Remembering Daniel Johnston
I had the privilege of covering one of Daniel Johnston‘s songs for the compilation The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered. We recorded as the band Thistle LLC, I sang (as Speedie), it was produced by the wonderful Jerry Harrison and rad Matt Cohen on bass, engineer Geoff Knoop (Astor) on guitar, Karl Derfler engineer & legendary Prairie Prince (who already had his own Mountain Man Toothpick from TX) on drums at Sausalito Sound. We worked to make the song something I could sing, I had to climb inside Johnston, then make his song an expression that was true for me. I was later told he said that our cover of his song Love Not Dead was his favorite. Little did I know that, years later, I’d end up working with Jeff Feuerzeig, the same filmmaker who created the phenomenal documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston.” Because of the compassionate way he had handled mental illness and its impact on Daniel as an artist (and vice-versa), I trusted Jeff to make Author: The JT LeRoy Story and turned over all my archives so he could make a documentary about me.
I have felt a kinship with Daniel, I know what it is like to feel that creating is the way to make sense of reality. One commonality Daniel and I shared – which almost no one caught – was that Daniel recorded his conversations, and so did I. Sensing that you might have a tenuous hold on reality is like being given a broken compass, you cannot identify what is true north. The part that is still grounded, or “sane,” needs to have an accurate record of what IS. Daniel taped his family in conversations, he taped phone calls – and I did the same thing. I did it as a kid, in a fight with my mom – I needed to hold on to which way up was, it would sometimes change. But it was also to hold on to Story. My mom had a tape recorder and she’d set me up to sing my songs. I could hear myself tell stories and create characters. Later, with her encouragement, I was documenting others and taping interviews, which also allowed me to escape into another reality.
I do not record calls any more. It’s funny, sometimes someone will say to me during a phone conversation, I hope yer not taping this, and my reaction is, You should be so lucky to become part of my archive…. But yeah Radio Shack is gone, and so is my drive to document and escape into other worlds – just like I do not call hotlines as a boy. My compass works, for the most part now.
I don’t know if Daniel’s did. For me, working with Jeff Feuerzeig was very healing, it integrated all the parts that I had kept frozen and disassociated. Writing again, which his film made possible for me, effected the greatest healing for me. I know that, after Devil, the public gained a new awareness of Daniel, a deeper appreciation and understanding of his work. He was able to go around the world and perform. I have no doubt that’s what prolonged his life: being able to share his work.
That’s what Author: The JT LeRoy Story did for me as well. My books were re-released under MY NAME, and I have been able to go around the world and be present with people and talk as honestly as I can about mental illness, trauma, sexual abuse, complex PTSD, and the creative ways we find to survive.
I feel like I lost a shadow self with Daniel’s passing. Our diagnoses might be very different, but we are compatriots. Daniel was five years older than I am. Surviving with metal illness seriously impacts one’s life span. That’s why it is critical for us to move past the stigma of mental illness and the criminalization of the mentally ill. As we know, that was the preferred treatment of artists, locking them up, because our “distorted” way of seeing and representing the world is the most honest and can be spooky to behold.
Here is the link to me singing Daniel Johnston‘s Love Not Dead. https://open.spotify.