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Associated Press November 1, 2004

AP Associated Press

November 1, 2004

 

Daniel Johnston, the musician's musician, returns from the dead

By JAKE COYLE

Associated Press Writer

   NEW 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.

   Today, 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 original recordings.

   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.

   When reached by phone from his home in Texas, Johnson answers, "I'm dead, you've called heaven."

   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 Johnson.

   While his songs remain largely unfamiliar to music fans, they are famous among musicians _ who view Johnston as a "songwriter's songwriter."

   The 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.

   "I 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."

   Jordan 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.

   That 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.

   "It 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.

   "It's a cheap trick. It's a big piece of bait on a very sharp hook."

   As 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 awe.

   "It's 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.

   "I just want to keep on making music and keep making cartoons," he says with simpicity.

   Still Johnston does have one regret. As a tremendous Beatles fan, he wishes one more artist could have contributed a cover: Paul McCartney.

   "Man, he wouldn't do one of my songs!"   

   ___

   On the Net:

   http://www.hihowareyou.com

   http://www.gammonrecords.com

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Polka Dot Rag
The What Of Whom

The Beatles

Lost And Found

Speeding Motorcycle
Live with Smutfish in The Netherlands

Casper
Kids
 
Honey I Sure Miss You
Artistic Vice
   
Dead Dog Laughing In The Cloud
Continued Story
 
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Daniel Johnston backstage in Boston 2009-10-15

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