Jeff Feuerzeig’s award-winning 2005 documentary helped expose the eccentric singer songwriter to a broader audience for a successful second act in his career.
When news spread Wednesday (Sept. 11) of cult singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston‘s death from a heart attack the day before at 58, an outpouring of remembrances and appreciations reverberated throughout the creative community. Among those mourning the beloved artist were Jeff Feuerzeig, director of the Sundance Film Festival award-winning 2005 documentary The Devil & Daniel Johnston.
That film introduced the musician to a broader audience than ever before, shining a spotlight on both his sheer brilliance as an artist and the mental illness that kept him from achieving his dreams as a young man.
Billboard spoke with Feuerzeig over the phone to discuss Johnston’s legacy.
How are you doing?
I’m all right. Just a lot of emails. I knew this day was gonna come. I’ve probably been waiting for 20 years, he’s not been well for so long.
I’m sorry for your loss.
Yeah, it’s sad, but the world got to find out about him a long time ago, which is great. He didn’t die in obscurity, so…
How did you first meet Daniel?
Back in ’85, I was a college radio DJ and the world only had fanzines. So Daniel Johnston’s cassettes started getting talked about in the fanzines. And there was an ad, you could send, whatever — it was probably $3 a tape — off to Austin, Texas, to a PO box to Stress Records. That was his manager Jeff Tartakov. Those early cassettes, which are now available on Spotify and Apple Music, showed up with handmade artwork.
I hate the expression “I was blown away,” but I don’t know how else to describe it. I became obsessed. To me, he was my generation’s Bob Dylan. He was that level. And I still believe that. We’re not gonna see another songwriter like this in our lifetime. He really is up there with Lou Reed and Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson. If you look at the hundreds of artists [who have covered him since the film came out], from the famous people to the not famous, there’s a reason that that many people covered him. He was a songwriter’s songwriter. And on the subject of unrequited love, he’s the heavyweight champ. His song “True Love Will Find You in the End” is the last word on unrequited love.
Your documentary really brought a greater recognition for him. How did that feel to be able to do that for him?
Well, it felt amazing because number one, people laughed at us while we were making the film. It was treated as Fulton’s Folly. People thought we were out of our minds, because most people only make documentary films about famous people. I decided, “I’m going to tell the world this.” It got distribution by Sony Pictures Classics and put in theaters, and then it was theatrically distributed all over the world, and Daniel got to tour all over the world, multiple times. He went to Africa and he was treated like royalty all over Europe, like a great jazz artist. And then his prominence started to grow and it got passed along too. I mean, kids all the time who are in high school now [are] discovering Daniel Johnston.
I would see him backstage whenever he came to L.A. over the years — the last time he played I believe was, unbelievably, at the Hollywood Bowl opening for Neutral Milk Hotel. And Daniel got a standing ovation like you never saw. He was not well. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when he finished his set. I saw him backstage that night and he said to me, “You know, I’m now a half-millionaire.” And that meant everything. Because when we met him, we were worried he would end up homeless and broke, and that did not happen because of [the film]. So I’m really happy that Daniel, from 2005 to now, had a really good 14 years where he wasn’t Van Gogh and he wasn’t a tree that fell in the forest that nobody heard, the world discovered him from my film. And that’s beautiful.
Given that he struggled with mental illness, for so long, how do you think he handled that success that he saw late in his life?
That’s an interesting question. It’s more interesting to look at it when he was trying to succeed. Daniel was able to write openly in his songs about his mental illness. He wrote this amazing song that’s in the film, it’s called “I Had Lost My Mind.” And he wrote many songs like that. He didn’t hide that and he lived it every day, and he made art out of it. So it was a blessing and a curse, like all great artists.
If you look at a Kay Redfield Jamison’s book Touched With Fire, so many of the great artists — not all — suffered from what Daniel had, bipolar disorder. And in their highest of highs, they created their masterpieces, their novels, their songs, their poems, their paintings. And, believe me, the pain of the lows was unimaginable and that’s where unfortunately we get a lot of suicide. When he was medicated at first, he had a tough time creating because it was tough to be medicated, it leveled him off. It was better for family and friends and people around him, but the art suffered. But then later the meds changed, and he actually found his creativity again.
One thing that your film really did was to tear down the romanticized idea of the tortured artist by showing what that really looks like.
You know, the tortured artist of course is romanticized because the art is romanticized, but the torture is not. It was hell for everyone around him. I mean, it’s in the film. Daniel literally attacked his own family at Christmas. He crashed a plane, because he thought he was Casper the Friendly Ghost. His dad wept as he told me that and I wept with him. It’s horrible what those people went through, in order for us all to enjoy this incredible art.
But Daniel was incredible at getting his art out there. You gotta remember this was done all independently. This is a guy that figured out how to get his music out there. He put his music in McDonald’s french fry hamburger sacks and gave them out for free in Austin, Texas, to get the word out. Now you can post it on your blog or whatever digital internet music program you use to share. But back then, you couldn’t do that. So you can imagine that Daniel ultimately conquered the world through his own devices of getting his art out there and his music out there.
Had you kept you kept in touch with him over the years since the documentary came out?
We would only see each other after shows. Whenever he toured, I would always go to the show and go backstage. And we would have our moment together. We had an incredible journey. But what I learned about Daniel Johnston is that everyone wants to hug Casper the Friendly Ghost, but Casper doesn’t know how to hug you back. So you know, it’s a respectful relationship we had, but it’s impossible to be close to Daniel. You can get close to his art and music, but he’s really in his own head.
Do you remember the last time you spoke with him?
That was when he opened for Neutral Milk Hotel at the Hollywood Bowl. And what an honor it was because that’s where his heroes played, the Beatles. People lost their minds. He really touched and moved people. And when he had his faculties, which you can see when he’s young in The Devil and Daniel Johnston, he was one of the greats.