When Nick Cave descends on the Massey Theatre in New Westminster next week as part of his Conversations With… tour, odds are good he’ll take a moment to pay tribute to a true American original. Recent shows have had the Australian-born icon performing “Devil Town” by the late Daniel Johnston.
Do a Google search and prepare to be moved. Cave isn’t the first person to cover “Devil Town”, a track featured on Johnston’s cleverly titled 1990 album 1990. Artists who’ve paid tribute to the song include respected, indie-spawned heavyweights like Bright Eyes, the National, and Beck. Cave’s live readings have had him keeping to the spirit of the original by stepping away from the piano and performing a cappella.
It’s powerful stuff—gothic and God-fearing, like something you might be lucky enough to hear at Sunday church service deep in the American South. And it’s a beautiful affirmation that Johnston, for all the problems that plagued him throughout his life, is now revered for all the right reasons.
That wasn’t always the case.
The genius of Johnston sometimes got overlooked, right up to his heart attack at the age of 58 this past September 11. For that you can thank, or blame, if you prefer, his back story.
Mental illness comes in many forms, and for Johnston it included schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. To get a sense of how bad things got at times, watch the absolutely essential 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
The film paints a rich, warts-and-all portrait of a man who had been fixated on art of all types as a kid, and increasingly obsessed with demons—real and perceived—as he transitioned into adulthood.
Prodigiously talented as both a songwriter and a visual artist, Johnston was initially one of those people described as a bit off by those around him. For many original fans, that was part of the attraction. It was a way to make sense of the singer working triple shifts at McDonald’s as a young adult to pay for the endless cassette copies of his recorded work that he’d pass out to strangers. And it was a prism through which to embrace live performances that were often anything but traditional and linear.
When he started playing around Austin, Texas, accompanying himself on rudimentary guitar, Johnson was out-there enough to warrant coverage by then major influencers like MTV. As time went on, those quirks became a curse instead of a selling point.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston has him fighting on the street with the confused fanboys in Sonic Youth, raving about the power of Jesus while on-stage at industry showcases, and generally giving every indication that something isn’t right.
Eventually it gets surreal. Johnston’s father—a licensed pilot—recalls the time his son started thinking that he was Casper the Friendly Ghost. The problem was that the two were up in the air in a two-seater when Johnston grabbed the keys of the plane’s ignition and threw them out the window. Speaking volumes about his grasp on reality at the time, the documentary makes it clear he was proud of what he’d done after both survived the plane crash.
Friends recall Johnston pulling into a small New Jersey town on a Greyhound, disembarking, and then promptly attracting the attention of an elderly woman after kicking over a bunch of garbage cans. When she called him out from the upper-story window of her walkup, the singer became convinced that she was possessed by the devil.
And like any good community exorcist, he broke into the building, ran up the stairs, and busted into her apartment. Sensibly, she jumped out the window and fractured her legs. Horrific as this sounds, it’s also blackly hilarious—even with the footnote that Johnston subsequently landed in a mental institution where he was obsessed with becoming a spokesman for Mountain Dew.
It’s because of such stories that Johnston’s legacy is a complicated one. After writing an obit on his death, I got a message from a friend who wondered if people liked Daniel Johnston for the wrong reasons.
She was first turned on to the singer by boosters like Kurt Cobain, who practically lived in a Daniel Johnston “Hi, How Are You” T-shirt after Nirvana became the biggest band on the planet.
Her comment on Johnston’s legacy was this: “I feel so bad for this man and his family. From watching that doc about him I felt complicit in making him a hero and he was a mentally ill man who I don’t think would be treated the same way today.”
That’s an interesting read, and a valid one. After all, no one went to shows by the late Wesley Willis to sing along to “Rock N Roll McDonald’s”—they went because, back in the ’90s, irony was king. And if being ironic meant pretending to love someone clearly suffering from mental problems, then so be it.
But after becoming one of those people you were supposed to embrace back in the glory years of unrepentant freaks like the Jesus Lizard and Butthole Surfers, something beautiful happened to Johnston.
Thanks to the use of his gorgeously melancholy “The Story of an Artist” in a 2018 Apple commercial, a whole new generation was turned on to the singer via the magic of Shazam.
To those who headed down the rabbit hole, there was a whole beautiful lo-fi world to discover—one where the works of Daniel Johnston were judged solely on their artistic merit.
To be intrigued by “The Story of an Artist” was to discover the unvarnished and artistically pure genius of songs that should be revered as modern-day classics. If you don’t know them, you won’t find more perfect mixtape-worthy marvels than “Life in Vain”, “Mind Movies”, “Crazy Love”, and “True Love Will Find You in the End”.
Johnston might have been pre-Internet famous for his quirks. Thanks to the efforts of fans like Beck and Bright Eyes, as well as the Flaming Lips, Tom Waits, Death Cab for Cutie, TV on the Radio, and too many others to list here, he’s now being celebrated for one reason, and one reason only: his body of songs.
Get ready to cry when Nick Cave, if we’re lucky, takes us to Johnston’s “Devil Town” in New Westminster next Thursday (October 10). He clearly understand that sometimes the worth of a man is measured by more than the tragic stories he left behind. g