Daniel Johnston: Travels with my father

The singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston was championed by Kurt Cobain for his dark lyricism. But Johnston's biggest fan now is his dad. Ben Thompson meets the odd couple

Friday 14 March 2003 01:00 GMT
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It's not every day that you get to encounter a legend in the flesh. On catching sight of the ursine form of Daniel Johnston as he ambles into Leicester Square, the feelings of those who claim to have glimpsed unicorns flitting through woodland glades are somehow easier to access. Johnston's songs of poetic desolation and unrequited love inhabit a universe so private and so magical that the idea of him interacting with the outside world in any way seems a strange one.

The fact that he has come straight here from Heathrow, after a 10-hour overnight flight from his home in Texas, is downright alarming. The flip side of Johnston's poignant music is a fragile mental equilibrium (he has been diagnosed as severely manic depressive, and is medicated accordingly) that can be alternately disturbed and restored by the pressures and excitements of periodic spells in the public eye. All of which raises some tricky ethical questions for those who love his music and want more people to know about it.

Ever since Nirvana's Kurt Cobain appeared at the 1992 MTV awards wearing a T-shirt featuring a drawing of a frog-like creature with eyes on stalks that adorned the cover of Johnston's 1983 cassette landmark Hi, How Are You? (eventually released on vinyl, then CD by Homestead), admirers of the Texan singer-songwriter have had to accept the potentially destructive effect that wider exposure might have on him.

Johnston doesn't make it any easier for them, either. On his compelling and beautiful new album Fear Yourself, he demands of putative fans in "Mountain Top", the third song: "Would you follow me anywhere?/ Are you entertained by deep despair?" As if to underline the ambivalence behind this enquiry, Fear Yourself – produced by a long-term fan, Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse – wraps up Johnston's unique and sometimes frightening gift in one of the most instantly accessible packages of his 20-year career.

Happily for anyone concerned about his ability to cope with the emotional demands of a promotional trip, Johnston does not travel alone. At his shoulder is the reassuring presence of his fundamentalist Christian father Bill. (If you didn't know that that was his name, the badge sewn on to his jacket would tell you.) A much-decorated Second World War fighter pilot, now in his late seventies, Bill uncomplainingly carries Daniel's guitar as the latter contemplates the delights of the Garfunkel's salad bar.

Things don't look too promising at first, in terms of the interview. Daniel is hungry after his flight, and it doesn't seem as if he's going to have much to say. Engaging Bill in conversation in the hope of breaking the ice causes problems of a different kind. It's not that he's hard of hearing (which he is), but once he starts talking – about flying his own plane to his annual squadron reunions, and the Gulf War exploits of the younger pilots he meets there – there seems to be no way of getting him to stop.

"My dad," Johnson grunts sardonically, "Captain America." Given that one of the most disturbing chapters in Johnstonian legend concerns the occasion when Bill was obliged to make an emergency landing of his Navion ex-army trainer aircraft after Daniel had tried to wrestle the controls from him in mid-air in the belief that he was that most all-American of superheroes, this seems rather an ominous opening gambit.

Yet it's in his ability to make a direct connection with his homeland's myths that Johnston's true significance as a songwriter resides. First for Cobain, then for many of the next generation of "alt.country" performers who stepped forward to fill the huge void left by Cobain's demise, Johnston's eerie, lovelorn music has acted as a bridge back in time, past punk-rock and beyond, to the heart of the American folk tradition.

Johnston's strange plaintive songs, sung straight into primitive domestic tape recorders with the clunk of a released pause button intrinsic to the texture, reconnected the American rock underground with the primal strangeness of what Greil Marcus has called "the old weird America". A tune like "Running Water" from Hi How Are You? (with its immortal lyric, "Running water, running water, where are you running from?") might have come from Harry Smith's Smithsonian Folkways anthology.

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Such an achievement is all the more remarkable coming as it does from someone whose personal tastes eschew the findings of intrepid musicologists in favour of The Carpenters and The Beatles. When the Fab Four are mentioned, the jet-lagged Johnston instantly perks up. "Ringo said in an interview once that The Beatles would take other people's chord charts and rearrange them to make new songs," he enthuses, "and I thought, 'That is cool,' so I started doing the same thing with The Beatles Complete Songbook. Of course, it wasn't the real chords from the records – it was written mostly in C – but they were such beautiful arrangements..."

It seems strangely appropriate that Johnston should find himself revered by a generation of cooler-than-thou alt.country mavericks with the same intensity that Ringo Starr inspires in him. Mark Linkous was already talking about his determination to work with him shortly after the release of Sparklehorse's 1996 debut album,Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, but the relationship goes back even further. "His mother knew my mother when they were growing up in Virginia," Johnston explains.

"We've known him for almost 20 years," adds Bill. "Mark's mother wrote to Daniel saying how much his songs had inspired him to go on with his career." Johnston junior gives Dad a sharp look, as if galled at the interruption. "He sent me an album and I really loved it," Daniel continues, "it was so professional. And he was on MTV and I wasn't, so I was really impressed by him."

Flown up to Linkous's studio in Virginia, Johnston laid down Fear Yourself's basic tracks in a week, singing and playing guitar and piano. In the weeks and months that followed, Linkous built up the layers of accompaniment, sending the recordings to a thrilled Johnston, who "couldn't believe how great they sounded". In his previous flirtation with the big time – 1994's Fun, recorded for the major label Atlantic by the Butthole Surfer Paul Leary – some of the magic was lost in translation. In this case, Linkous's opulent yet fractured soundscapes provide the perfect backdrop to Johnston's lovelorn lyricism.

As Johnston gets ready to leave for an early-morning radio session, his dad pulls out the small camera he received (along with the name-tagged jacket) as a retirement gift from his engineering job, and asks if he can take a photo of his son with an interviewer. There may be a greater honour to be conferred in music journalism, but I have yet to hear of it.

'Fear Yourself' is out on Sketchbook. More details on www.hihowareyou.com

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