DANIEL JOHNSTON with MAYOR McCA at the Mod Club (722 College), Sunday (May 6), 7 pm. Sold out. 416-588-4663. Rating: NNNNN
Archetypal do-it-yourselfer Daniel Johnston may be the perfect choice to headline the Over The Top Festival's four-night celebration of independent culture, but the troubled singer/songwriter genius who's been called the Brian Wilson of indie rock is currently preoccupied with another important event.
When I reach him in Waller, Texas, where he lives with his parents, who help him cope with his bipolar disorder, the high-spirited Johnston can barely contain his delight. Before I even finish asking what's been happening in his life, he hits me with the good news.
"Yesterday I got word that I'm going to be on MTV on May 7th," he roars, laughing with the giddy thrill of someone who's just won a lottery. "It's going to be a live show, or maybe they'll pre-record it - I don't know, but this is the biggest break of my life, so I'm really excited."
In preparation for his upcoming television appearance, Johnston's been working on some new material that he may debut at his Mod Club show the night before. He's also been honing his guitar chops.
"I have a whole bunch of new songs I can play. There are tons of 'em that I haven't recorded yet. One's titled Mean Girls Give Pleasure, and another one's called There Is A Sense Of Humour Way Beyond Friendship... and some weird ones, too. I'd say I've got at least five albums' worth!
"I've been trying to learn how to really play the guitar, too. Years ago, I taught myself how to play piano pretty good, so I got some instructional DVDs to see if I can learn some more notes and chords to be able to play guitar just as good."
Part of the man's MTV-related excitement has to do with the fact that back in 1985 it was his unlikely appearance on an MTV scene report on Austin hosted by the Fleshtones' Peter Zaremba that first brought international attention to Johnston's knack for coming up with deceptively simple tunes that carry profound messages. The brief cable TV segment instantly turned Johnston into an Austin celebrity and helped jump-start the music career of the then 24-year-old tunesmith, who was trying to earn a living cleaning tables and sweeping floors at the Dobie Mall McDonald's at the time.
The whole unlikely sequence of events can be seen as it unfolds in Jeff Feuerzeig's critically acclaimed rockumentary The Devil And Daniel Johnston (Sony Pictures, now available as a DVD with fabulous bonus footage), which benefits greatly from Johnston's diligence in documenting each stage of his strange life story with songs, taped conversations, photographs, drawings, paintings and even homemade films.
In fact, Johnston's own multimedia record of his experiences was so deep, Feuerzeig basically just had to shoot a few interviews and put the pieces together to take the 2005 Directors Award at Sundance.
"When I was a kid, I bought myself a Super-8 camera and projector with the money I saved up from mowing lawns," Johnston explains. "I'd make my own little movies and watch them in my room and just laugh and laugh for hours. The silent films of Charlie Chaplin were inspiring, but probably what influenced me the most were monster movies like Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, Dracula, King Kong and The Creature From The Black Lagoon. I identified with the monsters. It's hard for me to say why... I guess I just saw a lot of myself in them."
Some might go to the film expecting to see the story of a mentally unstable songwriter, but what you discover is a uniquely gifted and highly motivated artist who excels at any creative endeavour to which he applies himself. Today, Johnston's becoming just as well known for his colour marker drawings as for his music. Recently, Tarssa Yazdani and Don Goede updated their illustrated Johnston biography, Hi, How Are You? from 1999 with a greatly expanded 244-page edition, The Life, Art & Music Of Daniel Johnston (Last Gasp), which is available, along with original artwork, from his website (www.hihowareyou.com).
Johnston claims there could also be another film on the way.
"The guys who made the documentary say they want to do another movie with me, but this one would be more of a comedy with music and stuff. I'd like to have a variety of things like music videos, short comedy sketches, animated cartoons and some of the films I've shot that have never been shown.
"At least," he adds, "that's what I'm thinking about in my spare time."
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Daniel Johnston recalls the first time he heard someone covering one of his songs
Johnston explains how a McDonald's employee like himself got on to MTV back in 1985