I first encountered Daniel Johnston like most people did. Kurt Cobain had worn a T-shirt with one of Johnston’s album covers on it, and he even went as far as putting one of Johnston’s albums on his top fifty list. Being ever curious I googled Johnston’s Wikipedia page. I didn’t listen to anything then, and even if I had I don’t think I would have liked it. Years passed. Eventually, I start to idolize a little known band called Sparklehorse with something close to deity worship, and in trying to find everything they ever put to tape I found that they had contributed to a tribute album of covers of Johnston’s songs. The band had also recorded a cover of one of Johnston’s songs on their second album. Adding to my curiosity, the lead singer had even produced one of Johnston’s records.
Alright, I’ll bite. I started to sink my teeth into the compilation album The Late Great Daniel Johnston – Discovered & Covered. The list of artists doing covers reads like an all-star cast list. The eels. Death Cab for Cutie, The Flaming Lips, Beck, Tom Waits. Artists I had grown to adore in the interim period all liked this guy. The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O covered him. Even Lana Del Rey has done a cover of Johnston.
To be clear, Johnston appears to suffer from what I like to call Bob Dylan syndrome in regards to his music. That is, covers of his music are much more well-known than the originals, and thus in some form, be it through a cover or simply T-shirt artwork, you will probably be familiar with Johnston’s work. Johnston’s originals are a 101 class in lo-fi, outsider music. Working as often as they don’t, they have a great charm to them. It seems as though this isn’t music you listen to in terms of chord progressions or artistry, rather you listen to it as a cogent whole, as an experience. You hear the crackle of the tape recorder that Johnston is using, you hear his fingers smack the piano in eccentric and ingenious ways.
I was intrigued enough to watch the documentary, The Devil & Daniel Johnston. I knew that Johnston suffered ill mental health as in one of the many interviews I had heard of Sparklehorse talking about him he mentions being intrigued by a man who would record cassettes in a psychiatric ward. I watched the documentary and saw the music anew. A story such as Johnston’s is so extraordinary it threatens to dwarf the music, which at the end of the day should be all that matters.
From an early age, Johnston was eccentric and enjoyed recording music and making artwork. Messy and often unruly, he vigorously self-promoted, recording his songs on a tape deck and distributing the cassettes with hand drawn art. His tapes quickly circulated amongst musicians who wished to know their source. As word of mouth grew about Johnston in his native Austin, to the point where he had sold out shows, his already precarious mental health began to suffer, which wasn’t aided by Johnston’s recreational use of psychotropic drugs. Exhibiting symptoms that point toward a manic depressive illness that had ascended into psychosis, Johnston became increasingly unstable. He often vanished. A key event happened in the eighties, where, believing himself to be Caspar the ghost, he pulled the key out of his father’s plane and threw it out the window as they flew. Exasperated, Johnston’s father, a former air force pilot, landed the plane safely and the two walked away with minor injuries. The plane was totalled. Following this, his parents opted to commit Daniel to a psychiatric hospital for six months.
It was during his stay here that a bidding war erupted over Johnston. As Johnston had been sat in the hospital the frontman of Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, had been promoting him simply by wearing a t-shirt. Interest in Johnston grew exponentially. Elektra and Atlantic records tried to outbid each other, each wanting to win Johnston. Elektra out bid Atlantic but Johnston refused the deal. His delusions often fixated around religious figures such as the devil, and Johnston, in ill health, believed Elektra Records to be an extension of the devil. He refused to sign. Shortly thereafter he signed with Atlantic Records. A lo fi artist who had made his name via handmade tapes and word of mouth, and who was now a patient as a psychiatric hospital, was now signed to a major record label.
Johnston eventually recorded one album for Atlantic, and due to poor sales, was dropped from the label. Johnston’s mental health continued to decline but music remained a life line for him. Slowly but steadily, he began to live with his parents and resumed recording music and making artwork. Today, his health is still somewhat precarious, but his musical stature continues to grow, with the latest person to cover him being none other than Lana Del Rey.
I was particularly struck by the fact that Johnston’s notoriety reached a peak as his mental health descended, resulting in a hospital admission. When you’re in a psychiatric ward you feel as though you’ve failed society, and yourself, in some way. You feel as though you’ll never produce anything of worth again after being in that environment. So, to see Johnston record tapes while in hospital and release them to a rabid pack of fans, eagerly waiting for another cassette to emerge from Johnston as if from the underworld, is heart-warming.
Mental illness is often romanticised in regards to art. It goes without saying but this is absurd and to live with a mental illness is absolute agony, for both the sufferer and those around them who love them. Yes, it’s true, many great artists have had mental illnesses in their lives. However, the art isn’t made because of the illness, but in spite of it. Johnston’s story would have been remarkable even if any and all illness were stripped away, after all, the boy who made his name on self-circulated cassettes and word of mouth, was now a mythic figure in the lo fi scene and is revered/covered by artists the world over. When you factor in Johnston’s mental illness the story becomes nothing more than inspirational.