Listen up and I’ll tell a story
About an artist growing old
Some would try for fame and glory
Others aren’t so bold
That is the first verse of a song called “The Story of an Artist,” which would be the eighth track on the second self-made, independently released cassette by the then 21-year-old cartoonist/painter/singer-songwriter/producer/amateur film-maker/underground entrepreneur, Daniel Dale Johnston.
It’s a paean to the struggling artist nearly crumbling under the strains of time while his friends, family, and potential audience ignores or berates him. His voice, accompanied by an upright piano in desperate need of tuning, is a tender, upper register tweak held together with invisible strings and duct tape. Its phrasing and timbre make the sound of the broken but unbowed, irresistibly childlike and yet old before its time. He stabs at the words, as if harrowingly building a jagged conduit to his soul. The second verse goes like this…
And everyone in friends and family
Sayin’ “Hey go get a job
Why do you only do that only?
Why are you so odd?”
Daniel Johnston was odd. This had less to do with what would later be a duel diagnosis of schizophrenia andbipolar disorder. No, Daniel was odd because he was indeed an artist, with a story to show and tell. This made his movements, both physical and metaphysical, seem like a man in slow motion. While all else whisked around him in a scurry to become things and own things and conquer stuff, there was never a moment in his life where he was not an artist, even when he was passing out his tapes as arguably the most famous McDonald’s employee in the nation. This was in 1984, after a period of working in a traveling carnival, when he settled in Austin and began making these lo-fi, DIY, down and dirty and hilariously pin-point perfect cassettes of weird, wonderful music complete with original artwork on its inserts, including tiny drawings in and around the song titles. And, according to those who knew him at the time, he almost never used a copy machine. He would simply draw new covers for every single tape. Because, well, he was no “busser” or vagrant or random slob living on his sister’s couch. He was an artist.
“And we don’t really like what you do
We don’t think anyone ever will
We think you have a problem
And this problem’s made you ill.”
He wrote tons of songs and recorded those songs on piano, guitar, and chord organ with a $59 Sanyo monaural boombox he’d had since he was a teenager. He also made incredible surrealist drawings with vivid characters filled with pathos and dread and biting humor and furious audacity. The bravery in this work, like the ultra-creative films he would make as a kid, is clear to anyone who ever attempted to put themselves “out there” creatively, who put things down to have them come back hard, to bare the ugly, the beseeching, insecure, frightened, unrequited edge of the edge. This is where the artist and the man/boy existed in Daniel Johnson. Beyond all the dangerous thoughts and burps and demons inside his head, this was his center.
But the artist walks alone
And someone says behind his back
“He’s got some gall to call himself that
He doesn’t even know where he’s at.”
I first heard one of these Daniel Johnston tapes in 1988. A good friend of mine, Eddie, who had recently changed his name to Sean, a fellow songwriter and lunatic, had gotten it from another of our kind. These things were making their way up through Austin into the waiting hands of the NYC suburbian starving artist cabal and shaking us up. Yip Jump Music and Hi, How Are You were the ones that initially stunned us. The latter had the iconic alien-looking Frog with the eyeball tentacles that served Daniel’s vision of good against evil. “Jeremiah the Innocent” was a godhead Buddha-like figure of moral certitude staring its way into your psyche. He would paint a mural of it on the exterior wall of what was originally the Sound Exchange record store in downtown Austin. It has remained a symbol of the strange, counterculture revivalist nature of the town for decades. Daniel’s Jeremiah, his spirit of song, story and visions, is its patron saint.
The artist walks among the flowers
Appreciating the sun
He’s out there all his waking hours
Oh and who’s to say he’s wrong
Hi, How Are You is a fucking masterpiece. It will always be near and dear to my heart—Daniel autographed a limited-edition album cover for me that hangs proudly in my writing nook. Although Yip Jump Music came first, early in ’83, and it has two of his best songs, “Casper the Friendly Ghost” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievances,” both featured Johnston’s first use of his signature sound clips (children’s toys), crudely eerie but socially intriguing overdubbing (between two boom boxes), and a madcap white-boy unhinged sort of rapping that added to the sonic collage. But the whole Daniel Johnston presentation was fully formed two years earlier with his initial tape compilations, Songs of Pain (1981), which includes probably my favorite of his early work, “Like a Monkey in a Zoo,” hurriedly followed by Don’t Be Scared, where “The Story of an Artist” resides, and The What of Whom (1982), More Songs of Pain (1983), even though you will find gems in everything Daniel recorded, like the achingly melancholic “True Love Will Find You in the End,” from Retired Boxer (1984) and a song I have played countless times on guitar in abject glee, the infectious, “I Know What I Want” from Respect (1985).
