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There's no better illustration of the fine line between brilliance and madness than Daniel Johnston. Indeed, the childlike simplicity and directness of his lyrics suggests the two are inseparable at times. A talented cult fave who spent years and years listening to and dissecting the Beatles, Johnston has a gift for melody that even the rudimentary nature of his early-'80s lo-fi tape recordings can't hide. But it's the vulnerability and honesty of the lyrics that are most striking.
Johnston's songs are typically emotionally arrested — still trapped in the mind of a gawky, sentimental, daydreaming (and frequently lovelorn) youth. He's hoping for Leslie Gore's "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows," but in reality is facing his own "Tears Stupid Tears." In his most popular song, he suggests that "True Love Will Find You in the End" if only you keep looking. The temptation is to call him naive, but who wants to come across as jaded? (Indeed, such affectless sincerity is the very heart and soul of Hollywood rom-coms.)
Therein lies a substantial part of Johnston's appeal. He's the pie-eyed boy who wants to believe, and that unabashed earnestness is alluring. It's not that he's immune to cynicism, self-doubt, and self-loathing. But even on "I Hate Myself," he offers to "be right by your side if you want me to," prostrating himself without the embarrassment and abasement many of us would feel. It's quite similar to Jonathan Richman's oft-naifish manner, fueled by perky good spirits and hopefulness as a salve against looming disappointment, only more authentic. (Maybe.)
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There is no doubt that Johnston has a mental illness. During the '80s Johnston was institutionalized for beating his manager with a metal pipe while under the belief the manager was the devil. (The battle between good and evil is a recurrent theme in Johnston's music, dovetailing with his comic book fascinations Captain America and Casper the Friendly Ghost.)
In Johnston's most notorious story, his father, a WWII fighter pilot, was flying them to West Virginia in a private plane after a feted appearance during 1990's South by Southwest festival. The bipolar Johnston had a hypomanic episode and wrested control of the plane from his father. Claiming he was Casper (a comic he was reading at the time), he threw the key out the window. His father managed to crash-land the plane in a heavily wooded area, and they walked away unharmed. Johnston subsequently was institutionalized in Arkansas.
Some might hear about these episodes and his songs about fighting off aliens, "Walking the Cow," or his "Frankenstein Love" and come away with an impression of Rain Man with an acoustic guitar. Some of this may be by design. Filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig, who directed the 2006 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, says the songwriter exploits his illness — mythologizing it in the same way Creed's Scott Stapp did his time spent living in a car.
"Daniel is a very well read, a very bright guy, and I always tell people he's the smartest person in the room," Feuerzeig told Slant Magazine at the time. "But it serves his purpose to appear small."
Given the authenticity that Johnston's illness lends his nakedly fervent paeans, it's not surprising to hear it suggested Johnston may gild the lily sometimes. But that's beside the point. However he came to write songs like "The Monster Inside of Me," the song speaks for itself:
You know that I want you. You can see that I need you.
But you hate the monster. Well, honey, I do too.
Maybe if someone had said to Vincent Van Gogh, "Keep punching, Joe!" maybe he'd be here today.
Maybe girl, you could help me destroy the monster inside of me
And we could be happy. And we could be happy.
The wistful tone recalls the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice," but its style is pure Johnston, possessing a candor and forthrightness that enables it to speak for more than just itself, sort of like Springsteen for the heartfelt weirdoes inside us all.