Just finished watching the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which has left me feeling both limp and elated. Johnson is a manic depressive singer/songwriter with delusions of grandeur, who has grappled with downward spirals and dangerous encounters throughout his life. His songs are simple and raw, but emotionally complex, sometimes naive, sometimes overflowing with religious fervor, the purest of love (mostly for a girl he was obsessed with 20 years ago). Every song in his catalog of 20+ cassettes is absolutely raw. His drawings and cartoons are as strange and amazing as his music.
In the mid-80s, Johnston became a favorite of the alt-rock scene, and he worked (loosely) with Sonic Youth, Half Japanese’s Jad Fair, Yo La Tengo, Mike Watt, and others. His involvement with the Butthole Surfers ended strangely after the already tottering Johnston ingested LSD at a Surfers show and met the devil head-on. It’s implied that the trip sparked his religious obsessiveness, and that he never quite recovered (Gibby Haynes is interviewed for the film while having his teeth drilled by a dentist). Later in the film, Johnston refuses a bountiful recording contract with Atlantic Records because Metallica is also on the label, and Johnston is convinced the band will beat him up.
In an interview with his parents, Johnston’s father describes how his reading of a Casper the Friendly Ghost comic book led to him taking over their self-piloted airplane and crashing them into the woods. They barely escaped with their lives, but in Daniel’s mind, they became heroes in the Lord’s service. It’s all so fragile and frightening and weird.
Johnston has filmed and taped obsessively since he was very young, and the documentary milks the resulting library of self-recorded material in such a way that you feel incredibly close to his life – and his life’s work.
All of Johnston’s self-released cassettes are available on eMusic.
The Daniel Johnson mural on Guadalupe in Austin, TX. Click for larger version.
49 Replies to “The Devil and Daniel Johnston”
I save cigarette butts for a poor girl… across town.
By the by, do you happen to know which track of his goes “try to…” try to…” ???
I always thought that Johnston’s songs were really quite clever and only spartan in their use of instrumentation. Had he the resources (and the confidence) in his earlier releases, I think that they could have been fleshed out and stood up to some of the best pop artists, such as the Beach Boys or even possibly the Beatles.
I agree with the movie when it infers that his downfall from eccentric to schizophrenic was do to his taking LSD, which from my understanding was on a large multitude of occasions.
Had he been able to maintain his relative degree of sanity, I think he would have been able to explore and create some astounding music, and not be confined to the circus-sideshow fixation status that he ‘enjoys’ now.
Nate, don’t know which track, sorry.
Aaron, you’re not the first to compare him to Brian Wilson, or even Syd Barrett.
You’re right about how the stuff only sounds spartan because of the sparse instrumentation. I’d really like to explore some of the covers of his stuff by other artists, to hear the compositions fleshed out. Dylan is (or has often been) that way too – delivering the skeletal core of the work, which stands on its own in a way, but that can be made absolutely majestic in someone else’s hands.
Weird, I just watched and posted about this film yesterday, having not seen your post yet.
I think some of the magic of artists like this is that their music is sparse and underproduced. Of course I haven’t listened to his releases, so I can’t speak specifically to his music, but from what I heard in the film I definitely think that’d be the case here. I’m very curious to hear the Tom Waits cover of King Kong, as he himself very rarely does anything that I consider really “fleshed out;” at least not in the usual pop-music sense of that term.
I saw Daniel Johnston when he played at David Bowie’s Meltdown festival in London, 2002, headlining for the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. I much preferred the Ledge, couldn’t really get into Johnston’s stuff.
daniel johnston SUCKS.
horrible singer, horrible writer, horrible musician.
only white bread hipsters with no musical taste can appreciate this bullshit.
you don’t know what you’re talking about
so consider yourself absolved and go in peace.
I was amazed to watch a documentary about someone like Daniel Johnston. For him to be compared to Brian Wilson is absurd. While they may share certain eccentricities, Wilson actually has an ear for melody, harmony, rhythm and orchestration. I heard none of that in Johnston’s music. He strums incessant eight notes on the guitar and can play but a few chords. His melodies are not profound, memorable or even in tune. To suggest that he is some great genius is utterly ridiculous. For those of you that think he is, you must be absolutely tone deaf.
