Daniel Johnston, perhaps the best songwriter the world has seen. Hyperbole? Not at all. The Beatles mixed with Randy Newman, carefully blended with a mental illness or two and topped off with an infectious enthusiasm few can match.
The latter is to me a key component to his brilliance, and the main reason I prefer his earlier material from when he was still a hyperactive kid brimful of youthful exuberance recording ditties inbetween bouncing off the walls.
Although I admit he never lost the knack for writing great songs with memorable hooks, and he is still producing quality stuff to this day. There's just something about the unbridled energy of his earliest recordings I can't resist. 100% envigorating and life-affirming, despite the often bleak themes.
Here follows Daniel Johnston's lifestory with all the non-crazy parts taken out. That might not make for an entirely accurate story, but perpetrating myths and legends is infinitely more effective than telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
The downside of the internet is that nothing is mysterious, exotic or obscure anymore, your mind is never allowed to wander anymore. You're never given the chance to fill in the blanks with your own imagination. Well fuck that, I thrive on blanks.
He was born in Sacramento in 1961 and he and his brothers and sisters were raised by their deeply religious parents in West Virginia. An eccentric from birth, Daniel began acting stranger the older he grew. He would later be diagnosed as bipolar manic depressive with paranoid schizophrenic tendencies.
Having always been interesting in music and The Beatles in particular he started recording his own songs in his late teens, his preferred instruments being the piano. The songs usually centered around movies, comic books, superheroes etc. He also drew a lot and made movies starring himself and his family.
After graduation from high school he went to an art college where he spent more time falling head over heels in love with a girl named Laurie than attending classes. This crush was not mutual as Laurie already had a boyfriend, one who worked in a funeral home. Laurie would more or less haunt Daniel's music and his requited love for her still works as a fuel in his songwriting to this day. That and fighting Satan.
He kept recording tapes and often included snippets of his class mates' converstation in his songs. In 1983, after his stint in college was over, he moved in with his brother in Houston and worked at Astro World. It was during this time he purchased an old beat up chord organ at a garage sale and recorded some of his most acclaimed albums, such as Hi, How Are You?. And by "albums" I mean cassettes recorded on a boombox with handdrawn covers.
He then joined a travelling carnival were he sold corndogs for five months before ending up in Austin, Texas after getting the shit beat out of him by a carny outside a porta potty. He took job at McDonald's where he spent most of his days mopping floors, as this was more or less the only job he was qualified for. Rumor quickly spread around town of this weird kid making weird tapes full of weird music. When MTV rolled into town in 1985 to shoot a show about Austin music scene, Johnston made sure he became the center of attention. His appearance made him a local indie celebrity and many acclaimed musicians began covering his material.
By the late 80s and early 90s his mental problems kept getting worse, no doubt exacerbated by his use of hallucinogenics. He became increasingly obsessed with the devil and drew Jesus fishes on any surface wherever he got the chance. He went in and out of mental hospitals, tried every type medication in the book, and reportedly spent a whole year in bed, knocked out by the prescription drugs. When he started feeling a bit better he was invited to New York to hang out some musician friends and perhaps record something of his own.
This of course went pear-shaped pretty soon. After a string of bizarre in-store performances, during which he was just as likely to preach and/or break down crying as sing his songs, he was put on a bus home to Texas. After a day or two he had returned to New York as he felt he had a divine mission to execute in the city. Did I mention he got arrested for drawing Jesus fishes all over the Statue of Liberty?
He was eventually put back in the mental hospital where he sent petitions out the manufacturers of Mountain Dew, his favorite beverage, urging them to make him a spokesperson for their product.
While he was in there a bidding war was taking place and he finally made his major label debut in 1992 with the album Fun on Atlantic Records. The album didn't sell. He was dropped from the label and wouldn't make another album until 1999.
In 2004 a tribute album featuring the likes of Beck, Tom Waits and Eels was released to great acclaim and Johnston continues to play gigs all over the world. He currently resides in Waller, Texas, and his latest album, Space Ducks, came out in April 2013. Go check it out.
