The old cliche about genius and madness going hand in hand was truer for American singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston than for most. Deputy Arts & Culture Editor Marcus Judd reflects on the remarkable legacy of this singular artist.
Painfully honest, indiscreet and bizarre are a few words that scratch the surface of the musical anomaly that is Daniel Johnston. Considering that the idea of modern popular music coincides with the evolution in technology, Daniel Johnston was living proof that sincerity, heartbreak and an old tape recorder can truly be enough to attract the millions that now follow his work.
Born and raised in Sacramento, Daniel had a relatively normal childhood as the youngest of five brothers in a fundamentalist household, drawing long before composing any music of his own. As he grew, so did his appreciation for the likes of Lennon, Dylan, Queen and, especially, the Beatles. In his own words Daniel had stated that “When I was 19, I wanted to be The Beatles”, and his obsession with them, combined with the spare time he had in unemployment led him to spend his days in his parent’s cellar writing and recording his first two albums, Songs of Pain and More Songs of Pain.
In the year 1983, he went to stay with his brother, Dick, in Houston. It was there that he recorded Yip/Jump Music and Hi, How Are You? on a fifty-nine-dollar Sanyo mono-tape machine. He then moved to San Marcos, Texas, and, after spending five months working as a hotdog seller with a travelling carnival, he settled in Austin. During his time of the carnival, he commented: “Everybody around me was a great story that never stopped, and for the first time I realised how much freedom you have to do what you want.”
However, it was not until he moved to Austin Texas where he found his first followers. Working in a McDonald’s where he would sneak his tapes into customers’ orders, he quickly became a local celebrity and in 1985 he gained a significant profile boost when featured in MTV’s show, The Cutting Edge. Unfortunately for Daniel this was also the first time his decline in mental health became apparent. This steady fall from grace was materialized on the way back from a show of his new album, 1990. During the trip from West Virginia on a two-seater plane guided by his father, Daniel had a manic psychotic episode and was convinced he was Caspar the Friendly Ghost, then proceeding to throw the ignition key out the window resulting in a crash landing. Thankfully no one was hurt, yet the artists first of many stints in a mental hospital came as a consequence.
As his health got worse, his cult following only grew – this was most notable with Kurt Cobain donning Daniel’s Hi How are You album t-shirt and, it was later discovered in one of his many journals, Kurt saw Daniel’s Yip/Jump Music as one of his favourite albums. So, what was the reasoning for Daniel’s sudden jump to cult status? He couldn’t sing well, nor could he play any instrument proficiently, and at first glance, he appears to be many of those who want to make it, but never do. However, with Daniel, he saw the world in the opposite way. He didn’t care what people thought of his music, he just wanted to get it out in the world, regardless of status, which, ironically, garnered him all the more attention. When often brought up in the musical scene, most tend to fail to look past his diagnosis of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder as if it somehow delegitimises his works, yet it is precisely this that acts as his muse for his songs. There is something so blatantly unapologetic in the manner he conducts himself, in his lyrics and composition and love of the Beatles and his childhood crush, Laurie, that his music becomes less of a form of expression but more as a necessary medium to keep him sane.
This, I believe, is his true feat as an artist. Although it is certainly not my place to critique the current state of music, there has been and always will be the shining majority of those who will seek the spotlight no matter what. The troubled mind of Daniel Johnston had within itself a trait that very few people possess as artists – uncompromising authenticity. This is not to say he wasn’t self-aware of his situation, quite the opposite looking at the lyrics of “Monkey in a Zoo”: “throw me a peanut, laugh and make jokes, but I’ve had enough peanuts and I’m ready to croak”, and if there is one reason above all that you should give this unconventional man a chance, it is to see that despite his problems, he was willing to leave himself completely vulnerable through his art to talk about the problems that all of us face.