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The bipolar poet

Daniel Johnston belongs to what many consider an elite group: brilliant musicians who have a mental illness.

Published July 19, 2003

Daniel Johnston is a prolific "outsider musician" from Austin, Texas, and the toast of the music press with his most recent CD, Fear Yourself. He also has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Like his contemporary Wesley Wills, a schizophrenic former street person from Chicago with dozens of records and a cult of loyal fans to his credit, Johnston, 42, often is compared to rock's legendary artists who suffered from mental illness.

It's an elite group - some say a group of geniuses - and its members include Pink Floyd's acid casualty, Syd Barrett; Beach Boy Brian Wilson; and the late Alexander "Skip" Spence of Moby Grape.

If you think folks aren't interested in the wild, often disturbing music of people who suffer from mental illness, think again. Outsider music is a legitimate genre, with handfuls of books and compilations devoted to it. Its aficionados include artists as divergent as The Simpsons creator Matt Groening and rock icon David Bowie, who has said that Fear Yourself is his favorite album of this year.

If you've seen the Hollywood flick Kids, you've heard a Johnston tune. The soundtrack featured the playful Casper, a simple ditty about the famous cartoon ghost, sung in Johnston's signature vulnerable warble. His fans cite Johnston's juvenile voice and subject matter, his "naivete," as attributes.

I recently called Johnston at the Texas home where he lives in the care of his parents, Bill and Mabel, both in their 80s. Bill Johnston was shocked that another journalist had called.

"He was only supposed to have three interviews today," he said.

I offered to call back at another time.

"No," he told me, sighing. "Let's get it done. It's been like this all week." It was difficult fielding phone calls, he said, getting his son on and off the phone, and also planning for his wife's upcoming hip surgery.

Johnston's publicist assured me that the artist was friendly, though, he said, Johnston "might say something off the wall." Would it be all right to discuss mental illness, I wondered? (I had read other interviews with Johnston in which he addressed his and even joked about it.) It would be fine, I was told. Yet, when I brought up the subject, the phone went dead.

In our conversation, Johnston swung unpredictably among the promised friendliness, sarcasm, suspicion and even anger, as these excerpts show:

What's the title of the album mean? Do you have any fears? No, I don't. The title is pretending to be like a game show. Like people would come on, and the host would say, (shouts) "Fear yourself!"

Are you surprised that so many people are interested in your music? I made myself famous like Batman. I gave away tapes. I was kind and polite to everyone. I put posters up all over the city. Myself. Everybody by then knew who I was when I came onstage. They were clapping like wildfire. When I got on MTV, even I was impressed. It was a real ego boost.

David Bowie has said great things about the new record. People regard him as a genius, and he says you're a genius. How does that make you feel? (Johnston sounds bored.) It doesn't hurt. It helps with publicity. It puts a sticker on the album.

Why do you write such sad songs? Love makes me sad. It's something I never had.

That rhymes, Daniel. How about that? (Giggles) I'm a poet.

Is it nice to be making money now from your music? Or does that not matter to you? (Johnston's voice rises in anger) Maybe I'm doing it all for the money.

I don't believe that. Maybe I'm a liar. You don't know. (Sighs) I don't make that much money.

Musicians often don't make as much money as they deserve. (Angrily) I don't know if musicians deserve any money.

Are there any musicians you like, other than the Beatles? Delete them all, please.

You write a lot about girls. Does being a musician help you meet them? (Sarcastically) That's why I'm in this business, you know it. There are girls here day and night, 24 hours a day. Hear that? There's another one knocking at the door.

I hear you're taking new medications that are making you happier. I'm not really mentally ill. I'm not. You're the loony one. (Laughs) I can tell. You'll never know a day of sanity in your life.

Are you happier? Me? No, I'm a miserable, depressed person. No, I really try to entertain myself. I do have to have a couple of laughs a day. Like right now, I'm playing with my cat.

What's her name? She wishes to remain anonymous.

I have cats. (Brightly) You do? (Long pause) I was just kidding before. You're not loony. I can tell you're a nice lady. You're all right.

Do your parents like your music? They never really say.

Well, lots of other people do. Kurt Cobain also liked you a lot. (Excited) He wore that shirt of mine. I heard he was buried in it.

Wow. That's kind of a weird honor, huh? Do you ever listen to some of these other musicians they compare you to, like Wesley Willis, other people with histories of mental illness?

We are disconnected.

Did Johnston hang up on me? I call back. The singer says he doesn't know what happened. He sounds agitated. Did the question upset him? Is he simply exhausted? I don't ask the question again.

Thanks for talking to me today, Daniel. I had a good time.

(Johnston immediately sounds cheerful.) It was nice talking to you, too.

Before we hang up, he says, in a formal tone that doesn't suit his childish voice, Okay. Good luck then.

To contact Gina Vivinetto e-mail

What is "outsider music'?

Outsider music, according to author and musicologist Irwin Chusid, is created in a universe where typical musical standards don't exist.

Chusid, author of Songs In the Key Of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music, says that outsider music is "where keys beyond G are explored with elan."

It's "crackpot and visionary music, where all trails lead essentially one place: over the edge."

The music sometimes develops naturally, he says. "In other cases, it could be the product of damaged DNA, psychotic seizures or alien abduction," Chusid writes, tongue just a bit in cheek. "Perhaps medical malpractice, incarceration or simple drug-fry triggers its evolution."

Whatever the cause, there's a unique market for this music, which often features vocals that are melodically adrift, stumbling rhythms and unanchored harmonies. Fans of outsider musicians don't require their heroes to be virtuoso players. Instead, they hanker for the artists' "purity."

THE FANS: The genre attracts big-name loyalists as varied as David Bowie, The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, musician Billy Corgan, the late Kurt Cobain and even actor Brooke Shields, a fan of Texas's spooky the Legendary Stardust Cowboy.

THE STARS: Certainly the most famous outsider musician is Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. His mental illness may have contributed to his producing his unique "pet sounds."

Add to the list rock's most famous acid casualties: Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd), Arthur Lee (Love), Skip Spence (Moby Grape) and Roky Erickson (13th Floor Elevators). Some consider Captain Beefheart and even Tiny Tim outsider musicians.

Less well-known, but adored by the genre's admirers, are schizophrenic former street person Wesley Wills; North Carolina "composer" and lawn-tool player Eugene Chadbourne; tuneless Texas troubadour the Legendary Stardust Cowboy; Harry Partch, who performed on salvaged debris; and the abysmal 1960s all-girl band the Shaggs.


* Invited by Lou Reed to a recording session in New York, Johnston was arrested for spray-painting graffiti on the Statue of Liberty.

* The singer was thrown in jail for attacking a friend with a lead pipe; he told authorities that he believed that his friend was the devil. Another time, Johnston nearly crashed the private plane his father was piloting after grabbing its controls, convinced that his father was Satan.

* A cult figure in underground music for 20 years, Johnston got his start handing out lo-fi cassette recordings of songs such as I Save Cigarette Butts to patrons at the McDonald's where he worked in the early 1980s. Now, those songs are available for the first time on compact disc on the just-released The Early Recordings Of Daniel Johnston, Volume I, a two-disc set.

* Cobain wore one of Johnston's tour shirts to the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.

* Johnston's songs are usually about unrequited love. Sometimes he sings of spiritual warnings, such as Don't Play Cards with Satan and Never Get To Heaven.

* Chusid devoted a chapter of his book to Johnston.

* Johnston's favorite band is the Beatles.


[Last modified July 18, 2003, 09:45:33]

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