The ultimate outsider artist died yesterday. Here we remember the singular genius of Daniel Johnston
There’s a phrase they’re fond of using in Austin. You can find it on T-shirts, on mugs, on bumper stickers. It says ‘Keep Austin Weird’, and it serves to celebrate the countercultural hub that is the capital of Texas.
The phrase is often used to promote small businesses and their ongoing resistance to corporate takeover, but it also speaks to Austin’s status as a destination city for freaks, weirdos, hippies and dropouts. It came about in 2000, when Austin Community College librarian Red Wassenich phoned into KOOP Radio’s The Lounge Show to donate money. The host inquired what the purpose of Wassenich’s donation was. The caller replied, “I don’t know. It helps keep Austin weird…”
- Read more: Daniel Johnston’s 13 best songs – wonderful tales of mortality, purity and… cartoon characters
Austin is still weird – but arguably less so than it was 12 months ago. In May, Austin native Roky Erickson who, with his 1960s group the 13th Floor Elevators pretty much invented psychedelic rock, passed away at the age of 71.
And now, Daniel Johnston – beloved outsider musician, once of Sacramento, California but as much of an Austin icon as anyone – has left us too, dying of a heart attack at the age of 58. For fans of music that has a heart bigger than its production values, this is devastating news.
It says a lot about how ill suited for fame Daniel Johnston was that a cartoon frog he once doodled – known as ‘Jeremiah the Innocent’ – is arguably more famous than he is. You’ll know Jeremiah from the few years that Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, then the most famous and cool rock star on the planet, wore him emblazoned on the front of a white T-shirt with the words ‘Hi, how are you?’ in scribbly writing.
Cobain listed Johnston’s fifth home recorded album, Yip/Jump Music, as one of his ‘50 Favorite Albums Ever’ in his journals, while the T-shirt, a gift to Cobain from British music critic Everett True, propelled Johnston to unlikely heights.
But 1996’s Fun, his first label release for Atlantic, was a commercial failure and he was dropped from the label within two years. He took this to heart. Johnston wouldn’t make another record until 2001, returning with the stunning, career-best Rejected Unknown.
Nirvana lost major record labels a lot of money in the early ’90s, most of it going into the pockets of brilliant, innovative, daring artists Kurt repped who never stood a chance in hell of recouping. Flipper, The Vaselines, The Raincoats – and a mentally ill guy called Daniel Johnston who recorded songs on a tape deck in his bedroom and, during the ensuing label bidding war that took place during one of the songwriter’s frequent stays in the local mental hospital, refused to sign to Elektra Records because said label was the home of Metallica. He was scared they were the living incarnation of Satan and that he would be harmed. And yet to all accounts, Johnston really wanted to be famous.
As a young man obsessed with the Beatles (and Captain America, and King Kong, and Casper the Friendly Ghost, and a woman called Laurie – ‘the funeral girl’ – who he never dated but fell hopelessly, unsettlingly in love with the day she walked into his class at art college), Johnston would stand on Austin’s campus drag, Guadalupe Street, giving out cassettes of his music, cased in sleeves sporting his cartoons. “Hey, I’m Daniel Johnston and I’m going to be famous” he’d say, a bit like Kermit the Frog taking a toke. There’s something about that which is a bit sad and pathetic – there’s lots about Daniel Johnston which is a bit sad and pathetic, as he was aware when he wrote the song ‘Daniel The Idiot Savant Rock Star’ – but you try having both the devil and god raging in your brain. It’s also key to understanding the genius of Johnston. Listen to ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievances’, which he plays and records a little bit like he’s playing at Shea Stadium. “Yeah!” he hollers. “Everybody!” he shouts. Daniel Johnston was an outsider musician, but the music he made was brilliantly inclusive.
Though the recording would suggest otherwise, Johnston’s signature song ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’ – from 11th album 1990 – is one of popular music’s great, timeless, immortal love songs. It contains couplets that few would have the sincerity and conviction to commit to paper let alone tape. Words that look twee on paper but sound mighty when sung out loud. The song has been covered by the likes of Beck, Wilco, Spiritualized and countless more (though our favourite version can be found on Popshaped, a 2006 album by Newcastle based DIY stalwarts Milky Wimpshake, in which they fuse the DNA of Johnston’s song with another outsider indie anthem, The Modern Lovers classic ‘Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste’). But Daniel’s albums were littered with songs like these. ‘The Story Of An Artist’ (from 1982’s Don’t Be Scared), ‘Speeding Motorcycle’ (from 1983’s Yip/Jump Music), ‘Mountain Top’ (from 2003’s astonishing, Mark Linkous produced Fear Yourself). Songs that could speak to everyone and anyone, despite it being unlikely they’d ever hear them because… well, there are lots of reasons.
Johnston had a wretched life. He arrived in Austin after learning his well-intentioned but fundamentalist Christian mother – concerned by her son’s increasingly erratic behaviour – planned to have him committed to an institution. He hitched a ride with a passing carnival and ended up south. He arrived god fearing. He didn’t drink. He didn’t even believe in sex before marriage. He took LSD. His mind already unravelling from the undiagnosed mental health issues that had concerned his mother so much – later diagnosed as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder – it was a little bit like throwing gasoline on a bonfire. He attacked his manager with a pipe and put him in hospital. He was later found in a creek, singing to Jesus. What followed was his first stint in hospital.
One day he decided his songs and art were evil and threw them all in the trash. He got arrested for drawing Christian fish symbols on the base of the Statue Of Liberty. Out of his mind, he once entered an elderly women’s house, thinking she was possessed by Satan, only for the old lady to break both her legs, falling out of the window trying to get away from him. Once, in a helicopter being flown by his father, a decorated World War 2 fighter pilot, he – confusing the image of Casper the Friendly Ghost and parachute on the front of the comic he was reading with reality – grabbed the keys to the vehicles ignition and threw them out of the window. He grabbed the wheel from his father. His father pleaded with his son, asking him to let go, saying, “we’re going to die”. Johnston replied, “I can’t die!”. Astonishingly, father and son escaped with only superficial injuries. Unable to adequately look after himself, Johnston lived with his parents for the rest of his life (and if you want to see what desperate unconditional love between parent and child looks like, you must seek out seminal 2005 biopic The Devil and Daniel Johnston immediately).
In Austin, ‘Jeremiah the Innocent’ lives on where Daniel does not. The mural of the big frog that the late Austin record store Sound Exchange commissioned Daniel to paint on their wall remains. It’s something of an Austin institution, almost lost in 2004 when a Mexican grill franchise called Baja Fresh took ownership of the building and intended to knock said wall down. The community revolted and the wall remained. A Thai restaurant lives there now. Brilliantly, it’s called ‘Thai, How Are You?’ Elsewhere in town, Austin remains weird. But sad. They – all of us, wherever we are – lost a special one this week.