saw Daniel perform almost 10 years ago at CBGB, he looked like he was going to break down at any point," says Goede, the local resident who's organized Johnston's upcoming Smokebrush Gallery appearance. "I think, thanks to the medication, we're beyond the stage where he's going to break down or lose it or try to run away and escape out a window."
It can be argued, however, that the treatment and medication that have made him less of a danger to himself and others have dulled his artistic edge, too.
When his artwork was part of the Whitney Biennial in 2006, his images were strewn with semi-autobiographical sketches of a character named "Joe" with a hollowed-out head, with his "Hi, How Are You" frog that once graced Kurt Cobain's T-shirts, with disembodied eyes and dancing boxes. Now his figures take on more simple, palatable human forms and his works have become a product of a near-industrial production schedule.
His music, meanwhile, has drifted in the opposite direction. Whereas Johnston once produced two to three albums and cassettes each year, reaching his commercial zenith with the 1994 release of Fun on Atlantic Records, he's been limited to side projects and collaborations recently, with few songs as inspired as earnest early efforts like "Laurie," "Walking the Cow" and the Yo La Tengo-assisted "Speeding Motorcycle."
"Sometimes I think to myself, "Would I have been friends with Daniel back when he was that young and creative?' Absolutely," Goede says. "Would he have attacked me because he thought the devil was in me? It's hard to say."
"No one ever treated him nice while he was alive
You can't buy no respect like the librarian said,
But everybody respects the dead,
They love the friendly ghost"
As beloved as Johnston is within indie rock circles, he may never be fully appreciated in his lifetime. Even in The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which director Jeff Feurzeig called his "love letter" to the artist, Johnston seemed distant and, at times, bothered especially when confronted with Laurie Allen, the subject of "Laurie" and Johnston's longtime crush. Whatever Feurzeig's intentions, the image of Allen awkwardly rejecting Johnston's proposal of marriage in the DVD extras makes you wonder if the man ever feels loved.
Goede recently visited Johnston in the house Daniel's father built next to his own home in Waller, Texas. There, Goede says, Johnston is getting the attention he needs, with his keyboard, drawing table and favorite foods on hand. However, his father won't allow him to have a phone and, according to Goede, Johnston has few friends around.
"I get frustrated because people made him out to be this hero and this champion ... but he still needs friends and still needs to talk to people and hang out and watch movies," Goede says.
Johnston's own words indicate that some of this distance may be self-imposed. He still submits to the occasional interview, but the talking points rarely vary: Captain America creator Jack Kirby, Salvador Dali, the influence of The Beatles and Queen.
The only clues Johnston offers are undertones of loneliness in his songs, and the good and evil characters in some of his early artwork. He's often said they represent the ongoing battle inside his mind.
"I would love to see Daniel live to be very old and doing the things he loves," Goede says. "I told him, "Who knows, maybe there could be a woman in your life,' and could be some sort of a love interest.
"But he laughs and says "no,' so he has some sort of reality."