“Mom! Can I have a drink first?” The voice on the other line, disarmingly soft and higher than expected, belongs to Daniel Johnston, the 48-year-old singer-songwriter from Waller, Texas, who rose to fame in 1992 when Kurt Cobain wore his T-shirt onstage at the MTV Music Awards. Over the course of his career, the prolific recluse — some 20 full-length albums reveal his inimitable take on heartbreak — has struggled with manic depression, which is painfully chronicled in the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston. It turns out that Johnston’s enduring love for comic books and illustration saved his life, kept him grounded. Poring over sketches that range from whimsical to explicit and debauched, he created worlds immune to the pressures of celebrity and target groups. This month, Rizzoli releases Daniel Johnston, the first collection of visual works from one of the most misunderstood and enigmatic musicians of our time. Here, comic book writer Harvey Pekar gives singer-songwriter and artist Daniel Johnston a call to discuss film, fame, and art in the age of primetime television.
Hey, Daniel. I don’t know if you remember me. I wrote the introduction to your new Rizzoli book. I have a bad memory, and I do so many interviews that I probably don’t. But hi, how are you?
I’m doing okay. One of the reasons they asked me to interview you was because, for many years, I’ve been putting out my own comic book. American Splendor, it’s called, and it’s been illustrated by [Robert] Crumb. I’ve been thinking about doing comic books. I haven’t seen your movie yet [American Splendor, 2005]. My brother tried to rent a copy of it, but he couldn’t find one.
It’s based on my comics. I write autobiographical stuff about, like, going down to the bakery to get a loaf of bread. Could you find a copy of the movie and send it to me?
Well, I’ll try. I only have one. Who should I send it to? Daniel Johnston. That’s me. I want to do a comic book with you. You’re going to send me that video of yours, and you want me to illustrate it, right?
No, you don’t have to illustrate anything for me. You should work on your own book, have it to yourself. I wanted to ask you how it feels when you write music. It’s really good therapy. Isn’t it good in that way for you?
It helps me get stuff off of my chest. Like when I used to have arguments with my supervisor at work, I’d write a story about it. Art is therapy itself. Expression is the funnest thing that I can think of. It saved my life. I was a terrible manic-depressive. When I’d have severe attacks of depression, I’d go to the library or the comic book shop, and I just loved it. And so, today, I’ll buy a bunch of comic books and eat them like candy.
I started putting out books in 1972. I’ve been doing this for a long time. But until the movie came out, I never got any recognition. I was on David Letterman’s show, though, and I caused quite a stir, because I got into a big, screaming argument with him a couple of times. Did they get it on camera? What were you arguing about?
Politics. He just wanted to have me on the show to make fun of me, because he thought I was some dumb worker from Cleveland. And I went along with it the first few times. But I thought, you know, I want to say my own things because my books aren’t selling as a result of being on here, so let me just do what I want to do. I don’t care if he never lets me on again. So I told him that General Electric, the company that owned his network, NBC, was crooked. But he didn’t want me to talk about that, so we just screamed at each other for five minutes. That is so hilarious! I used to watch Letterman every night for, like, three years. Everyone who was cool was on that show.
Do you think that you’ve gotten enough media support from papers and magazines? I’m doing a lot better now that I’m making a living, much better now that I’m not working at McDonald’s just trying to get by, which I did for about a year and a half, along with the oil refineries. It took a long time for me to get to the point where I could make a living working on my art, and it’s nice now to be able to sit around all day and do so. I just need to keep myself entertained and keep on keeping on. My writing is an absentminded, subconscious kind of thing. I’m lucky if I write a song a week, but I like to try every day. It’s always been that way.
I seem to remember reading that you like Crumb. What is it about his work? His sex stories are so hilarious; I couldn’t believe how funny they were! Some people say that they can see a little bit of Crumb in my work, but I don’t really do that much sex stuff. The way he would draw beautiful girls, their anatomy, really inspired me.
He proved that there are a lot of things you can do with comics other than superheroes and talking animals. Is Robert Crumb still alive?
He lives in France. You know what he’s doing right now? He’s working on a 200-page version of Genesis in the Bible. I can’t wait to see Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, find out what they get up to!
He’ll probably draw Eve as a plump girl. Hey, Daniel, do you consider yourselves to be famous? I must be kind of famous because I’m making enough money to pay for the groceries.