Jay – I think a key to appreciating Daniel Johnston is that you have to listen “past” his voice and crude playing. There actually are really lovely / interesting compositions happening there. If you hear someone else cover his music, for example, so that the crude playing/singing style doesn’t distract, the song structures will become more apparent.
Also: Much of folk and rock’s greatest music has been made with just two or three chords!
Seems rather desperate and dull to try and extract the gems in this “music”.
DANIEL DANIEL DANIEL!!! DANIEL!!!!
Half a year ago I saw this movie two… I’ve seen Daniel johnston live here in Belgium and for me it was amazing.
I find it amazing that a musician with so less technique can touch my heart and the center of my emotions. While Someone like Joe Satriani, with over the top fingerspitzengefuhlen, can’t even come close… Music has nothing to do with technique… Nothing. Music has everything to do with honest entertainment (in the broadest spectrum). The more honest, the better. And with Daniel Johnston it comes from the soul. The First time I heard “Impossible love”, i cried like a child… It was like I heard the story of my youth.
For me, THAT is art. Touching a place inside of you that needs to be touched. And Daniel can do that.
So please, Mr. Cohen & Jay Brenton… Don’t talk to me about hipsters and tone deafness… when I become speachless, hearing Daniel Johnston, its totaly real. No posing neather acting hip…
My wife is the cousin of laurie Allen that Daniel writes so often about in his lyrics.Years ago Daniel ,my wife and Laurie would have piano key banging parties and would make up silly songs.We havent heard from Daniel in years ,and were floored when we found out a movie was made about his life.He was always the life of any get together.We have literally hundreds of his drawings,notebooks with poems,songs etc.We were sad to hear just how bad his ongoing bout with manic depression has become.It doesnt matter if people like or dislike Daniels work.Daniel is Daniel and my wifes and families friendship will last a lifetime.Take care Daniel …Will Contact you. PS.The ciggarette butt girl says hello ,have pics if you want them.
Um, I’m not sure where to start….
I just watched the Daniel Johnston documentary, and I couldn’t help but think that perhaps the whole thing is a hoax.
I kept waiting and waiting (and waiting) to hear something that confirmed this perceived brilliance that everyone seems to think he possesses, and I quite simply…..don’t get it.
He is a horrible, and I mean HORRIBLE singer, he is hardly even a serviceable guitarist (I play guitar and have an idea), and whether or not his lyrics-save for all of his religious crap, which is certainly ridiculous- are brilliant or even quantifiably profound, I would say is open to debate, at best.
I believe that the whole thing is some kind of self fulfilling prophecy. If enough of the right people say it, enough times, it must be true.
Okay, Cobain wore his T-shirt, and a bunch of (mostly inconsequential) musicians have covered his material, or played with him. So what? I think perhaps it was all kind of a goof. Almost like everyone is trying to give encouragement to someone who is retarded, because it seems like the right thing to do.
In this documentary, he performs 4 or 5 times, almost complete “songs,” and it is borderline unlistenable.
As for his art, I mean, it’s OKAY. I can’t draw or paint and so I admire anyone who can, and some of his concepts are kind of interesting, but is it better than a lot of other “art” out there?
I realize the guy has a cult following, and everybody has bought into the hype machine, but COME ON! You really think he’s good?
Just my opinion.
I’m going to try and explain it once again:
You know, music needs 2 components… Fire (and I mean the real inner burning flame) and technique… When a musician is missing a bit of one of these 2 particals he has to compensate it with the other. Like Joe Satriani isn’t the most emotional musician out there, but he can compensate it with his technique. And he is amazing in his genre. Well, On the onder side of the spectrum there is Daniel Johnston… We all know he isn’t a guitarist pur sang or a pianoplayer… But he can compensate it with his unbelievable urge and passion to explain his emotions with his music. And he does this in such a child-like manner… man, it gets in the deepest end of my soul. And yeah, For me that the art of making music. For others it’s Technique… Well, if so, just don’t listen to Daniel Johnston. I’m still enjoying it , no matter what you criticasters say.
First of all,
There are ALL kinds of people who have a tremendous amount of “fire,” and or enthusiasm. When I used to do slam poetry, there were several poets who would get up on stage and have a lot to say and also have a lot of passion while saying it….