These were the years where it appeared to those of us entranced by it that Daniel was rushing to get these musical vignettes out of his skull and onto the whirling tape in front of him as fast as possible, before…
And they sit in front of their TV
Sayin’ “Hey isn’t this a lot of fun”
And they laugh at the artist
Saying “he don’t know how to have fun”
All the while, Daniel was descending into madness. He had several nervous breakdowns, long periods of incoherence, and days of wandering lost through town, various erratic episodes due to prescription drug reactions—one harrowing one in which he took the keys from a plane his father, a former U.S. Air Force pilot, was manning and tossed them out the window. William Johnston’s training saved them as he managed to land it safely. He went to New York to record an album. Disappeared for days. These and similar incidents landed Daniel for extended stints in mental institutions, which is where he was in 1992 when Kurt Cobain wore a Hi How Are You shirt to the MTV Music Awards. Almost immediately, Daniel began receiving calls from entertainment agents from all over the country. The MTV connection is odd since in the previous decade Johnston, curious about the cameras and hubbub, wandered into a production of the network’s The Cutting Edge featuring performers from Austin’s “New Sincerity” music scene in order to better hawk his tapes. The producers were so enamored with this off-kilter bohemian fast-food jockey, they gave him a spot on the bill of a show they were taping.
The odd detente of Hollywood agents and a committed mental patient was predictably terrible. Daniel had deep bouts of paranoia, much of it covered with incredible sensitivity in the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston. He wrongly jettisoned his biggest fan and benefactor, then manager Jeff Tartakov, who by then had mass produced the Johnston catalog and kept Daniel financially afloat and in the public eye. By then Daniel was trading his art for comic books and ignoring his music almost entirely. But, he finally signed with Atlantic Records in 1994 and his debut album, Fun, was produced by Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers, a huge fan. It predictably bombed. Critics were more or less confused and fans of his DIY days hated it. I love it. It has “Love in Vain,” one of my faves.
The best things in life are truly free
Singing birds and laughing bees
“You’ve got me wrong”, says he
“The sun don’t shine in your TV”
Mental illness and later obesity plagued Daniel for the rest of his life. He would have periods of stable behavior and tour, or at least make some shows here and abroad, but then would begin to detach and spiral. I had at least two potential times I could have seen him, but he cancelled, and we understood. My friend, songwriter Dan Bern, played with him in Europe and made him a character in his first novel, which I helped him edit and publish, titled Quitting Science, while another new friend, the honey-voiced Maria Taylor of Azure Ray played piano with him a few years ago. But he mostly lived with his parents out in a garage/studio they set up for him. And, of course, he kept recording and releasing music and painting and drawing. When they passed away he began to deteriorate more and more. Again, there were moments of lucidity, an understanding of his worth and canon, occasional art shows (London’s Aquarium Gallery, New York’s Clementine Gallery, Sacramento’s Verge Gallery) and tribute recordings by such musical luminaries as Beck, Tom Waits, and bands like Teenage Fanclub, Death Cab for Cutie, and the Flaming Lips.
Daniel Johnston was that artist that if you knew someone who knew and loved his stuff you were connected immediately. Daniel fans, people who were turned on by his songs—those melodic gems hidden inside roughly ham-fisted playing and tape hiss and room echo, sung with such unerring emotion—were also inspired by their making and their dissemination. We shared those tapes. We played his songs and marveled at those characters that poured out of his pen or paint brush because there was something in Daniel Johnston that speaks to and for the goofy outcast making something for the sake of making it and to better reflect you into the world. And against all odds, mental illness and poverty, he forged ahead.
Listen up and I’ll tell a story
About an artist growin’ old
Some would try for fame and glory
Others like to watch the world
And that is sad for those of us who see Dan still, sitting hunched over that piano, hitting record and belting out all of it.
He died this week.
He was 58.
And he was an artist.