Daniel Johnston has spent the
last 20 or so years exposing his heartrending tales of unrequited love,
cosmic mishaps, and existential torment to an ever-growing international
cult audience. Initiates, including a healthy number of discerning
musicians and critics, have hailed him as an American original in the
style of bluesman Robert Johnson and country legend Hank Williams. A
number of artists -- among them the Dead Milkmen, Yo La Tengo, the
Velvet Underground's songs. And he as collaborated with the likes of Jad
Fair (a founding member of Half Japanese, who've also done Daniel's
songs), the Butthole Surfers, Bongwater/Shimmydisc guru Kramer, and
members of Sonic Youth. Daniel gained his widest public exposure to date
when, at the 1992 MTV Music Awards, Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain (who
constantly touted Daniel in interviews) wore a Johnston T-shirt.
Surprisingly, the bulk of his considerable acclaim snowballed from a
series of homemade, lo-fi cassettes which Daniel started recording and
handing out to fans and friends alike in the early 80s. Eventually, the
independent label Homestead re-issued some of these tapes on CD, and
Johnston recorded a few new albums in almost-proper studios.
Daniel was born in 1961 in Sacramento, California, the youngest of
five children in a Christian fundamentalist household> He and his family
soon moved to New Cumberland, West Virginia, where his father, an
engineer and World War II fighter pilot, landed a job with Quaker State.
Drawing for a long time before he took up music, Daniel grew to
appreciate such artists John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Bob Dylan, David
Bromberg, Queen, Neil Young, the Sex Pistols, and especially the
Beatles. "When I was 19, I wanted to be the Beatles. I was disappointed
when I found out I couldn't sing." That Liverpudlian quartet continues
to inspire Daniel today, who sings, "My heart looked to art and I found
the Beatles/Oh God I was and am a true disciple on Rock 'n' roll/EGA."
While it would be years before Daniel committed his first songs to
tape, he began composing at an early age. "When I was a kid, probably
nine, I used to bang around on the piano, making up horror movie themes.
When I got a bit older, I'd be mowing my lawn and I'd make up songs and
sing them. No one could hear me 'cause of the lawn mower." As a
teenager, Daniel and his friends began to record their own tapes and
trade them among themselves. After high school, he attended an art
program at a branch of Ken State near his family's home. This was a
prolific period of his life. Unemployed, and attending classes
sporadically, he began to spend most of his time in his family's cellar,
writing and recording. The tapes he made there included "Songs of Pain"
and "More Songs of Pain," which both centered around his unrequited love
for a woman named Laurie who ended up marrying an undertaker.
The aspiring cartoonist -- whose playful, symbol-heavy sketches have
graced the covers of may of his releases, including "Fun" -- moved to
Texas in 1983. FIrst he went to Houston, living with his brother and
working at Astro World, while also recording the seminal tapes "Yip/Jump
Music" and "Hi, How Are You?" on a $59.00 Sanyo mono boom box. These
recordings featured such classics as "Speeding Motorcycle," "Sorry
Entertainer," and odes to everyone from "Casper the Friendly Ghost" and
"King Kong" to "The Beatles." From there he moved to San Marcos, TX, and
even joined a traveling carnival show for a spell, selling corndogs. "It
was like a movie all the time. Everybody around me was a great story
that never stopped, and for the first time, I realized how much freedom
you have to do what you want."
Throughout his career, Daniel's songs and drawings have been informed
to some degree by his ongoing struggle with manic depression -- lending
an added poignancy to his soul-searching times. His five-month stint
with the carney left him in Austin, where he decided to stay. In the
midst of that city's mid-eighties music scene, Johnston was a definite
iconoclast. While he continued to hand out his tapes for free, Austin
record stores started selling them; in fact, the became best-selling
local releases. Soon, a camera crew from MTV's seminal "Cutting Edge"
show came to town and all the Austin bands suggested they feature
His appearance on the show made him a minor celebrity. Recognizing
the quality of his songs and the purity of his vision, the American
underground began to embrace Daniel. The Dead Milkmen recorded his song
"Rocket Shop," and Sonic Youth and noted Minutemen/FIREHOSE bassist Mike
Watt made plans to record some of his material, as did The Butthole
Surfers and other Austin bands. The music press both here and abroad
began to weigh in with lofty pronouncements of Daniel's artistry.
In the spring of 1992, the Lyon Opera Ballet commissioned a piece
from New York-based choreographer Bill T. Jones. He delivered "Love
Defined" - a 25-minute piece set to six songs from Johnston's
Yip/Jump Music. In October of that same year, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie
Zane combo performed "Love Defined" at New York's Joyce Theatre. The
reviews in the New York Times and the Village Voice each
cited Johnston's songs favorably. Over the years, Daniel's paintings and
drawings have been exhibited in Los Angeles, Zurich, and Berlin. The
cover of a recent edition of music writer Richard Meltzer's "The
Aesthetics of Rock" was drawn by Johnston.
The 90's were difficult for Daniel, but will probably be regarded as
the years that medical relief was achieved. Modern
medications eventually achieve stability.
He signed with Atlantic Records in 1992 and released "FUN" which sold
12,000 copies. But his mental stability and productivity
didn't produce another album until 1999 with Brian Beatties production
Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse collaborated with Daniel in the 2003
release "Fear Yourself" on Gammon Records, making what many regard as an
"accessible" contemporary sound to Daniel's music ideas.
In November of 2004, Gammon records released a cover tribute album
with covers from eighteen artists on one CD and Daniel's originals on
the second CD. This work, "Discovered Covered - The Late Great
Daniel Johnston" gave Daniel new exposure to fans of Beck, Clem Snide,
Gordan Gano, Eels, Calvin Johnson, Tom Waits and others.
In January, 2005, the feature-length documentary "The Devil and
Daniel Johnston" premiered at Sundance Film Festival and at film
festivals around the world that year. The movie was
distributed in North America by Sony Pictures Classic and by Tartan
Films in the United Kingdom on March 31, 2006.
Daniel's music and artwork are available for sale in the
Hi, How Are You Storefront, along with
t-shirts and memorabilia. .