Doesn’t make them talented, and certainly does not make them a genius. Most of them should not have been on stage and a good audience will not encourage those who should not be encouraged. Daniel Johnston should not be encouraged. It’s sad.
Daniel Johnston, has a lot of conviction, partially because he is nuts, but also because he is at his root (like most artists) a narcissist, who feels like he is misunderstood, and cannot communicate any other way.
Bottom line: His music is terrible (I’ll forgo judgment of his artwork). He is by all reasonable accounts, a manic, troubled soul, crying out for attention. Does he have a lot to say? In HIS opinion, certainly. Does he try really hard? Yes, I think we can all agree on that. Does he have any quantifiable musical talent? No. And THAT is what I (and most people, by the way, seeing as how his last record sold less than 6 thousand copies((6 thousand too many)) would need to get behind a MUSICIAN.
You use the example of Joe Satriani. Well, like Satriani, I think that Eric Johnson, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and others are very talented musicians. I HATE their music and would never buy it. REM, Tori Amos, Filter and other bands that I happen to like are probably not the greatest musicians, but at least very good, have a lot to say, and say it with conviction.
Tool is probably the only band I like that one could say the musicians are at the top of their field instrumentally.
Daniel Johnston not only is not talented in ANY way musically, but his lyrics juvenile, and absurd to boot. As if he made them up while sweeping the floors at McDonalds (probable). I think Cobain is probably somewhere watching us and laughing his ass off, that this many people bought into Johnston mania, just because he wore one of his shirts around.
I think that the special Olympics are a fantastic idea and each of the participants is to be commended on their effort and dedication. That doesn’t mean I would ever watch it on T.V.
or go around talking about what great athletes they are. In the grand scheme of athletics, they are NOT great athletes. They are the best athletes amongst those with disabilities.
I would even bet that there are mentally disabled people who can play better music than Daniel Johnston. Musical savants.
At any rate, he seems like a decent guy, other than being exceedingly annoying, a religious nutjob.
Talented musician? No.
Brilliant songwriter? No.
Tries real hard? Granted.
First of all, I didn’t start to like D.J. because Cobain wore his T-shirt. Just to make shure you understand that. I’m a totaly anti-hype kind of person. I shurly don’t like the fact that you seem to feel attacked by my previous comment.
The reason why I got interested in D.J. is an article I read about him. I searched for the first album of him that I could find and bang … I loved it right away! And I tell you this in pure honousty.
And everything you see as an argument to wipe away my reasons to love D.J.’s music doesn’t change the fact that the fire and enthousiasm I see in him outgrows a lot of technical perfect musicians.
And Yeah, probably you don’t see his genius… but a lot of the greatest musicians I know do. Like E of Eels and M.Ward, Tom Waits, Sparklehorse… And a lot lot more. And you can’t say these people are a bunch of Cobain-followers… or something like that. No these people actualy took time to take a song of D.J. Make it their own and go to the studio to record it… That’s something you don’t do for a musician you don’t like.
And yeah, D.J. tried real hard to be on the top and to show up on MTV and stuff like that. But even that makes his story more worth listening to. The fact that he 6000 cd’s thousend mean he’s a bad musician. Their are a lot of brilliant musicians out there that haven’t sold 500… That’s just commerce and doesn’t have anything to do with beeing a good or bad musician. I realy hope you realise that!
And one other thing, please stop seeing music as one big competition. Their is juist music you like, and music you don’t like. But it’s all music man. When these 6000 buyers (I’m one of them) love his music, then who are you to say DANIEL JOHNSTON IS FOR 100% CERTAIN A BAD BAD BAD MUSICIAN.
It’s not because you SELL GOOD, you ARE good. When people, how small the amount may be, love your stuff, you can say you have achieved something in life and reached the hearts of others… That’s the goal! Not the sold copies of your CD.
And by the way: ‘ TOOL ‘ RULES!
Let’s make something clear.
I am in no way equating commercial success to talent. When I went to Los Angeles with a comedy troupe, I watched with equal parts amazement and depression, some of the MONSTER talent that graced Hollywood comedy clubs and coffee shops. That includes comedic, improvisational and musical acts, who will never, and I mean NEVER be seen on television or the big screen, have a record deal or have any quantifiable monetary success. Why? Because they aren’t attractive enough, they are too obscure, and a variety of other reasons.
