Music | Welcome to His World: Fending off bipolar disorder and a diabetic coma, Daniel Johnston is better than ever | Music | Salt Lake City Weekly
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Music | Welcome to His World: Fending off bipolar disorder and a diabetic coma, Daniel Johnston is better than ever


To many, Daniel Johnston is a hero, a tragic legend who sings his soul and expresses emotions we can’t seem to articulate in simple songs he once passed around on cassettes tapes in the early 1980s. He does it because he’s crazy, or that’s what we tell ourselves, because we can’t fathom such honesty. Thus we romanticize Johnston’s bipolar disorder, worship—rather than ridicule—his shortcomings and treat them like superpowers, because of the wonderful things he does.

Johnston’s also prone to outbursts, sometimes violent ones. He’s hung up on me before, and I once was told that I narrowly avoided a Johnston smackdown at Kilby Court because I approached him just after he was informed that the two 2-liter bottles of soda he desired weren’t on site. Interview requests come with caveats (“You may get plenty; he may hang up on you”) and instructions to call Daniel’s famously God-fearing ex-fighter pilot father Bill (who prefers to be addressed by his rank) to restate your request. They say Bill can be grouchy, perhaps because he’s shell-shocked by both his World War II experiences and raising Daniel, who—among other things—famously wrestled away the controls of his dad’s passenger plane en route from a gig in Austin, nearly killing them and landing Daniel in a mental institution.

So it was with some fear—part fan-boy, part chickensh—t—that I rang the Johnston home in Waller, Texas. I’d forgotten his rank, but Mr. Johnston failed to raise hell when addressed as “Mr. Johnston.” And, although I call 10 minutes late, and Daniel is off in the ether, our engagement already forgotten, Mr. Johnston laughs and says he’ll “go chase him again” if I’m willing to hold the line for about 10 minutes. I strain to hear the background noise, hoping to catch a semi-private conversation between father and manchild. Alas, the connection turns the voices and music into white noise. Five minutes later, Johnston comes on the line.

He sounds all smiles—“Where are you?” He knows he’s been to Salt Lake City, but doesn’t recall when. “It’s been a while … it’s hard to keep track.” That’s partly because of his condition, but he’s had a lot going on, too. There was that diabetic coma in 2005, the film The Devil and Daniel Johnston which won the Documentary Directing Award at Sundance in 2005 and is a popular DVD title. A Houston theater company produced Speeding Motorcycle, based on his songs. He’s been on The Henry Rollins Show, played the All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival last May and manages two short tours per year. Best of all, his family started a record label, Yip Eye Tunes, and is making his entire 23-album discography available for download—a boon for fans—and creating sharp collectible vinyl editions of his landmark albums Hi, How Are You and Yip Jump Music as well as releasing his first greatest hits comp, Welcome to My World. Johnston loves being busy.

“I have lots of things happenin’,” he enthuses. “It’s been quite a year for me with the movie out and everything. It’s pretty weird. It is.” Seeing himself in the film (“Oh, about 10 times”) was a kick, he says—even better when a video catalog came to his house and his film was “right there with Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson—there’s my movie.” The film is foremost in his mind, possibly because it’s something he’s always wanted. Other than that, he’s content to live in his own world and do his thing. He doesn’t even seem to understand the downloading aspect of Yip Eye Tunes, just that it’s out there and it’s a good thing, a way to put out more music.

“I’m planning some new albums. It takes a long time to get an album out sometimes, but you know. We’ve got a lot of material that we haven’t done yet. So it’s gonna last a few years.”

At least the tortured singer-songwriter understands that life is good, and it can get better. The once notorious junk food (and soda) junkie has lost weight—“I’ve been eatin’ pretty good”—and he’s even working to refine his hamfisted but serviceable guitar technique. “I’m tryin’ to practice more … teachin’ myself guitar lessons. Most of the songs I wrote before are all the easiest chords possible. Major and minor chords. I’m figurin’ out how to play some scales and stuff.”

And one day, he says, he might even get off a rippin’ solo.

“I’ve come up with a few in my life that I thought would be cool. There’s one recorded that I don’t think was ever released. … It was just a normal song that had a guitar break, a lead guitar solo that I made up. I’ll probably use that guitar solo on somethin’ new.”

DANIEL JOHNSTON w/ Band of Annuals @ In the Venue, 579 W. 200 South, Thursday April 3, 7 p.m.