Enigmatic singer Daniel Johnston to tour again, despite the odds

Daniel Johnston, a singer-songwriter, at home in Waller, Texas, on Sept 26, 2017.
Daniel Johnston, a singer-songwriter, at home in Waller, Texas, on Sept 26, 2017. PHOTO: NYTIMES

TEXAS (NYTIMES) - In late July, when dates were announced for a series of concerts featuring the enigmatic singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston performing with members of bands including Wilco, Built to Spill and Fugazi as part of his rotating cast of backing musicians, the shows were billed as Johnston's final tour. But sitting in his home on a rural cul-de-sac in this farming community 45 miles from Houston on Monday, Johnston seemed surprised at this news.

"Why would it be?" he asked, between drags on a Marlboro and ravenous gulps of orange drink from a large plastic cup.

Johnston is only 56, but the idea of him quitting the road is not unreasonable. He has battled manic depression and schizophrenia most of his adult life, and in recent years endured physical ailments, including diabetes, a kidney infection and hydrocephalus, a condition in which fluid on his brain caused him to frequently lose his balance. In the last year, his mental health also worsened.

"We had to call the police twice in the last three months and forcibly take him into a clinic to adjust his medications," said his older brother, Dick, a genial former computer consultant who also manages Johnston's career. "He's doing pretty good now," Dick added.

Daniel Johnston emerged as a songwriting savant from Austin's proudly left-field music scene in the 1980s. His early cassettes, decorated with his warm, cartoonish drawings, overflowed with winsome, guileless pop songs recorded on a boombox. Taking cues from the Beatles and Bob Dylan, his songs narrated with precision and humour Johnston's shaky path through the world, documenting his struggles with his own sanity and his dogged pursuit of love.

The sheer volume of his work suggested a mania or compulsion, but he harboured ambitions for mainstream success. He talked his way onto MTV in 1985 and revelled in the praise of famous fans like Sonic Youth and Kurt Cobain. But a brief stint on a major label notwithstanding, Johnston's high-pitched, off-kilter singing voice, uncomfortably intimate lyrics and erratic behaviour fated him to be alternative rock's eccentric mascot, not its shining star.

On a trip to New York in 1988, he assaulted the Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, landed in Bellevue Hospital Center and upon his release went straight to the punk dive CBGB to perform. Two years later, while his father, Bill, was flying him from Austin to West Virginia in a private plane, Johnston had a psychotic episode and caused the plane to crash land. Amazingly, he and his father survived, largely unharmed. At several points, Johnston's psychiatric treatment has required extended stays at inpatient facilities, and although he now lives with some independence, he requires considerable assistance.

On the day I visited, he and his family had suffered a new blow: Only hours earlier, Bill Johnston, who was 94 and lived next door, died. It was not clear how Daniel Johnston was absorbing the loss. He was extremely subdued and withdrawn, but Dick Johnston admitted this is not unusual.

When I walked into his house, Daniel Johnston was at a table in a black hooded sweatshirt, chain-smoking and listening to the Beatles' Abbey Road. Arrayed in front of him were two Kool-Aid Jammers juice pouches, several packs of cigarettes, a Coke can, a nearly empty gallon jug of orange drink, a television, a drawing pad, a notebook and a thick blue Bible. He said little about his father's death beyond murmuring, "We'll be all right."

Johnston's house is a shrine to his enthusiasms. The walls are lined with comic books, album covers, posters and shelves of movies and music, most on VHS tapes and vinyl. The kitchen cabinets are jammed with action figures and collectables. Above Johnston's bed are dozens of photos of naked women, clipped from magazines.

He passes his days living both an indulgently creative existence and a surreal arrested adolescence. He writes songs and draws nearly every day - his visual art has been featured in multiple galleries including a show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2006 - often while watching movies, listening to music, smoking cigarettes, eating and drinking sugary drinks.

Johnston's physical health is improved: His hydrocephalus has been treated with a surgically implanted tube, he's lost weight and is no longer diabetic. Whether he's ready for this tour, which begins on Thursday in New Orleans and continues through mid-November, is less certain.

"I'm concerned about his physical stamina because he's been doing nothing for the longest time," Dick Johnston said.

When I asked Daniel Johnston if he was excited about touring, he answered with a long, drawn-out, "Ehh," before adding, "a little bit." His brother conceded that the tour was his idea, not Daniel's, but said it was their father, who was Daniel's manager between 1997 and 2001, who had told him to take the initiative - Daniel would eventually warm to it. "If you ask him, he'll say: 'Ehh. I'm just going to stay home,'" Dick said. "That's kind of what happened this time."

If nothing else, the artists Daniel Johnston is scheduled to perform with are excited. "I owe Daniel a lot as an inspiration to me," said the Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, who will lead a backing band for two shows in Chicago. "He's been honest in his portrayal of what he's been struggling with without overtly drawing attention to it." Doug Martsch of Built to Spill, who will be playing multiple shows in the Northwest, said learning Johnston's songs has been a lesson in the value of simplicity. "The amazing thing is half these songs are the same three chords," he said.

Johnston's backing bands, arranged by the tour's booking agent, will choose their own set lists of Johnston's songs. In most cases, Johnston does not know the musicians personally. Dick Johnston will prepare a binder of lyrics based on each set list for them, but Daniel Johnston is unlikely to be in contact before the day of their first show together.

"That's the plan, which I'm not psyched about," Martsch said. "We like to rehearse like crazy. We don't believe there's any magic in music. It takes hard work and practice. It doesn't look like we're going to get much of that, so we're going to have to hope for the magic."

It is not clear the musicians involved understand Daniel Johnston's current level of impairment, which appears more pronounced than it had been in the past, but Dick Johnston has confidence his brother "will rise to the occasion." Whether this will in fact be Johnston's final tour depends on how it goes. "This could be," Dick Johnston said, "but it doesn't have to."

Daniel Johnston, for his part, seems most comfortable at home, writing and drawing. Dick Johnston estimated that he has around 1,500 unreleased tapes of his brother's songs, though he has not come close to listening to them all. Daniel Johnston's most recent sessions spawned four albums worth of material, though the next release is likely to be drawn from older recordings being pieced together by the producer Brian Beattie, who has worked with Johnston in the past.

Daniel Johnston occasionally shows flashes of the ambition of his younger years - "Hopefully, I could have a big hit someday, a real hit," he said - but mostly his nonstop creative regimen seems compelled by deeper impulses.

"I can't stop writing," he said. "If I did stop, there could be nothing. Maybe everything would stop. So I won't stop. I've got to keep it going."