Put the name 'Daniel Johnston'
into any internet search engine and you will literally find hundreds
of pages about America's most unlikely pop phenomenon and 'outsider'
visual artist. Johnston's career has spanned over three decades. He
has spent the last twenty-three years exposing his heartrending
tales of unrequited love, cosmic mishaps and existential torment to
an ever-growing international cult audience, and as a result has
been hailed as an American original akin to blues-man Robert
Johnson and country legend Hank Williams.
Johnston was born in 1961 in Sacramento,
California, the youngest of five children in a Christian
fundamentalist household. Johnston started drawing at an early age,
a long time before he took up music. However, he grew to appreciate
artists such as John Lennon, Yoko Ono,
Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello,
Queen, Neil Young, the Sex Pistols
and especially the Beatles, "When I was
19, I wanted to be the Beatles" says Johnston.
As a teenager, Johnston and his friends began to record their own
cassettes and trade them amongst themselves. Unemployed and
attending art classes sporadically, Johnston began to spend most of
his time in his family's cellar, writing and recording songs. The
cassettes he made there included 'Songs of Pain'
and 'More Songs of Pain', both of which centered
around his unrequited love for a woman named Laurie
who ended up marrying an undertaker.
The aspiring cartoonist - whose playful, symbolic sketches have
graced the covers of his releases - moved to Texas
in 1983. At this time, the onset of manic depression had begun.
Johnston stayed with his brother in Houston and
then in San Marcos with his sister, where he
recorded the seminal cassettes 'Yip/Jump Music' and
'Hi, How Are You?'. The latter was recorded in the
midst of a nervous breakdown. Both were recorded on a $59.00 Sanyo
mono boom-box and are quintessential of Johnston's desperate bid to
get his creations out of his head and onto the record of human
experience. Although lo-fi and amateurish in approach, these
recordings are unflinchingly honest yet painfully beautiful.
For a short spell, Johnston joined a traveling carnival, selling
corndogs. His five-month stint with the carnival left him in
Austin, where he decided to stay. In the midst of that
city's mid-eighties music scene, Johnston became a local legend.
While he continued to hand out his cassettes for free, Austin record
stores started selling them; in fact, they became best-selling local
releases. Johnston's biggest break came when a camera crew from
MTV's seminal 'Cutting Edge' show
decided to feature Johnston. His appearance on the show made him a
minor celebrity, and the music press in the US and abroad began to
With the surprise success of Johnston's poignantly personal homemade
cassettes, independent label, Homestead, re-issued
some of the cassettes on CD to a wider audience in the early
nineties. It was at this time that the disaffected grunge
movement had begun and Johnston's unique lo-fi sound
synched perfectly with the overall musical landscape earning
accolades and name-checks from grunge heroes Nirvana,
Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam.
Kurt Cobain even wore a Daniel Johnston t-shirt to 1992's
MTV Video Music Awards and members of Sonic Youth
played on Johnston's Wayne Kramer produced '1990'
album released on Shimmy Disc .
With songs included on Generation X film soundtracks such as 'Kids'
and 'My So Called Life', Johnston found himself
propelled into the mainstream and signed to Atlantic Records
. At the time of signing to Atlantic, Johnston was
suffering from severe depression. Johnston's old friend Paul
Leary of the Butthole Surfers, who he
first met in 1985, was drafted in as producer of the project.
"Daniel had trouble playing. I wish he could have played every
instrument, but he couldn't" says Leary in hindsight. Under enormous
pressure to complete the album, Johnston drifted deeper into
depression. The sessions resulted in the ironically titled 'Fun'
album, which was released in 1994. Although 'Fun' was competently
recorded, it lacked the 'human-ness' of Johnston's early cassettes.
The sales of 'Fun' fell well below the expectations of Atlantic
Following Atlantic Records 'perceived failure of 'Fun', Johnston
was plagued by the fear Atlantic would drop him if he didn't produce
another better selling album. There were long periods of time when
Johnston never got out of bed and produced neither music nor art. As
friend Brian Beattie remembers, "I'd say it was
probably the lowest point in his life". In 1997, after a chilling
performance at South By South West, where Johnston
screamed to the audience, "we're all going to die!" and abruptly
left the stage, Johnston was officially dropped by Atlantic.
Johnston returned to the Houston suburbs where
he lives with his parents today. For the next three years he
recorded with Brian Beattie of Austin band Glass Eye
. Every four weeks or so, Beattie would spend two hours
packing up a porta-studio, three hours driving to Johnston's house,
four to five hours recording, then break it all down and drive back
to Austin. Due to Johnston's ever-changing health, sometimes they
would not even get one song recorded. Other times, says Beattie,
"Johnston's genius antennae would shoot up into the sky, and a song
that sounded like it had existed forever would come uninterrupted
out of his mind and his hands".
In 2001, Johnston's first record in seven years (since 'Fun') was
released on Gammon Records, entitled 'Rejected
Unknown'. 'Rejected Unknown' was collected from the
recordings Johnston had made with Beattie and was a return to the
organic, free range Johnston. Although not as lo-fi as his early
cassettes, it still remained genuine, honest and reflective of an
individual talent. In the winter of 2002, Mojo
magazine, selected the album for their '1000 Ultimate CD Guide'.
|Not only is Johnston's musical career back on track, his
visual art is blossoming too. Johnston's art has been exhibited in
countless galleries around the world and he has become a permanent
fixture in 'outsider' art books. His art is rooted
deep in the iconography of his childhood; comic books, monster
movies, Bible stories and the Beatles. "His (Johnston's) fan base is
the artistic cream of the crop, but he may never appeal to the
masses, at least not in his lifetime. Van Gogh was
admired and mentored by superstar artists like Gauguin.
Later in history they were considered peers, even though during
their lives, Van Gogh sold nothing and Gauguin was a celebrity. This
could easily happen to Johnston as an artist and musician" says
artist Ron English .
Daniel Johnston is 42 now. Within his oversized adolescent frame
and incongruously mopped grey hair, lies a history of crash'n'burn
volatility, which co-exists with prolific creativity in music and
the visual arts. His output has been erratic, his career trajectory
unpredictable, but Johnston continues to exert a powerful creative
presence, despite the demons with which he is beset. As Dean
Ween of Ween says, "most songwriters would
have given anything to have written one song as good as any Daniel
Johnston tune, and he has hundreds". Johnston's personal troubles
have sometimes overshadowed his music legacy, but they have not
derailed his prodigious talents.
Johnston is "feeling a lot better". "I'm on better drugs now, so
it really makes a big difference" he says. Johnston can now be
frequently found in recording studios, art galleries and on concert
stages around the world. In 2002 he was invited by David
Bowie to perform at the Meltdown Festival,
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, and the Lyon Opera Ballet
commissioned New York-based choreographer Bill T.
Jones to create'Love Defined', a 25-minute
piece set to six Daniel Johnston songs. Most recently Johnston
played a handful of prestigious European festivals, such as
Roskilde and Benicassim, along with three
sold-out rare UK shows, in support of his critically acclaimed new
album,'Fear Yourself' (released on
Sketchbook ), a collaboration with Sparklehorse
Johnston maintains the support of many famous fans, from
Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons )
and Johnny Depp to David Bowie and
Kurt Cobain . Johnston is the musician's cult
musician, whose music is appreciated for it's utter lack of artifice
and the undeniable simple brilliance. A range of artists, such as
Beck, Wilco, Sonic Youth,
Yo La Tengo, Nina Persson (of
The Cardigans ), Sparklehorse,
Jad Fair, The Pastels,
Zwan and Pearl Jam have all covered
Johnston's songs in the past.