Popularity does NOT equal talent.
It is also true that not being popular, or being strange, or being crazy, does not equal talent.
Daniel Johnston could very well be (and probably is) a talented visual artist. Frankly I cannot judge as I can’t draw or paint or ANYTHING myself and don’t know a lot about it.
I DO know something about music, and in fact because of the movie, talked to my guitar instructor about it. One sentence in he said, “Yeah, I turned the movie off. The guy’s fucking horrible, I can’t believe anybody likes him.”
I won’t list my instructor’s credentials. Let’s just suffice to say that he does not now, or has he ever made a living giving lessons. He is a HEAVY HITTER, musically. Can listen to almost anything of any style and play it after a couple of listens through. He has been and is widely used by quite a few notable artists in the studio (I will avoid name dropping), he composes music, blah blah blah.
He, like I do, thinks that Johnston is a bit of a practical joke, and that artists that “like” him, or cover him or whatever are thumbing their nose at the establishment, and partially at the type of fans who will get behind someone because a bunch of quirky, cult hero types say he’s a genius.
All that said, the fact remains.
Daniel Johnston is not a good musician, is a worse singer, and it is debatable at best that his lyrics are anything more than the irritating ramblings of a disturbed, narcissistic, stuck in adolescence, fool.
It seems that I agree with a lot of your visions and we are realy talking next to eachother. But when you say The facts remain… I just don’t Follow. The only fact that does remain is that you are the kind of people who don’t like Daniel Johnston and I am the kind of people who does… Is there more to say? I think you can’t ignore the fact that there realy are people who realy love his music. Or do you disagree? Because then I’m a real extraordinary guy… “I can hear real beauty in total crap.” Or what are you trying to proove here? What’s the use of breaking down the people who do love Daniel Johnston? I don’t understand your motivation?
And by the way, I’m also that kind of guy that listens to all kinds of music. And bragging about ‘you knowing some musician that playes in a studio for lot’s of respected artists’… man, I’m a musician to, I play in 4 projects, but that doesn’t automatically make me a better listener. It’s just a bad argument. That hasen’t got anything to do with liking or disliking Daniel Johnston.
In my oppinion you can’t debate on music. Like the French say: “Le goÃ»t et les couleurs, Ã§a ne se discute pas.”
in English:”Taste and colors, you don’t discus about that.”
And that’s all what you are doing here… I’m just defending that philosophy.
I agree with Rob on the point that is seems like people are trying to give a mentally disabled guy some encouragement, which I find condescending and disrespectful to Daniel Johnston. Lets put the retard on the the stage and smile…If he were a “normal” guy, meaing, just a regular person with no major mental problems, everyone would say he is terrible. But people want to feel good about themselves, so they say he is great.
I’m not able to put into words what it is that’s special about Daniel Johnson, but there’s definitely more going on than people being “charitable” towards him or of him being some kind of fascinating freak show. No, he doesn’t sound like Bono. But yes, he is inspired. And even though his music can sound rough and primitive, that doesn’t mean the core of his music is. Dylan sounds rough. Neil Young sounds rough. Blind Lemon Jefferson sounds rough. All in different ways. I’m not putting Daniel Johnson on a level with those guys, but I do think that if you dismiss him out of hand, you’re missing a lot. Try to listen through the roughness. There are gems of truth and poetry in there.
Daniel Johnston wrote a song about this: “Like a Monkey in the zoo”.
Lyrics like: ” you say I’m cute. You don’t know how much that hurts. You don’t know how much it hurts , living in your own dirt, like a monkey in the zoo…”
Man, I ‘m getting cold and warm at the same time just by writing these words down…
Daniel Johnston blows. Has blown, and will always blow.
The good news is that you have a choice.
If you like his music, you can either be tone deaf, retarded, and/or have no musical taste whatsoever (can’t speak to his “art work”), or you can be a lemming shill for the pseudo hipster musicians that CLAIM (I believe as a joke, or corporate snub) to like him.
So which are you?
I don’t know what you are but I am a truly honoust musician who realy, realy loves the music of Daniel Johnston.
