At some point or another, we as individuals have to undergo formative experiences in life that help us grow and understand the world we live in. These occurrences stand out because they're ones you know you’ll never forget, even as you’re living them. It's as though all of sudden life feels like a film; like you're roaming through a movie and everything is perfectly surreal. It's hard to really grasp what is happening, much less to understand why these moments are significant, but easy to feel that they ARE and that they always will be. The value of these experiences can be measured by what could be gained from them, and for me, I gained newfound perspective on the rainy day I met Daniel Johnston.
Daniel Johnston is a prolific human being, who has influenced everyone from the late Kurt Cobain to Lana Del Rey, Beck and even Tom Waits. He has spent the last three decades quietly making the most honest music a human can make and his contributions to the art are undeniable. He is a man whose life has always been worn right on the sleeve of his Captain America T-shirt, and this is reflected in his work, which stems from the most raw and unfiltered aspects of human experiences and emotions: places of love, happiness, depression, mental illness and life overall. At this point, Daniel is regarded as a genius, a notion that has never been called into question.
What does come into question, however, is his daily life; not because it is frowned upon, but because it is mostly a mystery. What we do know about Daniel as a person is brought on by few sources, most of which focus almost entirely on his past struggles with mental illness. A particularly notorious story is about the time he removed the keys from a plane being flown by his father after a show, miraculously coming away with only a couple of scratches as they crash-landed onto some treetops. Needless to say, when I was invited by a family friend of Daniel’s to visit him at his home, I knew this would be an opportunity not as only a journalist, but as a fellow musician to step into a very candid light in the life of one of the most important artists of all time. This visit would be framed, at least in my own mind, as a press visit. I would be there to conduct an interview with Daniel, ask him about his life now, past experiences, and what he's currently working on. The usual, so to speak, for any member of any publication interviewing a legendary musician.
Daniel lives in Waller, Texas, one of the many small cities that surround Houston but have very few distinct characteristics about them. Flat homes with large lawns, cattle farms, and trees are aplenty, but all seem low to the ground. After a few wrong turns up and down a country road, I was finally asked by our host and my good friend, Jacob Calle, to guess which house is Daniel's as we slowed to a cruise in a quiet neighborhood. This should have been an easy game to play, but after I went through at least three different houses, I realized they all look the same and was forced to give up. We then rolled into the driveway of a home that couldn’t be more…normal.
As a modest one-story house with a couple of ferns and flowers planted under a tree in the yard, nothing was extravagant or distinct about this house, much like Waller itself. I wondered if we if we were even in the right place. Then I saw it, Jeremiah the Innocent, perhaps Daniel’s most iconic piece of art, on a little sticker on the back of what looks like a 1997 Ford Explorer. From the outside, this is the only discernible indicator that Daniel Johnston lives here.
Daniel’s brother, Dick, who doubles as his manager and caretaker, greeted us at the front door with a big smile. As soon as our introductions to Dick were through, we met Daniel’s father, Bill. I shook his hand with the utmost respect and quickly began to feel the weight of the situation. This was already becoming a way more intimate experience than I could have possibly anticipated. Bill raised his head and realized that we were most likely here to see his son; he quickly pressed a button on some sort home-video chat system and demanded that Daniel come over here. Dick got close to his father, who is hard of hearing, and explained to him that we will be "going over there."
I realized that Daniel lives in a separate house on his own, from which he is able to video-chat with his father. Before we left the house and began the trek to Daniel’s house, I decided to take a small stroll around the quaint home. The walls are neatly but generously covered in framed newspaper clippings of album reviews, interviews, photos of Daniel, and even personal letters from various figures; one notable piece being a handwritten letter and doodle by Simpsons creator Matt Groening. Although it is normal for any home of a proud family to be lauded with the many achievements of their child, here those achievements are now outgrowing the walls.
After we made our way out of the front door and crossed the lawn towards Daniel’s home, which is directly next door, I began to mentally prepare myself to knock on the door and meet him. “I am here to work, keep your cool, ask your questions, do your thing," cycled in my head until suddenly my train of silly self-preparatory thoughts were cut off by a familiar voice a short distance behind me. Daniel stood at the back gate of the house we had just walked out of, presumably making his way over to us while we did the same to him. I was caught off-guard, perhaps even noticeably.
“Hi, How are you!?”, Daniel yelled across the yard in the most surreal moment of my life.
Upon introducing myself, the first thing I noticed was his super-welcoming and friendly demeanor. We followed him through the back door of his house, which leads into the kitchen, and I was immediately taken aback. Every shelf that would normally have pots, pans, or kitchen gear on it has been lined with various items ranging from toys and CDs to comics and other miscellaneous collectibles. Batman, Captain America, Casper, all of the great icons of pop culture are represented in various forms of paraphernalia around the room. Once again, I was anticipating a sit-down interview, your typical press visit, which I am admittedly inexperienced with. I very much intended to keep my ‘press hat’ on as tightly as I could. However, any plans I had to sort of waltz on in, get my 20 minutes, and get out of there were completely thrown out of the window when I heard Dick tell Daniel to give us a tour, which to my excitement, he obliged.
