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Daniel Johnston, Back on the Road, Hopes This Isn’t the End

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, Mr. Johnston had a psychotic episode and caused the plane to crash land. Amazingly, he and his father survived, largely unharmed. At several points, Mr. Johnston’s psychiatric treatment has required extended stays at inpatient facilities, and although he now lives with some degree of independence, he requires considerable assistance.

On the day I visited him, he and his family had suffered a new blow: Only hours earlier, Mr. Johnston’s father, who lived next door, had died. He was 94 and in poor health; when I arrived, the sheets and blankets were still on the bed in the father’s living room where he died.

It wasn’t clear how well Mr. Johnston was absorbing the loss. He was extremely subdued and withdrawn, but Dick admitted this is not unusual. When I walked into his house, Mr. Johnston was at a table in a black hooded sweatshirt, chain-smoking and listening to the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” on a small record player. “They remastered the original and, boy, does it sound great,” he said. 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.”

Photo

Mr. Johnston spends his days at his home in Texas, writing music, drawing, smoking cigarettes and drinking sugary drinks.

Credit
Bryan Schutmaat for The New York Times

Mr. 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 other collectibles. Above Mr. Johnston’s bed are dozens of photos of naked women, clipped from magazines. He passes his days here 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 copious amounts of sugary drinks.

Mr. 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,” said Dick. Mr. Johnston was out of breath and a little wobbly from a short walk in his backyard the afternoon I visited. When asked 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,’” said Dick. “That’s kind of what happened this time.”

If nothing else, the artists Mr. 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. “Daniel has managed to create in spite of his mental illness, not because of it. He’s been honest in his portrayal of what he’s been struggling with without overtly drawing attention to it.”

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Kurt Cobain, center, wore a Daniel Johnston T-shirt to the MTV Video Music Awards in 1992.

Credit
Kevin Mazur Archive/WireImage, via Getty Images

Doug Martsch of Built to Spill, who will be playing multiple shows in the northwest, said learning Mr. 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.

Mr. Johnston’s backing bands, who were arranged by the tour’s booking agent, will choose their own set lists of Mr. Johnston’s songs. In most cases, Mr. Johnston doesn’t know the musicians personally and isn’t familiar with their music. Dick will prepare a binder of lyrics for him based on each set list, but Mr. 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,” said Mr. Martsch. “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’s not clear the musicians involved understand Mr. Johnston’s current level of impairment, which appears more pronounced than it had been in the past, but Dick has confidence his brother “will rise to the occasion.” Whether this will in fact be Mr. Johnston’s final tour depends on how it goes. “This could be,” said Dick, “but it doesn’t have to.”

Mr. Johnston, for his part, seems most comfortable at home, writing and drawing. Dick estimated that he has around 1,500 unreleased tapes of his brother’s songs, though he hasn’t come close to listening to them all. Mr. 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 Mr. Johnston in the past.

Mr. 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.”

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