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From the archive: Having fun yet? Great enthusiasm greets Daniel Johnston's first CD

Don McLeese
An exultant Daniel Johnston, left, takes the stage for his performance at the Electric Lounge Wednesday backed by bassist Brian Beattie in 1998. [Kevin Virobik-Adams for AAS]

This story was originally published on Aug. 25, 1994.

When Daniel Johnston completed his Fun album a couple of months ago, Atlantic Records was ecstatic. Yves Beauvais, who had signed Daniel to the label and shepherded him through the recording process, thought it was a brilliant showcasing of "one of America's foremost songwriters of our time."

 Everyone for whom he played the tape seemed to agree with the assessment, as Daniel's appeal cut across the usual divisions of taste and category. Hipper-than-thou alternative types were drawn to his emotional honesty and playful imagination, and so were those who usually favor more conventionally sensitive singer-songwriters. Even the metal-heads at the label dug Daniel.

 In fact, there was only one person who didn't initially seem to much like the album, and that was Daniel Johnston. Daniel hated it so much he didn't want it released.

This came as a great surprise to Beauvais, since the project had followed Daniel's dictates every step of the way. He had worked with the producer he insisted upon, Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers. He had recorded in the manner that felt most comfortable, in the garage of his parents' house in Waller - where 34-year-old Daniel has been living since his release a year ago from Austin State Hospital - rather than a conventional recording studio. And he had seemed to enjoy and approve every facet of the sessions. Until he heard the final tape.

"I'm surprised you've heard about this," said Beauvais. "That was a very strange week, week-and-a-half we spent. . . . I truly did not know what to do, whether we should just bag the whole deal. I didn't think Atlantic was going to give me another recording budget to make another record, especially since everybody here was thrilled with it. . . . Here we were faced with the absurd scenario of an artist delivering a record, we welcome it with open arms, saying, `This is wonderful!' And him telling us, `But I don't like it!' "

Nobody said it was going to be easy, though this particular wrinkle was quickly smoothed. It seemed Daniel had been playing the tape on an old boom box with one of its channels malfunctioning. Once Leary brought him to Austin and played the tape on a good system, Daniel heard what he was missing and expressed delight. With artist and label equally enthusiastic, Fun will introduce Daniel Johnston to much of the world on Sept. 6.

Thus it will likely fan the flames of debate - "genius or joke?" - that have swirled around Johnston since he began performing in Austin almost a decade ago. In those days, he was working at McDonald's, spending most of his time and money in his apartment recording cassettes, which he would give away to pretty girls, members of bands and anyone who looked remotely interested. With his wobbly voice and rudimentary instrumental skills, Daniel's music seemed impossibly innocent and almost painfully sincere. That Daniel was so determined that such recordings would make him a star seemed the obsession of a man with a tenuous grasp of reality.

"I wanted to be famous. That was No. 1 in my mind," explained Daniel at the dining-room table of his parents' house in Waller. He was heavier and his hair was grayer than when we had last visited a couple of years ago, but he was plainly in good spirits in anticipation of the album's release.

"I wanted to be the Kenny Rogers on my block," he said. "In everything that I did, the way that I acted and what I said to people, I was thinking, `This is my plot to become famous. My fame will grow.' It was wild. I flipped out about it."

Ever since, Johnston's notoriety for "flipping out" has been as great as his musical renown, though it can be difficult to draw a line between the two. In Austin, stories of Daniel's treatment for manic-depression and the episodes that have returned him to the State Hospital are old news.

Those involved with Daniel are hoping the musical accomplishment of Fun outweighs those tales of the time he caused a private plane to crash land because he thought he was Captain America, or the 68-year-old woman who broke her legs trying to escape when Daniel insisted on exorcising the demon within her, or the three weeks of havoc he wreaked in New York when he appeared on the verge of a previous career breakthrough. Too often with Daniel, things have fallen apart when they seemed closest to coming together, when overstimulation brought on by bright prospects has turned dark.

Fun began as a project titled Frankenstein Love, until Daniel decided the song of that title was "too scary." It features 18 Johnston compositions (as well as a number of his drawings), with material that runs the gamut from romantic obsession (Mind Contorted, Crazy Love) to psychodrama (Psycho Nightmare, Delusion & Confusion) to hard-driving rock 'n' roll redemption (Rock 'N' Roll/EGA).

Coincidentally, Fun will be followed a week later by Kathy McCarty's CD Dead Dog's Eyeball: Songs of Daniel Johnston on Bar/None. McCarty was responsible for inviting Johnston to guest on a bill with Glass Eye - his first public performances in Austin. Drawing on songs from his self-released tapes, McCarty's album is likely to further Johnston's reputation among listeners who might have previously dismissed him as a naive novelty.

