The Haunting Beauty of Daniel Johnston, Austin’s First Weirdo
Written by Grace Davies on November 17, 2019
Daniel Johnston. Singer-songwriter, artist, member of the rock t-shirt canon. He was a man of many labels and adjectives. It’s difficult to say something about him that hasn’t already been said. Kurt Cobain was a huge fan; he put Austin on the alternative map. He still gets noticed for the instability of his personal life, rather than his musical talents, of which he had many.
Daniel’s music was like peeling back someone’s skin and putting them in front of bright lights, their organs burning and hot, with the audience would simply watching them writhe in pain. Johnston somehow still managed to make people smile and cry. It was a happy sight to see Johnston in his later years, overweight, clutching a crumpled up notebook and dingy guitar. Normally, this would be a sight for mocking: the wince-inducing performance of an old man at an open mic night. However with a three-decades-long discography chronicling his ups, downs, trials and his obsessions in between.
Born in 1961 in California, Johnston was a natural creative. He would make short films with his siblings growing up, having them play his parents in an over the top, cruel manner. During his high school days, he gained notoriety for his eyeball drawings, which he plastered all throughout the school. His visual arts talents were something that came out naturally with no previous training according to a classmate.
Johnston bounced between college campuses, even attending the East Liverpool campus of Kent State, before moving to Austin with his parents. While attending that campus he recorded his first two albums, Songs of Pain and More Songs of Pain. These albums showcased Daniel’s early lyrical fixation with Christianity, sex and distorted relationships with women. This was the introduction of Johnston’s muse, a fellow classmate named Laurie Allen, who he later said: “…inspired thousands of songs.”
Both albums live up to their respective titles, as they are Daniel at a vulnerable state but not quite as manic as he would later become. He sounds more of a recluse, watching the world through a bell jar in which he resides. He also directs songs towards the proverbial “you”, but it’s easy to see he is pointing the lyrics at his own back.
“You’ll be all alone/ yes, no one will be there to stop you/No one to clear your head, no one to talk you out of it, no one to hear the last words that you said/No one will shed a tear, no one will be there to find you dead ’cause you’ll be all alone” (Hate Song).
The ones that stick out to me the most are his Beatles covers, the first of which is “I Will” on More Songs of Pain. He changes the perspective of all these originally joyous rock classics into a song of isolated longing for love. Daniel was the timid, inept wallflower to Paul McCartney’s endearing confidence.
Johnston jumped between jobs once he moved to Austin but his job at McDonald’s got him his first mainstream attention. He would drop copies of his tapes into people’s bags, which spread his sound to important people, like Louis Black at the Austin Chronicle.
He said about a performance of Daniels in 1985 “The singer finishes the song, the room bursts into applause…Daniel Johnston, former carny worker, one-time art student, would-be comic artist, transplanted West Virginian, and extraordinary songwriter has arrived.” He even got on MTV in a very surreal clip on the show “The Cutting Edge”. He apparently just got on the stage and MTV decided to film it, and you can feel his mental unease just watching his stutter-ridden but hauntingly beautiful performance.
By this point, Johnston’s music was in heavy circulation within the underground alternative scene. His two most well-known albums were released during this time: Hi, How Are You and Yip Jump Music, both recorded in 1983. Hi, How Are You was a unique project, allowing Johnston to use tape splices and sampling in his songs One of the notable uses is of a children’s toy at the beginning of “Walking the Cow”, one of his most exemplary songs. Hi, How Are You showcases the dynamics of Johnston’s personality, both childishly wide-eyed and heartbreakingly forthright, and his worsening mental state.
Johnston soon began to hang out with fellow musicians Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo and the Fair brothers of Half-Japanese, who he did the most musical collaboration with. Half-Japanese covered his songs and they recorded a ton of demos together. They even filmed a parody of My Dinner with Andre in 1988, which is a cinema verite look into Johnston’s crumbling mental and physical health. It is a disturbing watch to say the very least.
After a manic episode around New York City, assault against an elderly lady he believed to be the devil and crashing his father’s plane after a concert, Johnston was institutionalized in 1990. But he was about to see his greatest mainstream attention in an unusual way. The album artwork of his character, Jeremiah the Innocent from Hi, How Are You would be launched into the rotation of “cool” rock t-shirts thanks to Kurt Cobain in 1992. This would create a bidding war for labels to sign Johnston, all while he was still a mental patient. He would reject Elektra Records, due to their other artist Metallica being “satanic” according to him. He wound up signing with Atlantic and released Fun in 1994. Daniel sounds more confident than any of his previous tapes, both in his vocal performance and instrumentation. His lyrics are also more optimistic and celebratory, still displaying his childish tendencies. The way he approaches love on Fun is much healthier and stable, still shy and awkward in his approach, but the situations he writes about are much more normal than any of his past love songs. Such as “Love Will See You Through”, my personal favorite song off the album. “Cause love will see you through/It’s got to make things new/The future could be good/You’ve got to and it should”. This, unfortunately, is one of the contributing factors to the failure of the album and Daniel being dropped by Atlantic.
Daniel’s legacy has placed a firm footprint in pop culture. His music has been covered by the likes of Beck, Tom Waits, and The Flaming Lips among others. A documentary was made about his life in 2005, which became a festival hit. His song “Story of an Artist” was even used in an Apple ad in 2018. I was working at a country club when his ad was airing and it was strange to hear Daniel’s music being played on TV, right by the pool. It still puts a big smile on my face though.
The music world lost something very unique when Daniel passed this past September. Many have criticized Daniel’s fans as being more fascinated by the myth behind Daniel and the miserable demons that have plagued his personal life and bled their way into his music. This is a credible criticism, I think it’s overlooking the musical talents that Daniel possessed. Daniel’s authenticity and brutally candid lyrics, without being vulgar or crude, is what makes people stop to listen to and appreciate Daniel’s music. It’s even hard to imagine him being gone, as his presence is still felt among the music community today. He’s always felt like an enigma, a mysterious figure who doesn’t live an everyday existence like the rest of us. It always felt like he lived in a basement, piled high comics everywhere with cassette tapes galore, a shaved head and McDonald’s wrappers all around. But he was just a person, who subsisted through terrible circumstances, made art to cope, and somehow came out the other side with some scratches and bumps. All I can say then is thank you, Daniel.