Senior editor Michael Hall on musician Daniel Johnston and writing about mental illness.
Michael Hall first became acquainted with Daniel Johnston when the musicians played together during the Austin indie scene of the eighties. Nearly twenty years later, Johnston is at the cusp of a second wind of fame. Hall, now a Texas Monthly senior editor, revisits the life and music of the rocker in this month’s feature, “He’s Daniel Johnston, and He Was Gonna be Famous,” displaying the delicate balance of brilliance and madness that is Daniel Johnston. Here, Hall expands on his favorite Johnston songs, meeting the rock legend’s parents, and writing about mental illness with sensitivity.
texasmonthly.com: How much time did you spend with Daniel Johnston and his family working on this assignment?
Michael Hall: I went out there twice and each day spent the whole day. Later I did several follow-up interviews with Daniel and his father.
texasmonthly.com: As a musician, do you think you were able to relate to Johnston in a way that other writers could not? Did this common bond help to get him to open up to you?
MH: I think I understand the songwriting process a little better, so maybe I could relate that to the reader better. I don’t know if it helped him open up to me; I guess it did, though that’s probably more a function of our playing the same club together twenty years ago—it was a unique time in both of our lives. But there’s only so far Daniel is going to open up to anyone.
texasmonthly.com: For those unfamiliar with Johnston’s music, describe it in five words or less.
MH: Broken wheel on a bicycle.
texasmonthly.com: What is your favorite Johnston song? Who do you think does the best Johnston cover? Why?
MH: My favorite is “Walking the Cow,” because of the way the chorus melody goes and the way he sings it, and of course, the words. Even though he explained them to me, I still don’t really know what’s going on. The best songs, to me, get to some emotional place without using words to point that place out. Maybe it’s in the melody, maybe it’s in the words, but the songwriter gets to that emotion. Daniel does that in this song.
The best cover is probably Kathy McCarty’s version of “Living Life,” which just nails the hope and despair in that song—and it’s beautifully played and sung too.
texasmonthly.com: It seems that Johnston never doubted he was going to be famous. Do you think Johnston made his fame, was destined to be famous, or just got lucky?
MH: I do think Daniel is famous—certainly more famous than anyone else from Austin from that time. If anything, he’s been unlucky—though he’s made a lot of his own bad luck.
texasmonthly.com: With a recently released tribute album, a documentary covering his life, and a rock opera based on his songs, Johnston has become a sort of indie rock darling. What is it about Johnston and his music that captured the attention of everyone from fans to movie producers to musicians such as Kurt Cobain and Sonic Youth?
MH: I think some of it is that a lot of those rock stars were outsiders when they were kids, and Daniel makes the loneliness of outsiderdom real and sympathetic. His music has a real edge to it. It’s pure emotion, pure experience—and those are values that artists in the indie community value.
texasmonthly.com: Was this the first time you met his parents? What was the most surprising thing about them?
MH: Yes. I guess I expected them to be a little distant and suspicious, maybe because I’d read that they were religious fundamentalists. But that was a prejudice on my part. They are open and friendly. I like them a lot, and I respect them a lot for how they have stood by their son and literally kept him alive and as well as he can be.
texasmonthly.com: Mental illness can be a delicate thing to write about. How did you approach that aspect of the story? Was it hard to get Johnston and his family to open up about Johnston’s manic depression?
MH: I didn’t want to write about his mental illness in a way that made it seem like he was a case study. Yes, he’s mentally ill, but he’s also a great artist and songwriter, an odd entertainer, a maddening son, an old friend. The illness is as much a part of him as everything else. When I did bring it up, Daniel and his parents and his brother were very open about it. I thought Daniel would be wary about talking about it, but to him it is just a chemical imbalance, and it’s being managed with chemicals. I think his parents see it as a tougher job, but they were open about it too. No one feels any shame about his disease.