Crash landing

 

A musical genius or a man with a slipping grasp on reality? It is no longer a case of either/or, yet this is the musician and artist whose fans include Tom Waits, Matt Groening and the late Kurth Cobain. An irrisistible force meets an immovable onject as Brian Boyd talks to Daniel Johnston

I'm knock, knock, knockin' on Daniel Johnston's door. But he's not home. Physically, he's sitting right beside me in a Soho coffee shop, but he's far, far away. His head has slumped towards the table, his arms have gone rigid and the white foam around his mouth is beginning to coagulate. It's not that the questions are going unanswered, it's that they don't even register. He's way out there on an officially prescribed psychotropic trip and he has no plans to come back anytime soon. What to do? I make soothing noises about doing the interview later and bringing him back to his hotel, but nothing gets through the heavily medicated forcefield. I glance down at his bag under the table, the contents of which are scattered around his ankles. There's a comic book of Casper The Friendly Ghost. Oh Christ.

Once, after a show at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Texas, Daniel Johnston travelled back to his native West Virginia in a two-seater plane which was being piloted by his father. Halfway through the journey, Daniel took the key from the ignition and threw it out the window. The plane went into a dangerous tailspin as the two passengers wrestled for control of the steering wheel. Miraculously, Daniel's father managed to crashland, avoiding any serious damage to either party. Asked afterwards (as you would) why he had tried to kill his father and himself, Daniel replied that he thought he was Casper The Friendly Ghost. Just before he tried to crash the plane he had been reading a Casper comic book - on the front cover was a picture of Casper parachuting out of a plane.

In the documentary film of his life, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, there's a very distressing moment when Daniel's father, Bill, talks again about the Casper plane ride with Daniel. It's not the only distressing episode in a film that documents the life and work of a man who is not only profoundly mentally ill but also a near musical genius and acclaimed visual artist.

Johnston is bi-polar and monomaniacal. His obsessions are - in no particular order - Casper The Friendly Ghost, The Beatles, Captain America and Laurie Allen (the great unrequited love of his life).

Today, as most days, he is medicated. "About five years ago, they finally found the right medication for me," he says in a rare lucid moment later in the interview. "I've been pretty okay now for the last while. I feel great and I've been really productive."

So productive that he's in London to discuss the documentary and talk up a number of new albums. Later tonight he will appear on stage at The Barbican to play a set after a number of special guests, including Teenage Fanclub, Spiritualized, Vic Chesnutt, James Yorkston and Howie Gelb, have opened for him with covers of his material.

It's just he's not in a very productive mode this afternoon, dressed in a loose-fitting grey tracksuit that has seen better days - if not decades - and that attempts to cover his massive weight-gain. All you can do is wait for him to return from wherever he has gone.

As quick as he snapped into what you would politely call reverie, he snaps out of it again. "Have you seen my film? Did you like it? Do you like The Beatles? Who do you prefer - Casper The Friendly Ghost or Captain America? I've just been to a comicbook shop," he says excitedly, obviously making up for lost time. "Yes" "Yes" "Yes" "Don't know" . . . come the answers. He's up and running now, so best hit him with the hard questions while the window is open.

Did you feel exploited by the film? "Yes, I felt exploited by it," he says, but to be fair he answers in a way that suggests he would agree with anything you have just said to him. How did you feel exploited by it? "I watched it three times," he says. "The first time I didn't like at all. I thought that all my secrets were being revealed. The second time I liked it. The third time I thought it was hilarious. Really funny."

Did you not mind them talking about all your troubles? "Yeah, you're right. There's too much on the mental hospitals. And they showed all the bad things that I've done. They missed one thing though, ha, ha, ha. They missed the time I had the fight with the cop. They didn't have that. I'm lucky they didn't have that."

By the "bad things" he's referring to how his illness has manifested itself in bouts of violence over the years. Brought up by Southern State, God-fearing parents (or religious nutcases, depending on how you view these things) who chastised him for being "an unprofitable servant of the Lord", even from an early age the young Daniel was documenting his life through the constant use of a Super 8 video recorder and an almost daily audio diary on his tape recorder. All this material was handed over to the film's producers.

