Like a Monkey in a Zoo: The World of Daniel Johnston

Cory Lomberg takes a look at the wild, unpredictable career of Austin legend Daniel Johnston.
By    January 26, 2016



daniel johnston hi how are you

Cory Lomberg does the dirty work so we can have the gold.

MTV was an unusual place to spot Daniel Johnston in 1985. The sonic and moral discrepancies were so stark that any intersection bridged on ridiculous—hilarious, even. Johnston’s early tapes, played out on a chord organ or an ill-tuned guitar, sounded out like alarms to cut some recurring synthpop nightmare short. Back in West Virginia, he was raised ultra religious; his fundamentalist parents probably would have joined the ranks against Twister Sister’s wrath of televised corruption.

But there he was—shadows cast over a hesitant grin, hair flying out of the frame, his trademark cassette thrust toward the camera. Johnston was in his mid-twenties, though he didn’t look or sound a day over 18—especially as he inspected the lens and shouted out friend and collaborator, Dave Thornberry:

“This is to David Thornberry from Daniel Johnston. And Dave, here I am on MTV, holding up my tape, Hi, How Are You, and they’re recording me tonight. I’m on MTV. Remember we used to watch MTV back home? Look—I’m on MTV, Dave.” From his earliest albums to later compilations, Johnston’s discography includes hundreds of songs. Some don’t have known names. Others have been covered and re-released dozens of times. I’ve picked a few highlights in his tumultuous rise to stardom.

 


I Live My Broken Dreams live (1985)


Johnston was already established as a local celebrity in Austin, where he landed after a stint selling corndogs for a traveling circus. He was known to wander about town, hand-delivering his recordings to local musicians and critics. International recognition only stood a couple decades away. The MTV appearance came first, followed by buzz brought on by Kurt Cobain’s 1992 VMA performance, clad in a Hi, How Are You shirt. Johnston eventually outgrew his own obscurity. He outgrew Austin, too, where he’s now distantly memorialized by a mural attached to a Thai restaurant.

His fan base expanded to include his critically and commercially-lauded peers, from Wilco to Yo La Tengo to Built to Spill. Other musicians frequently cover his work, tout him as a major source of inspiration and seek collaboration. Yet with this admiration comes some element of neglect toward the processes behind Johnston’s work.

His music’s profound quality is somewhat cultivated from a place of disturbance. The progression of his career was accompanied by the growing prominence of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and manic depression. From an early age, Johnston felt an impulse to express and expound his unique interpretation of the world. The illness and the artistry have always been intertwined. His methods of writing, recording and playing—which have all been praised for their originality—were influenced by urgency. During Johnston’s musical development, no existing style adequately conveyed his differently-abled experience. So he made his own. That difference has been confused as commercial and creative genius ever since.

The rumor of Johnston’s ingenuity is not directly derived from his illness, but this notion runs the risk of romanticizing his experiences. His ability to lead a conventional life offstage has been hindered by mental illness. His art, however, grew out of the torment, to a degree which is impossible to determine. For instance, the animated “Casper the Friendly Ghost” makes an appearance as the title of a Yip/Jump Music track, as well as in Johnston’s visual artwork. But delusions around the same cartoon drove Johnston to force the key out of his father’s plane during a ride out of Austin. The 1990 incident landed him in hospitalization.


Casper the Friendly Ghost


We can’t completely compartmentalize Johnston’s illness from his brilliance. Isolating the two or claiming they’re one in the same would be over-simplistic and easy. The balance is anything but.

The proof lies within current-day Johnston, rather than his younger self. He spent the ‘90s in and out of a mental hospital. The process took a physical toll on him. He’s now 54, though he still looks about a decade older. He doesn’t perform often. When he does, he’ll typically wear a sweater and sweats, sticking to blues and greys. If lyrics are set out before him, he’ll add reading glasses (on occasions without, he may fumble a few lines). Sometimes he comes onstage with a walker. His days of playing solo shows are over; a medication-induced trembling of the limbs inhibits him from playing the guitar or the piano, so he’s typically backed by a band. The shaking sends some echoing effect reverberating through the mic unless it’s steadily rested on the stand.


