"Rejected Unknown" is an album title that can be applied to the early portion of Daniel Johnston's career more than the latter perhaps "Embraced Well-Known" is more appropriate these days. For years the songwriter has drawn accolades from all walks of musicians and fans, despite his appallingly humble beginnings and unruly manic-depressive behavior.
A simplistic pianist and guitarist, Johnston found his power through the disarming quality of a slurring, childlike voice that aptly conveyed his devastating, naked lyrics. ("She invited me to a pity party/Every hour everyone was making fun of me/I told her it really didn't matter/You can't imagine what it's done to my personality," he sings on "I Lose" from his latest record.)
A native of West Virginia, it was after moving to Austin, Tex., when the cult-like legend of this outsider began to grow. Wandering the streets of the capital city, Johnston would pass out his homemade tapes to anyone who would listen. Because he only had a basic ghetto blaster and no dubbing machine, each cassette would be a different performance of the artist playing his entire record live. The primitive tapes would also be adorned with his own eccentric artwork that was just as intriguing as the patchwork of original songs.
Eventually, the strength of his music and the empathy engendered by his ordinarily good-natured personality caught the attention of popular regional band Glass Eye, who gave Johnston a shot as an opening act. (The group's singer Kathy McCarty would go on to record a tribute album to the songwriter titled "Dead Dog's Eyeball: The Songs of Daniel Johnston.") Soon Johnston began to sell his tapes rather than just give them away.
However, during the night of his first commercial appearance on a 1986 MTV special delving into the city's underground scene, Johnston was sequestered in the Austin State Hospital, due to having just assaulted his former manager. This cycle continued for years, with the artist stepping in and out of institutions as often as he did the media spotlight.
But despite his manic, violent episodes, the mainstream eventually came courting. Atlantic Records released "Fun" in 1994, resulting in Johnston's lone foray on a major label. Although the relationship was not exactly beneficial for either party, word spread about the artist, and he continued to carve out a career while trying to suppress his mental illness.
Johnston's songs have been covered by performers such as Sonic Youth, Mary Lou Lord, Yo La Tengo and The Dead Milkmen, he has collaborated with countless prominent musicians and his compositions and drawings have cultivated a diverse fanbase that includes such notables as Johnny Depp, Matt Groening and the late Kurt Cobain (who was often seen wearing one of the artist's T-shirts).
Now on a 19-date tour to support his freshly released "Rejected Unknown," Johnston is healthy and in fine spirits thanks to modern medication for what is likely the longest period of his lifetime. Calling while en route to New York City, where he is set to deliver a show at the legendary Knitting Factory, the 41-year-old singer is "having a blast" as he travels the country doing what he always dreamed would be possible one day.
What line from one of your songs do people ask you the most about?
"They mostly quote 'Grievances,' which was one of my first accessible songs, from when I was young in 1980. 'If I had my own way/You'd be with me here today/But I rarely have my own way/I guess that's why you're not here with me today/I saw you at the funeral/You're standing there like a temple/I said, 'Hi, how are you'/I pulled up a casket and crawled in.' That's also part of 'Funeral Girl' (from 'Rejected Unknown'). I got a lot of mileage out of that desperate situation, where I fell in love with a girl who married an undertaker. I never quite got over that."
What comes to you more easily: writing a song or drawing a picture?
"When I draw pictures and write a song, it's really the same thing: One's musical, one's kind of arty. But both ways it's art ... But really where I make most of my money is from my drawings. My money from my publishing, my dad saves for me. So I have quite a good savings some day to get a house of my own and my own car eventually. The money I have for spending cash is mostly from my drawings. Now I'm getting a lot of money for these shows, so I can buy records. So I'm rich I'm not bloody rich but I feel like I am. I'm not like Cole Porter, but as long as I can buy records, I'm like, 'I'm rich.'" (laughs)
Does medication make you a better person?
"Oh yeah. For a long time I was like a guinea pig about the medication, since I am a manic-depressive. It's a chemical imbalance in the brain is what they define it by. I suffered severe depression for a long time, and the doctors kept giving me pills. Then I'd get elevated by pills that were anti-depressants. It was really great, but I was more or less out of control. I was TOO happy. They finally got me on these drugs where now I've been out of hospitals for going on three or four years. And I've been feeling great. I've been real productive and able to keep busy. Whatever they've got me on now is great. I'm not depressed anymore, I'm productive, I'm a happy guy. My life is 100 percent better, because I was in the hospital for too long."
What has been your most clever way of marketing your music?
"I used to make tapes for my friends. And I thought, 'If I'm writing songs, I'll just pretend that I'm making an album.' So I used to put all my favorite songs on these tapes, and I'd even draw a cover for it. By the time I was in Texas I had these tape duplicators, and I thought 'Wow, this is the entertainment world.' So I started making duplicates and passing them out on the streets to strangers. Anybody that looked remotely like they were interested in music or good-looking girls I started giving out tapes. Eventually, I started selling them in stores and getting money to eat, because I worked at a McDonald's and I was extremely poor. Every night I would make these tapes and get enough money to eat. They were selling good enough that I could do that. First thing I knew, Glass Eye gave me the opportunity to open up for them. I was getting famous enough that we all ended up on MTV, on a special they had about underground musicians. We all got on the show, and there we were, superstars in our own minds."
Who is your most unusual fan?
"My most unusual fan? Let me think. There was a girl last night who was screaming old songs like 'Fly Eye' and 'Dead Dog Laughing in the Clouds' and she wouldn't shut up. Then she came backstage and she was like an angel; she looked pretty good. Then we went out to eat pizza and she kept yelling, 'Fly Eye' and 'Dead Dog Laughing in the Clouds.' And then she slipped and fell and her panties were showing. (laughs) I was trying to help her up and everything. And she kept yelling those songs. That was pretty strange. I guess she gets that honor for the moment."
Matt Groening has been quoted as being one of your biggest fans. Has he ever asked you to appear on The Simpsons?
"He's really cool. I got to play a song at a party at his house about a few months ago when we went to L.A. last time. His sons are cartoonists, and they have comic books all over the house. They were doing cartoons. I thought it was pretty cool. He didn't really ask me to appear on 'The Simpsons,' but he gave me the opportunity to have a comic on his comic book label. I've been thinking about some ideas of maybe doing a comic book together with him."
When you find a Daniel Johnston record in a music store, what style is it filed under?
"Daniel Johnston: rock and roll. (laughs) Since I was on a major label for a while, I do have a section of my own sometimes, even in the malls."