"A lot of people can't listen to his tapes - they're too intense for them or out there or low-fi," she said. "The very things that endear him to some are what stand in the way of others appreciating what he's doing."

When we last reported at length on Daniel, it was two years ago September, and he was just emerging from hospitalization to play Liberty Lunch. He had a bunch of fine new songs and a renewed confidence in his abilities as a live performer. He was living in his own apartment, taking his medication. Within a couple of weeks after that performance, he disappeared for 72 hours, quit taking his medicine, was arrested during a disturbance at the Jack in the Box on Guadalupe and returned to the Austin State Hospital for three or four months.

During that time, his longtime manager Jeff Tartakov began receiving feelers from Elektra Records, which was interested in signing Daniel despite his condition. After extended negotiations, Elektra agreed to front Daniel $45,000 in addition to his recording budget, with the provision that Johnston would receive the money regardless of whether he ever recovered to the point where he could make an album. Instead of signing, Johnston decided he no longer wanted Tartakov to manage him.

"I'd been with him for a long time, and we didn't get along any more," said Johnston.

By chance, he wandered into Austin's Amazing Records, saying he had an album finished and was looking for a deal. The receptionist was doing her best to turn him away when marketing director Tom Gimbel heard Daniel's name and decided to introduce himself.

"I was never really a huge fan, but I certainly knew of him, and I was interested in meeting him," said Gimbel. "He didn't really look very good at the time. He wasn't very clean, wasn't well-kempt. He didn't look real healthy."

Gimbel gave Johnston his card, asked him to send a tape and didn't think much about it. Three months later he received a call out of the blue: Johnston wanted Gimbel to be his manager - he seemed like an honest guy, a nice guy. Gimbel told Johnston he wasn't really a manager (though he'd had some experience with an Austin rap act, Simply Mac-n), but he'd make a few calls.

His first calls were to Elektra and to Tartakov, where he learned the deal was a good one, contingent upon Johnston reconciling with his former manager. He advised Daniel to work things out with Tartakov; Daniel said it was out of the question. Gimbel subsequently called a few more record companies, including Atlantic, which had pursued Daniel during the final stages of negotiations with Elektra.

Where Tartakov was as much full-service caretaker for Daniel as manager, the 24-year-old Gimbel (who now works and lives in Connecticut) has only met his client face-to-face on two occasions since that chance encounter at Amazing. In fact, Daniel didn't even recognize his manager when Gimbel made his first trip to Waller. With Atlantic, however, Gimbel found in Yves Beauvais a passionate advocate for Daniel's music and one who is determined to do right by him. Though Atlantic reportedly offered Daniel less than half of the front money that Elektra had, its commitment suggests the artist won't be marketed as some corporate freakshow.

"We're not manipulating him or taking advantage of him, far from it," said Beauvais. "I think Daniel is likely to profit greatly from his work for the very first time, from a publishing standpoint, artist royalty standpoint and from the creative options of working with top musicians in good studios, finally making the records he has wanted to make in his head forever. . .

"The challenge was to maintain the homespun, innocent, raw feeling of Daniel's home tapes and the spontaneity of his performance, while bringing it sonically into something a little more user-friendly."

To that end the project depended heavily on Paul Leary, whose previous productions include the Bad Livers and the Meat Puppets, and whose guitar gives these tracks a power beyond the fragility of Daniel's earlier tapes. Leary would record Daniel's performances in the Waller garage, overdub his own parts to meet the artist's approval, and take the tapes into the studio for embellishment by other musicians (including cellist John Hagen from Lyle Lovett's band, pianist Bobbie Nelson who usually accompanies brother Willie, and drummer King Coffey from the Buttholes). The results are both true to Daniel and a bracing alternative to the increasingly generic alternative rock of the day.

"Everything he does is brilliant, I mean truly," said Leary. "With Daniel Johnston being the musical genius and songwriting genius that he is, it's really fun as a producer to come in and have almost a blank slate to work with. . . . Daniel pretty much had an idea of how he wanted things to go, and I tried as religiously as possible to uphold the integrity of his art."

While those involved consider the album a masterpiece, there's no question Daniel will be a tough sell in today's corporate marketplace. Given his fragile stability, tendency toward overstimulation and the necessity of monitoring his medication at home in Waller, the company cannot avail itself of the usual strategies for developing acts. A club tour is out of the question, and press access will be minimal, though Atlantic plans to shoot at least one video to help promote Fun.

"We have very little ammunition to promote him the conventional way, but we do have an outstanding record that I hope will speak for itself," said Beauvais. "I've never heard a record that sounds like this. And I don't think that there'll be another until the next Daniel Johnston record."