x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Johnston in the limelight again

Fans of the famously shy singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston have created an iPhone game that uses characters from his songs

Fans of Daniel Johnston have created an iPhone game with characters from his songs.
Fans of Daniel Johnston have created an iPhone game with characters from his songs.

If the all-conquering Beatles can have a multimillion dollar games franchise with Rock Band, then it's entirely appropriate for the reclusive godfather of American indie rock, Daniel Johnston, to get in on the act with something much more intimate: his own iPhone game. The fact that Johnston doesn't even own a telephone, let alone a mobile, just adds to the aura surrounding this most enigmatic of singer-songwriters.

It's telling that Hi, How Are You? is a game created by his fans to venerate his talent as a musician and a graphic artist (Hi, How Are You? is also the name of arguably his most popular album from 1983 and his website), rather than a slick commercial enterprise. But then, this is a man who, thanks to his chronic shyness and crippling bipolar disorder has always had to rely on the support of fans to keep him in the spotlight. Fortunately, many of those fans are fairly high-profile.

In the early 1990s, Nirvana's Kurt Cobain was rarely seen in public without his Hi, How Are You? T-shirt. He famously wore it at the MTV Awards in 1992, when Nirvana smashed up their equipment. This led to a surge of interest in Johnston. In 2004 the likes of Beck, Death Cab for Cutie, Flaming Lips and Tom Waits covered his songs for The Late Great Daniel Johnston album. This wasn't to make money for themselves but to help pay for the house next door to Johnston's parents - so he could finally move out of home but be close to the care he needed. A year later, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a heartbreaking documentary about his life and an exploration of the thin line between genius and madness, won director Jeff Feuerzeig a coveted Sundance Award. A biopic is also in the pipeline.

The attraction for all these people is clear: Johnston has always been a free spirit, untroubled by the concerns of producing product for record company executives to sell - even though he has actually been on a major label. His music is fragile, funny, full of self-doubt and eccentricities. It feels pure and childlike. It romanticises the idea of the troubled, obsessive artist, and even though it often sounds rough around the edges (Johnston used to record songs on cassettes and simply give them away) the power of the song remains. It's not for nothing that Cobain described him as "the greatest on earth".

And yet he remains very much a cult concern, which isn't as strange as those who have covered his songs would have you believe: Johnston's piano-driven music might be compared to The Beatles', but The Beatles weren't 48-year-old men with psychological problems and a tendency to be willfully simplistic. This doesn't sound like the best material for an fun timewasting app, does it? Apparently, in the game you lead Jeremiah (the frog on the cover of Hi How Are You?) on a quest through a landscape populated by recurring characters from Johnston's songs.

"We wrapped the game around [Daniel's] whole story of a man going through life trying to find his true love but constantly having to contend with evil," the game designer Paul Franco told The New York Times. Since he doesn't have a phone, Johnston won't be able to play it, but his contribution comes, happily, with the soundtrack. And it comes at a time when he's once again in the limelight: early records have been re-released, there are two new biographies and he's partway through a world tour - always a worrying undertaking both for him and the fans who pay to see a man whose mood can change on a whim.

The fact that there are these periodical spikes of interest in Johnston might be baffling (and probably irritating) to more straightforward singer-songwriters struggling to gain critical acclaim, but, in a sense, that's the point: Johnston never courted column inches in the first place. And if his music is in the headlines once every five or so years it certainly proves one thing: it's timeless, lasting stuff.