Maybe you have to turn the hole question around. Maybe You are the kind of people who just don’t understand his work and can’t listen through the roughness, and I’m the kind that does. It’s that simple.
I figured something out. The reason why I love Daniel Johnston is that I can realy listen to what his heart or his mind says. There is no, and I say NO, other musician who can do that, in my opinion.
Yesterday I listened 5 times to the “Discovered/Covered” album of DJ. Man, In stead of you, not understanding why I love DJ, I can’t see why You guys can’t hear the brilliance. It’s almost pathetic you guys realy need good and cleaned-up recordings to hear his brilliance.
And yes, I’m tone deaf… blah blah blah
I don’t think you’re tone deaf. You must be one of the other options. Read up and see which.
“Then I MUST be retarted or one of the other options in there… because mister Rob here, ladies and gentlemen, has a monopoly on the truth!!!”
Come on man, don’t feel so afronted with the fact that there are people who love Daniel johnston’s music. Can’t you just respect that? You sound like one of those street junkies in New York or something, shouting “It’s all a complot!!”…
Come on, give us a break… Le goÃ»t et les couleurs, Ã§a ne se discute pas.
Fair enough. Retarded it is.
I had fancied you as more of a lemming or hipster wannabe, but if you want to go with mentally deficient, that’s cool with me. That’s why I gave you the choice.
P.S. All of your parroting of French philosophy, or catch phrases, and whatever else will not make Daniel Johnston any good. Not now. Not ever.
That’s true, Nothing of you and I say here will MAKE Daniel Johnston good. But who mathers “good” when you are talking about “brilliance” here?
pardon my bad english there
I’m a long Austinite and a keeper of the scene. The only thing I ever felt or thought to be brilliant or unusual was the fact that they never painted over the Jerimiah the Frog mural???, more like a “5 minute so what” spraypaint drawing on the side of a building on Guadelupe near the University. His drawings and music are childish and not of any real report or genius. But they can serve to remind us all that many of our fellow men suffer from mental disease, so have pity, and that more sane men and women can be inspired by the darkness of another’s depression. Go see the play “Motorcycle” something to see moronic extensions of this last observation. I pray for Daniel and all that suffer. We suffer with you.
anyone who really knows about music would know Daniel is a fantastic musician because he communicates brilliantly with musical instruments. who wants to hear some idiot who has been taught to join the dots by their music teacher?
why do all these people with purportedly great technique actually sound the same? because they have no imagination and nothing to say. they are robots going through the motions.
I couldn’t agree more.
Why does Daniel Johnston even strum the strings?
Though his music is fantastic, it would be EVEN BETTER if he would just hold the guitar over his head and slam it into his forehead, as he babbles and shrieks into the microphone about Casper the Friendly Ghost and all of his other genius GENIUS subjects. Now THAT would be brilliance! No teacher could ever even conceive of that, let alone teach it.
He’s the greatest.
You are so right! Everybody sounds the same. Tool sounds EXACTLY like Tori Amos, and sometimes I’ll be listening to the radio and think, “Is this Modest Mouse, or Rush? Maybe it’s Brandi Carlisle” They sound SO much alike.
YOU sir, know about music. Keep educating us simpletons that just don’t get it.
thanks for the kind words!
oh, and i quite like tool, but that doesn’t stop me liking daniel johnston! they are not musically exclusive.
although i doubt tool could write such intelligent and funny lyrics as daniel , so there you go.
So you see everybody?
People who like Daniel Johnston, the semi-retarded, narcissistic
no-talent, Indie punchline, can only be reasoned with through general acquiescence.
yes, i am a semi-retarded, omniscient.
you seem to have the gift, too.
Hey Rob, how old are you actualy? Because I can’t get rid of the idea that you must be a frustrated 14 year old boy in his puberty… I had that fase too, the everything i don’t like is total crap-fase… man, please grow up and look for a hobby or something.
You had that “fase,” too?
I’m not familiar with that word, “fase.”
Why don’t you explain it all to us in your infinite wisdom.
Now that’s a word I HAVE heard of.
P.S. I think I AM going to go back to my hobby right now. Playing the guitar A LOT better than Daniel Johnston.
I didn’t expect anything else than such a childish reaction from you. I thought we were talking about content here, not my bad English.