Speeding Motorcycle live (2014)


Johnston’s diminishing physical health has ushered a push to preserve his legacy, much through the revitalized popularity of his music and artwork. Lana Del Rey and Mac Miller sat as executive producers of the avant-garde film Hi, How Are You Daniel Johnston?. Supreme partnered with the artist to design a series of shirts. A tributary iPhone game fuses his drawings and songs, though Johnston does not own an iPhone, a cell phone, or his own phone line.

Preservation efforts almost seem posthumous. They’re premature. The aging Johnston remains true to his early tapes, the bulk of which were recorded in his brother’s Houston garage on a Sanyo boombox. That’s where his sound filled out—where he reportedly suffered a mental breakdown, where a weight bench supported his organ, where he translated inner frustrations and curses and declarations of love into music that is not necessarily difficult to depict or understand. His lyrics are thematically straightforward, but syntactically nuanced. It’s in the omission of a conjunction or the muttered elongation of one syllable over another—often matched with a buoyant melody.


Chord Organ Blues


Yip/Jump Music harbors an energy so erratic, it’s threatening. A brisk, faintly frantic tempo suggests something teetering on the brink of implosion. That sensation isn’t metaphorical; Johnston claimed to experience a mental breakdown later on in 1983 while recording Hi, How Are You.

Every thumping note on “Chord Organ Blues” is a different kind of honk. They frame his words with a carnival-esque cheer that gets eerie fast. Johnston confronts crippling self-doubt with a smile. It’s summer in Houston. From his station in the garage, Johnston wails, “I think I might have made a big mistake.” There’s no escaping heat or uncertainty during the city’s most relentless season.


Etiquette


Johnston enlists The Texas Instruments in 1985 for his first collaborative album, Continued Story. The Austin-based band helps to fill out a few tracks (most successfully with drums), but its most notable contribution is more sentimental. The record feels emotionally elevated from Johnston’s previous tapes, likely as a result of his company. A slightly better mood runs throughout. Sad songs never feel as painful when you’ve got someone to sing them with.

Take “Etiquette,” where Johnston speaks to a special kind of self-consciousness evoked in social settings. It’s a continuation of his obsession with documenting romance and companionship. Unsurprisingly, he’s bummed about it. But the disappointment is matched with laughter, banter, improvisation and some rare variation in vocal range. Continued Story knows Johnston at his darkest yet his most approachable. The Texas Instruments highlight his ability to capture something universally dejecting—like fear of the approach—and describe it in a language so distinctly his own.


Do You Really Love Me? (Tell Me Now)


Johnston often sings of unrequited loves. Particularly, Laurie: his college classmate and unending muse. Things never panned out with Laurie, who was engaged to someone else when she first met Johnston, though he continues to cite her as the love of his life decades after leaving school. This notion of unfulfilled desire appears and reappears as Johnston tackles romance in his songwriting. The final verse of “Do You Really Love Me? (Tell Me Now)” features his desire to court and to convince as he momentarily strays from the melody. Rather than continuing to sing, he pauses to slowly say, “Love is real. It’s the way that I feel.” But there’s a hesitation, as if sometimes, Johnston even struggles to convince himself.


Mind Contorted


Fun, the only album released in 1994 during his short-lived deal with Atlantic, is representative of one of Johnston’s most tumultuous decades. It’s a flop if he’s ever had one. Where the static mishaps of home recording should drone on, strings and tambourines play. The whole album sounds overproduced, simply because it’s outside of the garage. Even his burp on “Catie” sounds rehearsed.

Thankfully, the lyrics don’t suffer. “Mind Contorted” is ridden with an element of desperation, as he relentlessly claims to be a better musician and a better man. After all these years, he bargains for love and success amid the growing fear that neither will come through.


Some Things Last a Long Time


So much of Johnston’s discography produces a fight—to turn back time, to be understood, for one more chance. This is his acceptance. Co-written by Half Japanese’s Jad Fair, “Some Things Last A Long Time” is one long sigh of a staple. Johnston’s youthfulness, which occasionally comes off as childlike naïveté, has briefly worn away on 1990. He’s wise beyond his years here. It sounds exhausting.

Scarce instrumentals clear the way for all that dreary maturity to flood in. His youth came and went. The one that got away probably was the one. It’s all downhill from here, but there’s no harm in looking back as long as you’re not tempted to climb.

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