You could argue that Daniel Johnston's music wouldn't have half the appeal if he was mentally healthy, but I find all it does is give his music a degree of authenticity. When he sings about losing his mind (his brain literally falling out of his head) he does so in an effort to cope with his illness. So would I like his music if he was perfectly sane? Probably not, because then it would just be an act. It's the honesty that does it.
I suppose he could come across as some sort of novelty artist, it's fun to see a strange guy playing songs in his own strange way, but I can't remember one instance were I was laughing at Daniel Johnston or even with him. I don't think there's anything funny here, he doesn't in any way fall into the "it's so bad it's good category" as someone like Wesley Willis or Eilert Pilarm definitely do. Sure, it sounds a little off most of the time, but what you're hearing is sincere, honest lyrics set to genuinely well-crafted songs. Simple as that.
Much can be said about Johnston's ability as a musician (capable as a pianist, less so as a guitarist) but his skills as a songwriter can hardly be questioned, nearly every song is a little pop masterpiece. Some find his music too naive and simple, childlike even, to be taken seriously but you could make the same case about Brian Wilson or Syd Barrett, two in my opinion quite overrated songwriters who will probably continue to be praised til the cows come home.
His voice is one of the most heartwrenching I have ever heard, and when he wails "Please hear my cry for help and save me from myself" in Peek A Boo, which might sound like a trivial line, it comes straight from his soul and shows that even as early as 1981-82, before his mental problems became a big issue, he was able to express his feelings on the matter. When he later concludes "You can listen to these songs, have a good time and walk away, but for me it's not that easy, I have to live these songs forever" it's so raw and naked it's almost unbearable to listen to. No doubt the most vivid expression of mental illness in musical form since Syd Barrett's Vegetable Man in 1968.
And just listen to Some Things Last A Long Time from the album 1990 - it's a fully executed wonder of a song. It's the Neil Young song that Neil Young has never had the fragility to write himself.
All of this brings us to this big compilation I made.
Perhaps 40 tracks is a bit overkill - maybe an hour and a half of rough lo-fi homerecordings of a young man with a slight lisp banging on a piano or an organ and yelping about comic book characters, God and unrequited love is a bit much for some. For others, it just about hits the spot.
Early stuff only, taken from Songs Of Pain (1981), Don't Be Scared (1982), The What Of Whom (1982), More Songs Of Pain (1983), Yip/Jump Music (1983), Hi, How Are You (1983), Continued Story (1985), It's Spooky (1989) and 1990 (1990).
(zip) Metal Bastard's favorite Daniel Johnston songs (98 mb)
1. Story of an artist (1982)
2. Grievances (1981)
3. Peek a boo (1982)
4. Lost without a dame (1982)
5. Casper the friendly ghost (1983)
6. Only missing you (1983)
7. Joy without pleasure (1981)
8. Devil town (1990)
9. Walking the cow (1983)
10. I will (1983)
11. Evening stars (1982)
12. I'm nervous (1987)
13. Man obsessed (1982)
14. You put my love out the door (1983)
15. I had a dream (1982)
16. Don't let the sun go down on your grievances (1983)
17. Wicked world (1981)
18. I'll never marry (1983)
19. I saw her standing there (1985)
20. Lazy (1981)
21. Never before, never again (1982)
22. Get yourself together (1983)
23. The sun shines down on me (1982)
24. Chord organ blues (1983)
25. Like a monkey in a zoo (1981)
26. Living life (1981)
27. I had lost my mind (1982)
28. Speeding motorcycle (1983)
29. True love will find you in the end (1990)
30. The Beatles (1983)
31. Never relaxed (1981)
32. Since I lost my tooth (1981)
33. McDonalds on the brain (1989)
34. Sorry entertainer (1983)
35. To go home (1982)
36. Urge (1981)
37. Rarely (1983)
38. Laurie (1992)
39. Brainwash (1981)
40. Hate song (1981)
Buy 'em all @ Amazon.com.
Disclaimer: Previous posted on this blog in two separate posts in 2009.