Must be hard, going to guitarschool, thinking:” when I can play all the chords I’m a good musician”, but then they confront you with people who write music straight from the heart. Ofcourse you criticize it, It’s something that goes way beyond your knowledge. Technicaly, you propably play better guitar then D.J., but in my opinion you must learn a lot about listening to the core of music.
I’ll (extra caps for emphasis) tell you what’s SAD!
The fact that Daniel Johnston- or rather the IDEA of Daniel Johnston has all of you lemming morons hoodwinked into believing there is something brilliant, or even interesting going on with his music.
The only reason ANYBODY pays ANY attention to him is that this chain reaction got started where Cobain and a couple of other noted artists started wearing his T-shirts or talking about his music or whatever else, and all of the sudden record labels (among the LEAST intuitive most EASILY influenced by hype ((in fact, if you have any doubts, watch the movie “Hype”)) entities on the planet) couldn’t do without him.
If any one of you douche bags (ANYONE who thinks Daniel Johnston has ANY musical talent), were at a coffee house, or an open mic and he got on stage and started in with his shrieking and banging on the guitar (which is a kind description), BEFORE you had heard of him, you’d be thinking, “Oh, how sad. Well, you have to hand it to this place-or open mics in general- for giving EVERYONE a forum.”
Furthermore, the idea that I have implied that TECHNICAL ACUMEN has ANYTHING (or at least EVERYTHING) to do with musical talent is ridiculous.
“Flight of the Conchords,” are certainly not the most talented musicians, and/or the most technically proficient. They are however BRILLIANT!!
How are they brilliant? They are clever, creative, hilarious, and ultimately very interesting. AND, they are good ENOUGH musically to pull the whole thing off.
They are but one example of many, MANY bands that I like, oh, I suppose Incubus, or Death Cab for Cutie, might be other examples, whose technical abilities are not that noteworthy, but they are talented, and worth listening to.
Daniel Johnston blows major whale ass in any era, on any stage or in any studio.
That’s the end of it.
Anyone who says anything else is defending an IDEAL (that I am in no way refuting, by the way), and using a FALSE PROPHET (I won’t even get into the fact that he’s an anti-Semitic, religious nut-job), to make their point.
Get over it! He fucking sucks.
Just added a photo I took of the Daniel Johnson “Hi How Are You?” frog in Austin, TX!
Guys – Did your mommas never teach you to use “I” rather than “You” language when having a debate? Love that this conversation is ongoing, but let’s try and keep attacks and judgments out of it. Talk about why DJ is or is not interesting, but enough with the name-calling. Don’t make me stop the car! (seriously, I’ll close this thread if you guys don’t figure out how to talk about music like civilized humans).
I guess being a musician don’t mean too much any more… with Daniel leading the way.
Thanks for the tip on that, Enough. Looks like they have it on emusic – I’ll pick it up this month. There are some artists who don’t have traditionally good voices whose song structures are revealed in all their majesty when covered by others (Dylan comes to mind). For those who don’t like music “raw,” covers can be a great access point to otherwise unpalatable song structures.
I totaly agree. But it’s all action/reaction here…
This one’s my last post here:
What I think that a good musician needs is the fact that he is constantly busy with music in a passionat way. When tarzan in the woods finds a guitar, and he finds a way of playing the instrument in his own way and makes it complete with some heartbreaking lyrics… From the point were he move me with his creation, he IS a good musician. And yeah, Daniel Johnston didn’t have the regular guitarlessons but he all found it out on his own, in his basement, searching the lyrics to explain his feelings.
How honoust is that? I think more honoust then recording an album just because you have a contract running with a major recordlabel… If you don’t like Daniel johnston, just don’t listen to him, but treat the ones who do with dignity. There is just no good argument for bringing down a honoust musician and his fans. It all just seems to be nothing more then frustration.
Man, it makes me really sad to have to do this (it’s only happened a few times in the 7-year history of Birdhouse), but I have to close commenting now, because a few juvenile, vindictive, closed-minded users can’t seem to stop with the judgmental name-calling. Yes, I’m talking to you email@example.com (whose most recent comment was so over the top I just deleted it – something I’ve generally been committed to never do).
To all of you who have participated in civil conversation, thanks! To the rest of you, please come back when you grow up.
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