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Daniel Johnston on Comic Books and the Devil
2004 Allen Mozek
Daniel Johnstonís music exists somewhere between coming home
from school to find a Captain America action figure on the kitchen counter
as a reward for getting one-hundred on a spelling test and coming home two
weeks later to discover that your older brotherís fed the toy to that
rottweiler kept behind a gnarled fence down by the dead end. Or maybe,
Daniel Johnston evokes the naÔve and the heart wrenching. He utilizes, not
as a premeditated decision but simply as the vocabulary at hand, the idioms
and emotions of childhood: Saturday afternoon cartoons, the backs of cereal
boxes, hot cocoa after sledding, and staunchly believing that the girl who
sits in the back row of your third grade class in front of the map of Europe
is the girl you are one day going to marry. Because you had a dream last
week where you kissed and it was nice.
He strives to be an artist equal to his influences, John Lennon
or comic book artist Jack Kirby. Despite recurring struggles with
depression, Johnston has prevailed, creating a body of work equal to his
idols. While he once walked the streets of Austin, TX, passing out demos
recorded on a boom box, a new double album can be found in Borders and
Barnes & Nobles everywhere, with one disc devoted to popular artists such as
Tom Waits, Beck, Bright Eyes and Calvin Johnson covering his songs.
Elsewhere, ĎThe Devil and Daniel Johnstoní a 2005 documentary about the man
can be seen in independent theaters everywhere. He is an innocent who has
not been spared disappointment, but what really matters and why Daniel
Johnston matters is because the reverse is also true. What follows is the
product of an interview conducted last April.
Edited by Allen Mozek
Comics on the school bus
My cat peed on my first comic book. Then I started to be known
for trading comic books in elementary school. I remember giving up free soda
for comic books. Kids wanted to trade comic books with me, but they would
get caught and I was funny. My bus driver used to go on and on about how I
traded comic books. He would drive and talk to me. He wouldnít even look at
the road. Turn, look, turn, turn. He would drive like in a video game. He
already knew the road. Itís crazy. Everybody brought comic books to school.
And then this one friend of mine from an orphanage, he kept giving me comic
books. I wondered why all the comics had a crease down the middle. Then, one
time we were downtown at noon, the time when you go downtown, and weíd go to
the drugstore where they sell comic books. We were watching him buy a piece
of candy, and Iíd look and his coat was open; there were about fifty comic
books in a crease in his coat. I couldnít believe it! Thatís how he got the
comic books and I couldnít believe it. I just wasnít going to go. He just
had a knack for taking comic books and then I realized he kept giving me
these stolen comic books. It seemed like a nightmare.
Jack Kirby is just my favorite artist because he has a form
down for drawing that is so dynamic. Not that I have it figured out, but I
like the style so much. I love Jack Kirbyís work. Heís my favorite comic
book artist. Itís like the same sort of thing with how I love the Beatles so
much, to the point that once I got into the Beatles there was nothing else,
just Beatles, Beatlesí solo albums, books about the Beatles; Beatles,
Beatles, Beatles. At the same time it was only Jack Kirby. Jack Kirby, the
greatest comic book artist of all time, nothing but Jack Kirby. And itís
still that way to a certain extent, but I wanted to branch out into other
artists and I tried. And I have forever always looked at all the other
artists who did the same sort of thing.
Jack Kirby had me, where was I going to go? When I hear
criticism from other people, I just think, ďWell, Iím sorry, you appreciate
other art.Ē Itís like someone insulting your grandma. Itís your grandma! ďI
love my grandma, why are you talking about my grandma?Ē You love everything,
and at the same time you realize certain eras of Jack Kirby arenít as
readable, great, super-great art. But you love somebody and then if you love
him a lot you collect all his work. There are certain areas, certain degrees
of their work where the art is questionable, or bootleg even, or there are
areas where things arenít quite up to par. So that sort of thing happens a
lot; the critics are always right, they think they have a right to say
ďWell, Na Na Na Na NaĒ or some kind of comment.
People who love an artist
are interested in adding to their collection, but quality control is a thing
you should be more careful of, I guess. It shouldnít stop anybody from
releasing something for people who are hungry for something when they just
love someone. When people love somebody, they just want to hear everything,
no matter what it is, just like an Elvis record or Iím scared to say, it
might even be myself to people. But Iím really trying to make my records
entertaining, really nice. I really am trying, but when I get up on the
stage, itís such a fluke that Iím really not ready. So, Iím extending myself
when Iím up there. Well, Iím messing up these words and everything, but
maybe itís the music Iím goofing up. The lyrics are there, but it really is
a torment to sing live without being prepared. When I hear great groups
playing live and theyíre rich, I think that theyíre ready to do it. Theyíre
rich. Theyíre ready. They might even be androids; preprogrammed, recorded
robots ready to perform, while the artists are back home picking their
noses. But Iím out there and Iím just not ready.
like a 99 cent bottle of pop
Yeah sometimes I feel unprepared for shows, but itís fun too.
