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.