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Daniel Johnston at the University of Houston
Daniel Johnston at the University of Houston
Photo by Ben DeSoto

Remembering Daniel Johnston, Lo-Fi Guru of Do-It-Yourself Music, Dead at 58

Though a transplant from West Virginia, and born in California, Daniel Johnston was synonymous with Austin’s unique and weird music ecosystem for years. Despite suffering from a sometimes debilitating schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, he became a bona fide lo-fi guru of Do-It-Yourself music-making. On Wednesday, September 11, he died, likely from a heart attack, at home about 40 miles from Houston. The man who helped pave the path along which bands like Portastatic, Beat Happening, and Magnetic Fields have thrived, has slipped beyond us.

In America, although raved about in places like Austin, San Francisco, and New York City, Johnston often remained under-the-radar, although his brief major label tenure at Atlantic Records lifted him into a larger limelight during the 1990s. But in the college radio, alternative rock, and indie pop worlds, as well as overseas, he was considered a maverick. His musical visions, like being a punkier, whimsical Elton John in the land of Hanna-Barbera cartoons, will remain forever imprinted on indie music, like a permanent magic marker tattoo.

“Daniel was an outsider’s outsider, sort of an extension of the Austin tradition of folks like Townes Van Zandt, Blaze Foley, and Rich Minus, with the pop sensibility of Roky Erickson, and, sans the alcohol patina of the former,” explains legend Jeff Smith, whose raucous band the Hickoids appeared alongside Johnston on the compilation Woodshock 85, released by El Jefe Records, which Smith co-owned with Mike Alvarez of Max and The Makeups. That, in fact, was Johnston’s vinyl debut.

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“That he achieved the level of acclaim that he did is testament to his early tenacity, like selling his homemade cassettes for a dollar and playing for anyone willing to listen, and the power of his songs,” Smith continues. “Even if you didn’t care for the (lack of) production or rhythmically challenged nature of these recordings, there was always a line or two in his songs that were identifiable to anyone in their open acknowledgment of insecurity and self-doubt.”

Despite Johnston’s complicated, complex illness, he was a builder of songs that first scratched their way to the surface of hipster culture via those homemade cassette tapes with photocopied covers, which Stress helped distribute in the dizzying days of mid-1980s Austin. In that era, bands like Big Boys, Butthole Surfers, Scratch Acid, Dicks, and others held much sway. In contrast to punk’s bombast and bravado, Johnson offered up duct-taped fragility, a melting heart, and an eccentric, foggy gloss of naivete. Yet, in the midst of those bands’ own ramshackle, wonky, forever mutating sonic palettes (funk and go-go beats, acid-rock surrealism, yowling noise, corroded blues), Johnston actually fit in.

They were all margin walkers — desperados searching the fringe territory of musical lunacy.

Even his earliest work, like ”Grievances” from Songs of Pain, sounds like a field recording from the year 1936 (hissy tape and spare, high-pitched delivery) transported through 1960s-1970s tunesmiths, as if injected with Beatles and Don McLean. The work landed confidently out-of-whack in a time of new wave, goth, and teen degenerate punk pleasures. The album, naked and unfussy, a nugget of audio verite, spins with tales of wicked people, the life of hyperactive children, boogaloo jokes, potheads with old men eyes, monkeys in the zoo, and cigarette butts, and even offers up occasional super-primitive noisy flourishes and randomly collaged voices.

Soon, those disjointed, fragmentary, bracingly honest cassettes became mobile signifiers of his off-kilter spirit and ability to weave pop culture reference points into broken tile mosaics. Only Johnston could insist that “Ain’t No Woman Gonna Make a George Jones Outta Me,” with its casual country front porch swagger, then pound his guitar like a scruffy toy and wax lyrically about the “Dead Dog Laughing in the Cloud,” which recounts the demons in the head of a loner — a sorry entertainer.

Foreshadowing and reflecting his own sense of self, perhaps.

Local recording engineer Jamie Sralla, who has recorded more than 100 bands for his production company Static House, recalls an in-store with Danny and the Nightmares, a Johnston side-project, at the old Cactus Music, whose newer location hosted a glimpse of Speeding Motorcycle, a Daniel Johnston rock opera from 2006 that uses material culled from his song catalog, just a few months back.

Occurring on a rain-bitten, Sunday afternoon, only a few fans arrived. “It was like a dream, it was warm and wet and safe,” Sralla recalls. “Daniel seemed more at ease than at any other time I had seen him perform before. He also wanted to know about booking, so I set up a few shows for him and tried to get him to record with me. Some days I was the guy with the studio, some times I was the guy at the record store.”

Despite capturing the loud and feisty sounds of Houston’s late 1990s breakouts like London Girl (with me on drums), the Jewws, the Slurpees/Texas Biscuit Bombs (with Randy “Biscuit” Turner of the Big Boys), and Pretty Little Flower, Sralla admired Johnston’s boombox audio ambience. “The spirit was there, he was unapologetic about anything and wanted you to hear what that sounds like, and he might deliver this by hand. He did the simplest thing to get his music into your hand, and into your head. And for that they called him crazy.”

When Johnston did reinvent the past,as when he visited the Beatles’ catalog, including “I Saw Her Standing There,” the songs felt tentative, suspended on the verge of collapse; in fact, you can hear him flip the pages of either the lyric or songbook, and his voice hangs in the air like a piano note dissipating into ether.