His mental health problems only become apparent as a teenager. By then, Daniel was composing the songs that have since made him a huge cult figure in indie/outsider music circles. Tom Waits is only one of the notables who has covered his songs; Kurt Cobain was such a fan that he wore a Daniel Johnston T-shirt for almost two years at the height of Nirvana's fame (Johnston sold a lot of records on the back of this exposure) and The Simpsons' creator, Matt Groening, is such an admirer that he agreed to be filmed for the documentary, going backstage at one of Daniel's shows and (metaphorically) bowing at his feet.

Certain aspects of the film are simply beyond the scope of this article (the work of R D Laing etc;) but suffice to say that The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a remarkably honest and insightful portrayal, not just of its protagonist but also of the packaging and marketing of such an atypical musician/artist. And the music is frequently astonishing - he sounds (although he predates him) like Antony and The Johnsons after a visit to a no-prescription-required pharmacy. With Daniel as the figurehead - if there can be one - of Outsider Music, the film deals with all the vexed questions of cultural voyeurism and the suitability and appropriateness of lauding this form of work.

Most admirably, the film doesn't flinch from the hard question of how much Daniel has manipulated his own image and illness. It recounts how he goes off his oft-stultifying medication when he has a big gig coming up, knowing he needs his manic energy to get him through. Crucially, we are not spared the consequences of Daniel's decision. One scene re-enacts how Daniel, while off his medication, breaks into a sweet old lady's house. He is there to "cast out her demons". The old lady is so terrified of Daniel that she elects to risk her life by jumping out of a second-floor room. She emerges with two broken ankles. It could have been a lot, lot worse. The director pushes Daniel on this incident. Daniel dissembles and then lies about what happened.

Daniel's not taking any questions of this nature today - mainly because he's gone off on another one-way ticket again. When he comes back and realises he can't have a cigarette in the café we're in, I take him outside where he drifts in and out of coherence. On the other side of the road a group of young women are walking past. Daniel stares at them and then roars at the top of his voice: "Hey girlies. How about it?" It's probably a good idea to bring him back to one of his specialist topics. What's your favourite Beatles album, Daniel? "I love Red Rose Speedway by Paul McCartney. I found that in a rummage sale when I was younger and I played it all the time. Then I found out about his old band and I went and bought everything. I love Revolver and I love Sgt. Pepper's. I have all the albums. I even still buy the albums that I know I already have."

He starts to sing All The Lonely People, stands up and says: "I have to heart hat song now." After a promise about an MP3 player with the song on it being made available at the end of the interview he sits down again. "I buy all the bootlegs as well. I sell my artwork and buy Beatles bootlegs with the money. I'm not a millionaire. I'm a thousandaire." What he doesn't mention he how he used to write to Yoko Ono (and probably still does), suggesting that she make The Beatles reform so that they could be his backing band.

About 10 years ago, after he was sent to a hospital for another unsavoury incident, there was a brief rush of major label A&R interest in him prompted by the continual Kurt Cobain exposure. Elektra records went so far as to offer him the most advantageous and one-sided record company contract ever done up. The deal would have made him financially secure and absolved him of all recording and promotional duties if he was ill. Daniel turned the deal down for the simple but unshakeable reason that Elektra also had Metallica on their books and Metallica were "the servants of Satan".

You can't still think that about Metallica, can you? "I was just out of the hospital when that happened," he says. "I was afraid of Metallica and that's the truth. They had scary titles on their albums. I mean I like horror movies, but they were different. They were yelling and everything. I thought they were going to kill me. My ex-manager [ who's treated disgracefully by Daniel, as the film shows] wasn't very happy about that. I love Metallica now, though. They're a great band. I could have been on a big major label. I was dumb and that's the truth. Now here I am on small labels all the time.

"Maybe even stupider than that, Steven Spielberg tried to get me to sign with him (his DreamWorks label) and I told whoever it was on the phone that I didn't want to be ET and that was the end of that. That's why I'm still on underground labels."

After he's offered me a cigarette with the comment "take one, these only cost $15 dollars for a carton of 200" for the fifth time in a row, you figure he's closed up shop again for the day. What's it like being a film star Daniel? "They left something really important out of the film," he replies. "There's a scene with me dressed in a Casper The Friendly Ghost uniform and my father is behind me carrying a model aeroplane." Oh Christ.

The Devil And Daniel Johnston is released on May 5th. Also available is the two-disc Greatest Hits package The Late Great Daniel Johnston - Discovered Covered. Disc one is Beck, Mercury Rev, Tom Waits, Bright Eyes and others covering his songs. Disc Two is Daniel Johnston originals.