He’s a singer-songwriter who not only can’t sing but can’t really play his guitar, either. For most of his life, this performer has believed that he’s Casper the Friendly Ghost, and he now lives with his elderly parents because of extreme psychosis. Henry Darger–like, he’s made hundreds of drawings on such themes as good vs. evil, including a series of pictures of ducks that he refers to as “my armies in my battle against Satan.”
You’d probably label this guy an outsider artist. But then, outsider artists don’t usually end up on MTV, as Daniel Johnston did at the age of 24, when his manic depression was in full swing.
“Yeah, even the New York Times, just a couple years ago, was writing about Johnston as the poster child for outsider music,” says director Jeff Feuerzeig, in Washington to promote his new documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston. “Well, it’s really a pleasure [for me] that recently the Times featured him on the cover of the Arts & Leisure section because he was just selected by the Whitney Biennial,” Feuerzeig continues. “Now they had to change their tune. Now he’s a fine artist—which is what Daniel always was. He studied art. He went to art school. Outsider artists don’t do this.”
But art is a secondary success in the 45-year-old Johnston’s career. He’s been performing his music to packed houses for the past 20 years or so, ever since he was profiled on MTV’s The Cutting Edge in 1985. His songs have been covered by artists such as the Pastels, Beck, Mercury Rev, Bright Eyes, and Wilco. In Feuerzeig’s film, you hear people not only call Johnston a genius but also compare him to Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson—even when he delivers lyrics such as “Don’t play cards with Satan/He’ll deal you an awful hand.”
Feuerzeig, a 41-year-old commerical director and filmmaker currently based in Los Angeles, was a college-radio DJ in New Jersey and contributing to fanzines when he first heard of Johnston in the mid-’80s. The international underground-music community Feuerzeig was involved in—“a couple hundred people, like a mini-Internet”—had spread word of a “talented young kid from Wild West Virginia.” Johnston had wandered his way to Austin, Texas, after a five-month stint traveling with a carnival. As a woman who’d seen Feuerzeig’s film pointed out to him recently: “He’s, like, more Dylan than Dylan. Dylan said he was a carny—Daniel really was a carny!”
“The way he showed up in Austin was so incredible, because it was an accident,” Feuerzeig says. “So a lot of his career was predetermined, and a lot of it was serendipity. When Daniel appeared in Austin, he already had his body of work created. He recorded, I don’t know, I think there were nine of those little cassettes he recorded in his basement from 1981 to 1983. He recorded all that in a span of three years. He was on fire. And like Dylan, who showed up in Greenwich Village during the folk explosion in the ’60s and captured the imagination of all these people in just a matter of weeks, Daniel did the same thing in Austin.”
That was partly due to Johnston’s aggressive self-promotion. He produced his first commercially distributed album, Hi, How Are You, on a cheap tape recorder and handed out cassette copies—adorned with his drawing of a googly-eyed frog—to everyone he could. “While he was [working] at McDonald’s,” Feuerzeig says, “Daniel invented viral marketing. If you were a pretty girl or a hip Austin musician, you’d find a surprise in your hamburger-and-french-fries sack. He’d put a cassette in. People loved that. Obviously, the tape wasn’t very good, but they became enamored by him, and before you know it, he not only made the scene—he was the scene.”
As Johnston’s fame grew, so did his illness—which made putting together The Devil and Daniel Johnston an especially formidable project. “He can’t really cooperate,” Feuerzeig says, “because he’s medicated. So it was difficult.”
In fact, the film might have been impossible if it weren’t for the fact that Johnston never stopped recording—audio, of course, but more important, video. Like the subjects of 2003’s Capturing the Friedmans, the members of the Johnston family have recorded in some fashion nearly all of their days, whether good or bad, for posterity. In The Devil and Daniel Johnston, you hear fights between Daniel and his mother. You hear Daniel’s audio diary, including some phone calls. You even see a picture, taken by a parent, of Daniel on a stretcher being wheeled into a hospital.
After approaching “the gatekeeper,” Johnston manager Jeff Tartakov, about getting access to this material, Feuerzeig took four-and-a-half years to put the film together. “In all seriousness, one of the great archeological finds in our lifetime is the archive of Daniel Johnston,” the director says. “Now, was it [an official] archive? No. I went to the house, and hundreds of tapes were found, like, in a Hefty bag. He recorded his whole life. I always knew about that—I just didn’t know there was hours of it. And like Darger, Daniel was an obsessive artist. But it’s almost as if we walked in, in Chicago, into Darger’s room and found him still alive.”
Johnston, Feuerzeig says, “contributed the best ways he could, including helping to art-direct scenes that re-created some dramatic moments”—such as when Johnston chased a woman out of her second-story window to try to rid her of Satan. “His mom says in the film, ‘Dan thought he was God’s man to save the world,’” Feuerzeig says. “Holy shit! What can I tell you? It’s apocalyptic.”
That footage was supplemented by material from those who, like the director, have followed Johnston’s career since nearly the beginning. “People all over the world sent me their Daniel Johnston art materials because they trusted [Tartakov], who’s always been known to have done right by Daniel,” he says. “So that gave me access to people like Lee Ranaldo and Sonic Youth, who shared with me because they in turn trusted me.”
But a music-scene connection the film didn’t facilitate was Feuerzeig’s personal one with Johnston. “Even when we were together, I never felt I was in touch with him. I don’t feel like I know him any better than the day I met him,” the director says. “I always knew him through his art and his music. Even his dad says it in the film—‘The only way to know what’s going on in Daniel’s head is to look over his shoulder and read what he’s putting in the thought bubbles in the art.’ And if his dad can’t get to him, how can I?”
Instead, Feuerzeig relied on his own impressions of Johnston to guide his filmmaking. “I just grabbed all the tapes myself, and I assembled this internal monologue that you hear in the film,” he says. He also consulted a book by psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, which allowed him to consider Johnston’s case against those of van Gogh, Byron, Virginia Woolf, and others who’ve shared the singer’s illness. “All the great artists throughout history suffered from manic depression,” Feuerzeig says.
The director says he was drawn to the project, which he partially financed himself, because “I felt he chose me. Daniel’s art…has touched me in such a deep way and has had a profound effect on my life. And I saw so much in his humor. He’s a very funny guy, and he also did a lot of comedy. I heard a lot of the same pop-culture influences from the ’70s that I had gotten into my head—early Woody Allen, Jerry Lewis, Andy Kaufman. I felt like he was a great vehicle to express myself through, because I felt very connected to him.”
Regarding whether he believes Johnston is on a par with Dylan or Wilson, Feuerzeig says, “Well, he’s singular, like they are. And he’s created a great body of work that has affected and touched people and brings tears to their eyes. So you tell me. It’s all subjective, isn’t it?…When I heard Daniel Johnston’s voice, it was like a breath of fresh air. I truly mean that—that’s what attracted me. I heard Billie Holiday. I heard John Coltrane. The reaching to God—that’s what I hear in that voice.
“Virtuosity is incredibly overrated in our world,” Feuerzeig adds. “And raw, beautiful emotion and honesty is what really should be cherished. Daniel [reflects] that. What I find off-putting is overproduced garbage. I’ve never cried to a Coldplay song.”—Tricia Olszewski