Posted: Jan 25, 2006 2:17 am
Put the name 'Daniel Johnston' into any internet search engine and you will 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.
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 take note.
With the surprise success of Johnston's poignantly personal homemade cassettes, the 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 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 Records.
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 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.