A RARE APPEARANCE by singer/songwriter Daniel Johnston June 26 at Variety Playhouse marks another intriguing chapter in the life and times of the cult figure and quirky cause celebre whose famous admirers have included "Simpsons" cartoonist Matt Groening and Nirvana's Kurt Cobain.
In the award-winning 2005 documentary, "The Devil and Daniel Johnston," director Jeff Feuerzeig paints a haunting but darkly humorous portrait of Johnston, who has suffered from severe bouts of mental illness since he was a teenager.
Still, as the film displays, Johnston (who turned 47 in January) has managed to write and record an impressive body of music, charged with painfully raw emotion and an exuberantly naive sense of the world.
His stuttering, lisping warble and wildly off-kilter guitar playing are oddly affecting. His favorite subjects include the Beatles, cartoon character Casper the Friendly Ghost and comic book hero Captain America. And his catchy, tuneful songs have been covered by the likes of Wilco, Eddie Vedder, Tom Waits and Beck. Nowadays, though, it's Johnston's outsider artwork that grabs the most attention, as his hallucinogenic pen-and-marker drawings usually fetch $1,000 and up.
Here are a few highlights from three decades of Daniel Johnston:
The '80s: Johnston flees a carnival corn dog job and winds up on the streets of Austin, Texas. He starts passing out his peculiar homemade cassette tapes, self-released on his own Stress label, with his hand-drawn art on the covers. MTV's "The Cutting Edge" features Johnston during a segment about the Austin music scene and, suddenly, his cassettes start showing up in indie record stores. Members of Sonic Youth and others became enamored of Johnston's lo-fi style, and indie label Homestead issues a series of Johnston's early recordings.
The '90s: Jad Fair of Half Japanese records Johnston for the Shimmy Disc label. Kurt Cobain wears Johnston's trademark "Hi How are You" frog T-shirt at the 1992 MTV Music Awards. And Paul Leary of the B-hole Surfers produces Johnston's improbable and surprisingly accessible major label debut, "Fun" (Atlantic). But despite some modest success, Johnston struggles with depression and mania, acting out most dramatically by wresting control of his father's small airplane, sending it plummeting into a tree.
The 2000s: Johnston continues recording and working on his art. Mary Lou Lord's cover of Johnston's cracked ditty, "Speeding Motorcycle," is featured in a Target commercial. "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" debuts at Sundance and wins the documentary director's award. A selection of Johnston's drawings (with titles such as "Die Satan Die" and "It's a Nightmare") go on display at the Whitney Museum's 2006 Biennial in New York.
> THE 411: Daniel Johnston with the Hymns. $22. 8:30 p.m. June 26. Variety Playhouse, 1099 Euclid Ave N.E. 404-524-7354, www.variety-playhouse.com.
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