Many artists despise imitators, but it's all flattery to Daniel Johnston. "I love to be an influence," he says in an amiable drawl, phoning from Texas. "People send me tapes in the mail all the time."
But here's the irony: Few musicians have such an impossible-to-duplicate style. From the homemade, voice-and-piano cassettes he used to pass out on the streets of Austin, Texas, to the relatively slicker albums of recent years, Johnston has created a world unlike any in pop -- one that's peopled with characters like Casper the Friendly Ghost, Captain America, and an ex-girlfriend employed at a funeral home.
More important, music has been the primary battleground of Johnston's war with manic depression; it's a struggle chronicled in the 2005 documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston. But that battle's visual manifestation has made Johnston a celebrated figure in the art world as well. His Magic Marker portraits -- filled with headless torsos, eyeballs, and crosses -- have become a hot commodity, earning him a spot at the prestigious Whitney Biennial exhibition.
During our brief interview, which he politely terminates after just a couple of minutes, Johnston repeatedly states, "Everything's fine. Everything's just fine." When you consider Johnston's mental and physical health issues (he nearly died from a kidney infection a couple of years ago), fine seems like a great place to be.