Daniel took control of the situation, somewhat. We started with the room we were in, the kitchen. Taking a look around isn’t easy, as there is so much to actually look at. Tucked in the corner, where normally a small dining table could have been, is a work desk, one of many throughout the house that clearly serve as creative "lily pads” for Daniel to hop back and forth on, each one with a different focus. This one felt like his eating or writing desk, with cereal boxes, vinyl records, dated electronics, drawings and collectibles in every sense of the word strewn everywhere. However, the room is surprisingly organized for the amount of stuff it holds.
Daniel showed us various comics, some that he'd recently purchased. I decided to ask whatever random questions came to mind as that ‘press hat’ loosened up and figuratively fell flat on the floor. At that point, I was just a spectator. We followed Daniel down a hall lined with VHS tapes, all of which are organized alphabetically and by genre, and into the living room, where another ‘lily pad’ sits. This is one in the form of a recliner, where he presumably watches all of those tapes surrounding us. The disc tray of his DVD player was open, containing the last movie he watched. “Tora!Tora! Tora! My favorite movie!” he exclaimed after I asked what it was.
The tour continued throughout his entire house. We saw the record room, the toy room, the movie room, and even a room entirely covered in old magazine photos of naked women. His house has essentially been repurposed into a giant display case for all of his collectibles — the museum of Daniel Johnston. Daniel led the way the entire time, stopping to show us his favorite and proudest belongings along the way until we arrived at his music room. Records cover the walls and musical equipment is strung about — microphones, old cassettes, CDs, even a kazoo. Another workstation is sitting there as well; this time his tattered white piano.
Daniel quickly approached the piano, sat down, and started playing what clearly seemed to be whatever came to mind. I noticed a cassette recorder on top of the piano and realized that this is his recording studio. Daniel then quickly stopped, stood up, and exclaimed, “I’m hungry!” In fact, at various moments throughout the visit, he'd stop and point out that he was craving Long John Silver's, to which his brother would remind him that he had guests.
It should be noted that, whether or not it has to do with his history of mental illness or just the fact that this enigmatic man has a unique approach to the world, Daniel is a very different person. He communicates differently, he thinks differently, and he creates differently. Clearly this was already a fact given the nature of his music and how ridiculously influential it has been. But to experience him, his being, his presence — frankly it can be overwhelming. Daniel’s demeanor could easily, but wrongly, be misconstrued as if he doesn’t seem to know how to live without expressing himself in the most constant and tangible ways; there have been times that this has gotten him into some controversial situations.
His family realizes this and does everything they can to facilitate that itch to create and express himself. You want to use the old piano? Go right ahead. You want to record on tape even though they are all but obsolete? Sure! Whatever you want to do to make your art and world exactly how you need. Ultimately, that is what it takes: unique understanding and support of this individual and his respective traits. Sometimes that comes in the form of reminding him what he was doing just a couple minutes before, or having to organize his comic collection, or even booking a show for him. But you have to wonder, how would his life be without those elements? Where would he be?
That being said, after realizing that perhaps it was not the best medium for him to share his thoughts and opinions, I resolved to not conduct an interview with Daniel, and was content with what I had learned from him. A man with documented mental illness in a country with a huge problem on mental health treatment, the odds are against him. Yet Daniel has always prevailed, as I believe real and honest expression always does. Because clearly it comes in various forms and in various kinds of people; and maybe some of those people are easy to misunderstand, both in their art and in their personality. Art manifests itself in anyone and in anything. Listening to Daniel Johnston’s music for the first time instantly exposes you to a new perspective of art, an unavoidable phenomenon to anyone who cares about music or music history. But meeting him exposes you to a new perspective on people and how to treat them.
After Dick told Daniel once again that a drive to Long John Silver's was out of the question for the rainy day, we told them we'd be happy to fetch them some food, and one very quiet and contemplative car ride later, we found ourselves on the back porch eating Jack In the Box with Daniel. (Long John Silver's was closed.) It was a fitting end to an already unreal afternoon. Even as I ate, I couldn't help but think about how even though I never got my chance to sit down with Daniel with my imaginary “press hat” to ask my silly questions, I didn’t have to in order to learn anything. I walked into his life for two hours and he simply showed me how he lived.
He showed me that life should be lived in the most expressive way possible, because that is how barriers are broken and how we truly learn to understand people. What I pulled from that rainy Sunday afternoon was a sense of reminder to always support my friends and family, even through the toughest of times. You never know what beauty they could be capable of being or creating that life is getting in the way of. After all, what is life about if not to truly be what you want to be? In the words of the great Daniel Johnston, “Do yourself a favor: become your own savior.”
Daniel Johnston will play two sets at 6 and 8 p.m. Saturday at Jacob Calle's House Party Comedy, 1509 Stuart. Tickets are available at thesecretgrouphtx.com. Daniel will be presented a ceremonial award at the first show, commemorating the official announcement of June 18 as Daniel Johnston Day in Houston.
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