Iíve been around the world so many times. Itís fun going on tour, and I am
touring, doing alright. But I know I could do better if I had money. But I
donít get the money; I donít get to keep it. My dad keeps it for me to save.
I just donít have the money. I just donít. I canít really behave like a rich
person. I canít get quality soda for myself even. Iím buying it at the
dollar store. Iím just feeling like a 99-cent bottle of pop through the
whole day. And I canít really get going and writing and feeling good, you
know? So, I think, I donít know how Iíll get out of it.
Love for sale/I live for love
In a certain sense, Iím richer than Iíve ever been, because I
sell a lot of my artwork. Iím able to buy supplies at said dollar stores and
I do well with certain products, even at real grocery stores, because I have
more money than ever. So Iím doing well, but Iím trying to keep up the
productivity. I have so many projects. I have over five albums already
written. Theyíre not recorded yet, though. Iíd say four and more in the
works. To be honest, thereís a possibility theyíll be very good albums. But
Iím not allowed to say too much about it. Itís involved with other people
who Iíve worked with or plan to work with. Iíve got one album in the can,
already finished. It should be released on Gannon Records, the follow-up to
ĎFear Yourselfí on Gannon and the next one also, produced by Brian Beattie
who I also worked with on ĎRejected Unknowní, and itís finished, and itís
called ĎLost and Foundí and itís really great produced. Really great rock ní
roll, itís hard, and lots of really great stuff, and itís going to be
released in the future. In the meantime we have a tribute album, which
Gammon put together with a lot of people doing my songs. I donít really know
who they are because Iím not really hip on these pop singers, but people
tell me they canít be beat, and MTV people, and it canít be beat.
and the Nightmares of Commerce
Iíve worked with Danny and the Nightmares and I still plan on doing that.
Itís five years down the line. And we plan to release more four-track albums
and things like that. And weíre still planning on making a really real, big
label album to this day. Weíve been together for five years and we have a
lot of fun, we have a lot of songs.
Itís fun to do a show and make a lot of money, so I can buy
stuff, and go shopping. So, Iím going to try and get a lot of stuff, because
when I go back the money goes to my dad to save it for me. So I donít have
any cash at all and I draw a bunch of drawings for the next time I make my
spending cash, so I can have some money to buy some cigarettes. My dad is
really brilliant at managing my money. I donít have big time money on my
hands. Iím not rich. Iím poor. Even though weíre supposed to be paid on some
of these shows, Iím not going to have it. I wish I did, if I could. I buy
the worst coke. Iíd buy the best drugs. Iíd really do something if I had the
money. Iíd be really happy. I would buy high-quality stuff. But things are
Writing songs and drawing pictures all involve the same process
for me. I just start drawing and it looks like something to me, like an arm.
I start drawing a nose and I try not to draw Satan because Iíve drawn him so
many times. And every time I draw Satan, I make sure I chop off his head.
For a long time, for some reason Satan would come to mind in my head. I
really am against him. That kind of thing I thought about, good versus evil,
things like that. Iím thinking of trying to be a good person myself.
Writing a song and drawing a picture are the same kind of thing,
except I donít really think about Satan when I play, I just plop. Satan
probably materializes more in the drawings. It doesnít really happen in the
music for some reason. But, things just happen, the pen and paper. You get
the pen, you get the paper, make a line, what are you going to draw next?
I donít think Satanís as much responsible for todayís inkblot
as people would say so. When your own mind decides what your imagination
interprets, you have your own mind, your own decisions. You must realize
people make decisions more in art and that Satan likes to confuse. People
make up their own minds, and Satan likes to confuse. I think thatís what he
does and what he likes. He likes to confuse. People make up their own minds.
As far as art goes, itís more the will of good that makes up the minds than
evil does. Evil likes to confuse. Satan is decapitated in his art. Thatís
all I can do. I hope that everything turns out alright.
I try to be optimistic. Itís the best I can do, rather than
being down in the dumps. I mean, because if you start drawing something
Satanic, or something evil, evil, evil, then youíre going to die. Have you
ever known someone who died from something like that? Ever heard of anyone