Road Trip

Thanks to pharmaceuticals, cult-hero songwriter Daniel Johnston will perform in Tucson.

Daniel Johnston is coming to town, supporting his most recent release Rejected Unknown, his first studio offering in many a moon. While music fans have grown accustomed to seeing working musicians of Daniel's stature tour behind most releases, to have Johnston come to your town--unless you live somewhere in Texas--is rare and nearly incredible.

Johnston has never embarked on a full American tour. He spends most of his time living with his senior parents in rural Waller, Texas, and until a few years ago was an emotional question mark due to real mental demons. But thanks to better living through chemistry, a music label that understands him and good friends to travel with him, he has entered into one of his most productive and happy periods of his often-dark existence.

Johnston's nearly 20-year career has seen him slowly ascend to the status of cult hero, with many bumps in the road. He watched his MTV debut from a mental institution. He was signed to a record label that didn't understand his talent.

The famously unbalanced adult wunderkind is experiencing somewhat of a rebirth, recording and releasing new material, playing with friends in side projects such as Lucky Sperms and Danny and the Nightmares, and traveling in the United States and abroad, all thanks to his art. If things go as planned, Johnston will begin his West Coast tour shortly and is scheduled to play the Congress on Tuesday, February 26.

Johnston's music has taken him to Germany, South Africa and Sweden, among other notable locales in the last few years. When asked how he feels about his music essentially taking him around the world, he enthused, "It's great! Things are happening more than ever, traveling around the world and doing shows. And doing a lot of recording, so it's exciting."

A conversation with Daniel Johnston is a form of guided stream-of-consciousness, the interviewer gently steering the subject through mental rapids and his desire to explain the same idea several times, as if stuck in a cerebral groove. After we discuss his globetrotting, we move onto the topic of his recently completed East Coast tour. Again it is hard not to be struck by the refreshing perspective this man brings to three weeks on the road--it seems what he found most enjoyable was the opportunity to shop.

"We had a lot of fun and playing every night, doing a lot of shopping and buying a lot of records, meeting a lot of nice pretty girls. It really was a lot of enjoyment on the road ... Don Goede is my tour manager, and we just drove from town to town, and he really knew how to read the road maps and everything. I didn't have to worry about anything like that, so we just had a really great time."

Johnston is equally jazzed about something many touring musicians covet: his first tour per-diem. "I had $50 a day to spend on shopping so it was great, getting Beatles bootlegs and all kinds of records every day, so it was exciting." When asked to confirm that the amount was in fact $50 a day and not something more substantial, he says, "Yeah! I had that much to spend. It was great! I was like, 'All right!'"

He is also very intrigued by the musical selections found in our nation's truck stops. "We kept buying tapes at the gas stations and stuff and getting these weird tapes like 'The Best of Bread' and stuff. We loved it! 'The Best of Bread' was one of our favorite tapes. And we just had all kinds of stuff, like 'The Best of Black Sabbath'; we had the all these 'best of' tapes. We just loved it. We were living it for the moment. It was just really a gas."

Johnston has the right to sing the blues for the rest of his days, but he doesn't. He's not the slightest bit bitter and, while he appreciates humor, he displays not a trace of irony. He doesn't blame anyone for anything, he doesn't rely on his hardship to explain his behavior, he just is. This is refreshing, compared to reading an interview in which junkie millionaires complain about the ravages of fame and how they had a no-so-great upbringing.

Johnston does share one slightly rock 'n' roll moment. It's his bid to explain to us mere mortals what life on the road can do to a person once he has arrived home: "After the East Coast tour was all over, I couldn't even remember where I was. I woke up--it was three weeks of this night after night--and when I got home I woke up the morning and I thought I was still in a motel room. I go, 'Where am I?' I was saying, 'Don? Don?' And I walked in the bathroom and I still thought I was in a motel."

This tour, like his East Coast swing, will feature Johnston solo, just a guitar and his haunted, childlike voice. This is something not to be missed, a rare live glimpse into one of the most unusual and special artists to have emerged from the home-recording/outsider genre.

When asked why he seldom plays piano live, even though this is his first instrument, his response is one of skewed common sense: "I was wondering about that today; somebody said something like 'Why don't you play piano at your shows?' And I thought that is strange because I play piano all the time. But usually when I play out I play guitar. This is mainly for the fact that when I go to do the show, I can't really carry the piano with me everywhere."

So he and his guitar, which is much easier to carry than a piano, are coming to Tucson.

We asked what came into his mind when he thought about Arizona. "I think I've been there, no doubt. I used to travel with a carnival, I used to sell corn dogs. I worked for a lady that owned a corn dog stand. So I think I have been to ... Arizona before.

"It's the desert country, and I think I've been there. Lot of Indian reservations. Yeah, I'm sure I've been there."