Inside a disturbing mind

Grunge icon Daniel Johnston's work is on show in Madrid

Daniel Johnston, who lives as a recluse.
Daniel Johnston, who lives as a recluse.

The mind of musician and artist Daniel Johnston can be a warm place, but also a very cold one. In there you'll find his Jeremiah the frog character innocently smiling, but soon his eyes start to sprout, his legs grow and teeth like saws appear. There is Captain America and Casper the Friendly Ghost, as well as an eye with bats' wings. And then there is the demon that is his constant obsession and also The Beatles, who led him toward music and fed his desire for fame. The scene goes on, repeating on a loop in his head.

Following a concert by Johnston there earlier this week, Madrid's La Casa Encendida is devoting an exhibition to the work and troubled figure of the artist, a diagnosed manic depressive and schizophrenic. It features his famous homemade cassettes, posters of his concerts and, above all, his disturbing childlike drawings.

Now 52, Johnston first found fame in 1985 when he was interviewed for an MTV program about the underground music scene in Austin, Texas. Thousands of viewers wanted to know more about the work of this outlandish guy and asked for copies of the cassettes on which he recorded his songs, which he and his friend Jeff Tartacov sent by mail.

Kurt Cobain placed one of his records at number 35 on his most-influential-of-all-time list and on several occasions sported a t-shirt with Johnston's naïf drawings of Jeremiah, giving his fame a new push. The most influential alternative rock bands of the era - Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo and Teenage Fanclub - also fell under his strange spell.

In 1990 Johnston had his moment of glory when he at last played in front of thousands of people at the Austin festival. But on his way home in his father's light aircraft, he suffered a psychotic episode, took out the engine keys in the middle of the flight and threw them out of the window. The incident showed in his crudest form what everyone - friends, musicians, record companies - would end up discovering: that there is nothing cool about Johnston's mental illness. He survived the accident, thanks to his father's flying skill.

In 2005, Johnston's incredible story was told in the beautifully intimate documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which won a prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Today he lives with his parents shut away from the world, though sometimes gets away to give concerts.

Visiones simbólicas. Una mirada al universo de Daniel Johnston. Until June 2 at La Casa Encendida, Ronda Valencia 2, Madrid.

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