Casper the Friendly Ghost was at a wishing well, and then he fell in,” says Daniel Johnston over the phone in the halted voice of a wide-eyed child. “When I was a kid I always wondered how he died so I came up with that.” Elements of cartoons, youth, and death are an irresistible mix for Johnston, who felt such an affinity for the comic book character that he had to construct a past for him. But once you get to know Johnston or his music — which, at risk of sounding clichéd, are literally one in the same — it is no big surprise that he has been preoccupied with Casper the Friendly Ghost for most of the 41 years of his life, drawing pictures of him along with Captain America, frogs, King Kong, flying eyeballs, ducks, and space aliens. He is forever trapped in adolescence, just like Casper, living with his parents and spending all his money on comic books. He fears that he will repel people, just like Casper, always anticipating rejection yet pushing forth with hopeful resolve. He is sweet and playful, and he just wants to be understood.
Daniel Johnston’s wild ride began in the early ’80s, when he started dubbing tapes of his “DIY” music, consisting of little more than his high-pitched and awkward voice and a piano. This was also when his illness really began to manifest and have profound effects on his life and work — Johnston is a severe manic-depressive. It’s hard to tell where he starts and the illness stops; is his music a result of his ailment, or does it actually impede “what could have been”? Like many people who choose the path of the musician, Johnston doesn’t want to work at a regular job, preferring to sit around listening to music, drawing, smoking, and singing. Is he a typical slacker who just needs a big break, or is the illness impeding his motivation? Then there is the scariest question, the one that no one wants to ask: Is he any good? Or is he merely a curiosity? Johnston has a small cache of chords that he works with; his songs tend to stick to the same themes (funerals, heartbreak, and giddy love). Then there’s his phrasing, which is less than Sinatra-esque. But beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. His optimistic yet somber version of “I Saw Her Standing There” will leave you teary-eyed and changed. His stuff is so raw, his songs are so guileless and vulnerable, that yes, he is fantastic. For some, he is even a genius.
Johnston’s latest release, Rejected Unknown, comes out this week, and it is the best thing he’s done since those early homemade tapes. This time, other instrumentation is added besides his own guitar and piano — including drums and horns — but unlike his earlier attempts at more “produced” music, this one retains his eccentricity and eerie grace. On it, of course, are songs about funerals. At first listen, it sounds as if he is just being offbeat and strange, with lyrics like “I knew a girl at the funeral/ She said she was dead,” but the words are in fact based in some reality. The songs are about his great unrequited love, Laurie, whom he met in art school at Kent State.
“When I was going to college,” he says with a slight Southern accent, which reflects his West Virginia upbringing, “I met this girl. She just walked into the room of this class that I was taking, and I just fell for her right away… she was so kind and everything. And she thought I was really funny, she’d laugh at all my jokes and stuff. We really did get along really well, but she already was dating this undertaker guy, and so it was kind of a tragic love affair.” The irony of Johnston falling in love with a woman who was betrothed to a mortician is almost too perfect, but served as a starting point for his tape-making. “I started writing a lot,” he says, “because of her. She said she really liked the songs and stuff. And that really encouraged me, and I was writing all the time because of it. I started making tapes for all of my friends, and they started making me feel like I was a celebrity.”
From there Johnston eventually went to Austin, where he distributed his tapes to passersby and pretty girls on the street. If he ran out of tapes and someone wanted one, he would simply turn on a recorder, redo the whole thing from top to bottom, then hand over the tape to the person who requested it. He was soon featured on an MTV special, and thus began the cult of Daniel Johnston. His career has jumped all over the place, with a major label deal on Atlantic (with the disappointing album Fun), releases through Homestead and Which? Records, and deals that fell through with Elektra and Sonic Youth’s label Blast First — largely due to not taking his meds, though the reason he gives is a sad, Casper the Friendly Ghost outlook: “[They rejected me] because they met me.” He has worked with Jad Fair from 1/2 Japanese, Sonic Youth, the Butthole Surfers, and most recently Sparklehorse. Kurt Cobain is famously photographed wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Johnston’s drawing of a space alien and the phrase “Hi, How Are You.” He is Matt Groening’s favorite musician.
The times when he has gone off to live on his own and pursue his music, he soon abandons his medication and ends up either on the street or in a hospital. Now he lives with his folks, old-fashioned Christian people who somehow got blessed with an “outsider music” darling of the underground. Johnston’s dad is a retired WWII vet and his mom, Mabel, can be heard on his early tapes yelling at him in the background (“You’ll never amount to anything! You’re lazy! You have no shame!”). To be fair, it seems that perhaps at that point his parents didn’t know he was ill; he was formally diagnosed later in life. These days his parents seem to do a good job of encouraging him and making sure he takes his meds. His father even escorts him on his tours.
“I’ve made some friends in town!” says Johnston excitedly, as he says most things, like a kid describing his Christmas presents. “We get together and jam, I’ll send you the tape.” The group, dubbed Danny and Nightmares, is more rockin’ than his other stuff, but still darn cute. “We get high and play music,” he adds laughing, with pride. “Don’t tell my dad!”
Various people come into town to visit him as well, old friends and musicians. This could well be the beginning of the richest part of his life, at least musically. But still he pines for Laurie, and the as yet unmet fame that he feels will not only get him the girl, but also enough money to buy a house, a car, and all the comics and Beatles bootlegs he could ever want. “I just want to be professional enough some day to be a superstar,” he says. “I think Rejected Unknown sounded good enough to be a professional. I think that in the future, that I will be able to sound even better; that’s my hopes, that’s my dreams.”
He talks to Laurie sporadically on the phone. She divorced the undertaker a few years ago. “I talked to her last year,” says Johnston. “I just decided that I should stop calling her. I thought, well, I’ll wait and call her again when I’m a superstar. You know, when I’m really rich. She’s rich and I’m not. So, I thought, I’ll wait and call her again when I’m rich. Then I can call her and say, ‘Hi there…'”
“Can I take you on a limo ride?”
“Right!” he laughs, though the whole conversation has twinge of sadness in it. “I’m famous to a certain extent,” he adds, “but it is in the underground. It is still not the mainstream. But I make enough money from art shows, playing out, and publishing [rights] to get by” (his songs have been recorded for Target commercials, My So-Called Life, and the movie Kids).
The new release of his album will coincide with a small tour (with his dad, of course) and hopefully more opportunities to grow and collaborate with other musicians — though he has a fantasy about that, and it has to do with his album’s title, Rejected Unknown. “There was a song called ‘Rejected’ that we were working on with producer Brian Beattie for the recording sessions,” he says. “Then there was a song that I’d done for a session with Atlantic, called ‘Unknown.’ It was a fantasy of a recording session where everyone would die. [laughs nervously] I was just kidding myself, you know. As soon as you sang, you would die, and everyone would take turns singing and dying. I was just thinking it to myself as a joke; I wish it would never happen of course,” he says sincerely. He really is a mix of happy-go-lucky and abject pain it seems, though these days he really is doing better. “I try to keep busy,” he says. “I keep writing, I keep drawing, I have a lot of art shows. I get enough money to buy as many comic books as I want. And I keep buying as many records as I want. So I’m happy,” he says decidedly. “I really am.”