Daniel Johnston, the musician's musician, returns from the dead
YORK (AP) _ When Nirvana performed "Lithium" at the 1992 MTV Music Video
Awards, Kurt Cobain wore a curious T-shirt with a frog logo and the
question, "Hi, how are you?" _ a shirt designed by who Cobain frequently
declared his all-time favorite songwriter, Daniel Johnston.
Johnston remains not only an influence musicians wear on their sleeve, but a
kind of godfather of low-fi pop. A new album features covers of Johnston's
music, with contributions from Beck, Tom Waits, the Flaming Lips and many
more, which, in a unique arrangement, is accompanied by a second disc of the
¶ It is
titled "The Late, Great Daniel Johnston," and features his tombstone on the
cover. Of course, the man in a suit looking down at the grave is Johnston,
who is alive and well. But the album seeks a little pre-posthumous
recognition for the singer.
reached by phone from his home in Texas, Johnson answers, "I'm dead, you've
Johnston recorded most of his best known songs on a cheap $60 boom box in
the eighties and early nineties while living in Austin, Texas. The bare
bones sound, compulsively recorded out of a genuine passion for music, makes
Johnston something like the indie rock equivalent of blues great Robert
his songs remain largely unfamiliar to music fans, they are famous among
musicians _ who view Johnston as a "songwriter's songwriter."
lead singer of the Eels, E, says in the liner notes of the disc, "Any one of
us would sell our mothers to write a song as good as one of Daniel's." Even
among critical favorites like Bright Eyes and Vic Chesnutt, he is far from
alone in that sentiment.
Johnston sings in a high, scraggly, childlike voice over crude piano or
guitar that often doesn't adhere to strict rules of tempo or rhythm. The
music is very raw and without the high production gloss that can aid
listeners. But this intimate recording works with the devastating honesty of
Johnston's lyrics and it has always been part of his allure.
think it's more intriguing coming from that Special Olympics hi-fi
recording," says Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, who both appears on the album
and co-produced it. "There's something about Daniel's songs coming out of
his body that's just a miracle."
Trachtenberg, the head of Gammon Records and the other producer, had the
idea of the cover record while making a new CD with Johnston. It arose as
both a way of spreading Johnston's music and as a fund-raiser for him.
Johnston, 42, now lives in a small Texas town with his parents. He has
suffered from a bipolar disorder most of his life, but antidepressants have
helped him become more stabilized. His past is filled with time spent in and
out of mental hospitals as well as several dangerous episodes.
combination of songwriting talent and mental health problems leads
Trachtenberg to the comparison, "he's the Brian Wilson of my generation. He
doesn't have the mechanism to hide things that you and I do."
Johnston has had brushes with fame before. In 1985, he was featured in an
MTV show about the Austin scene and then was signed to Atlantic Records.
was like being on `Bonanza,'" Johnston remembers. "I was just like a star
and I couldn't get away."
¶ At the
time, Johnston was clearly not ready for the mainstream. The sessions with
Atlantic were marred by bouts of depression, resulting in the ironically
titled "Fun," released in 1994.
¶ He has
put out of a dozen albums and at least as many cassette tapes over the
years, but commercial success has still eluded Johnston. With a goal of
building a house for Johnston next to his parents, Trachtenberg hopes the
impressive roster of musicians on the album will draw new fans to him.
a cheap trick. It's a big piece of bait on a very sharp hook."
good as the covers are, that hook, the original songs by Johnston, is the
real attraction here. His tunes of unrequited love, loneliness and abiding
hope are remarkably powerful, and continue to leave musicians slack-jawed in
just not as easy as Daniel makes it sound to write a song," says Tunde
Adebimpe of TV on the Radio. "You just know he was made to write songs."
Johnston plans to keep busy churning those tunes out. He also continues to
draw cartoons (like the one Cobain wore) and has even had his work shown in
galleries in Los Angeles and in Europe.
just want to keep on making music and keep making cartoons," he says with
Johnston does have one regret. As a tremendous Beatles fan, he wishes one
more artist could have contributed a cover: Paul McCartney.
he wouldn't do one of my songs!"
¶ On the