Johnston’s music became synonymous with the underground network. Other artists who defied categories joined him, including Texas Instruments, then Jad Fair from Half Japanese, who recorded with him in the late 1980s. In addition, Mark Kramer from Bongwater, members of Sonic Youth, and then Paul Leary, renown bass player for Butthole Surfers, who produced Johnston’s major label debut Fun in 1994, all drew to his side.

Yet, most people likely know Johnston due to the inclusion of his tune “Casper the Friendly Ghost” on the soundtrack to Larry Clark’s harrowing, not-to-be-forgotten film Kids; Johnston appearing on the Sunday night MTV show The Cutting Edge, featuring his tune “I Live My Broken Dreams,” shot live at Liberty Lunch, in which he seems to be an unlikely hometown version of Jonathan Richman; and due to the prescient covers of his work by bands like fIREHOSE and Reivers (both of whom covered “Walking the Cow,”) Flaming Lips, Death Cab for Cutie, Tom Waits, and Yo La Tengo, who tenderly covered “Speeding Motorcycle.”

In fact, one rare version features Johnston joining them, via telephone call, live on-air at New Jersey Radio Station WFMU, to sing along on the plaintive song that will likely endure as one of his most beloved tunes. “Hi band,” he yelps, barely letting them set up before he careens into the first verse.

Johnston also joined Mike Watt of fIREHOSE, Ben Lee, Maria Taylor (Azure Ray), and others for the KCRW “Morning Becomes Electric” radio show, out of California, in 2017. The DJ described him as a “mythical figure … a prolific folk-hero songwriter” before the band cruises through softly-rendered tunes like “Life in Vain.”

“I had been covering "Walkin The Cow" since I first heard it. I remember the first fIREHOSE tour, playing with Sonic Youth and Butthole Surfers,” tells Watt. “I met him, and we talked a lot about music, and he gave me a cassette with that tune on it. I thought the lyrics were big time sublime and sincere. I thought about keeping the chords and the words but putting a Mike Watt bass under it. Just a beautiful song. He was wearing a CrapDonald's [McDonald's] hat! I think he worked at one at the time.”

Johnston’s song legacy remained intact, vivid, easily absorbed across age groups.

“Honey, I Sure Miss You” is one of all-time favorite songs. The last personal check I ever wrote was to buy some merch from him,” recalls April Brem, who began cutting her teeth in girl-centric punk starting in the late-1990s with stripped-down London Girl (who gigged with Johnston at the Oven). She moved east but reappeared full-force locally in Vivian Pikkles and the Sweetheart Uber Alles, and Lazer Cuntzz in the mid-2010s. “I didn’t realize until about two years later that he never cashed it. He swallowed the darkness from the world and sang it back out sweet to us, so that we’d all know how to be kinder to each other.”

Almost 20 years ago, long-time fan Trevi Biles got a call from his Drunken Thunder band-mate Damon O’Banion (RIP) with an alluring offer: to chauffeur Daniel Johnston, who not only played gigs in Houston frequently but also loved to roam Half Price Books on Westheimer, back and forth from a gig in Dallas. “I first heard his stuff on the awesome 1987 compilation A Texas Trip, which included Butthole Surfers, Stickmen with Rayguns, and Daniel’s amazing “Don’t Play Cards with Satan.” So, it goes without saying, I jumped at the chance.”

“I met up with Jad Fair (of Half-Japanese) at Rudyard’s,” reminisces Biles, “to go over the itinerary and particulars. Me and my friend Taco picked him up in my van at his house in Waller and we took off for Dallas … Daniel was pretty quiet. He would slam SunnyD tangy orange drink six at a time. I thought he might like Ween, so I played The Mollusk for him, but he yelled, ‘Could you please turn this off?’ when “Waving My Dick in the Wind” came on.”

And, of course, being on the flat highway stretching for miles, Johnston’s favorite food was visible on the horizon. “As soon as he saw a billboard for an upcoming McDonald’s, he became excited and kept reminding me every few miles that McDonald's was coming up.”

“Daniel is an imposing physical presence,” Biles continues, “but always had a friendly demeanor that won people over, like when he kept telling our high school age waitress at Pizza Hut how much she looked like Marsha Brady. On the way home, I asked him if he could draw me a picture, and he drew “The End Made Me Cry.”

“Daniel never really looked into your eyes when he talked to you, kinda looked down, but when I was dropping him off at his house and said goodbye, he looked up right into my eyes and said, ‘You are a good friend.’ It was beautiful, still gets me misty. Years later, I introduced my wife to him at a Cactus Music in-store, and he asked which of his drawings we’d like for a wedding present. I told him, ‘Whichever you think is best.' He gave us one titled “The Healing Power of Nazi Doom,” adorned with a Q-Bert looking swastika and all the Daniel Johnston standards (flying eyeballs, voluptuous women, etc.). Rest easy, Daniel. You were a good friend.”

Johnston's life had uneven moments, bumps, even a worrisome edge. His mind could be a distressed, disruptive place. One local Houston female rocker experienced his unwelcome attention; after a gig their bands played together in Montrose, Johnston put his hands on her, even pulled her toward his van, telling others he was going to take her home to his mom.

She felt it was unpleasant, progressing to creepiness, even if he did make flattering statements about her band. It might have been the result of his disability – perhaps he couldn’t read body language or social cues well enough.

His art, which was recently given a large exhibit at Redbud Gallery in Houston last spring, “Drawings To Listen To and Songs to Look At,” remains potent, twistedly inventive, raw’n’riveting, full of visuals hi-jinks, and kept afloat by sheer gusto and dreamy indulgences.

The Work of Daniel Johnston at Redbud Gallery, Houston, Jan. 2019EXPAND
The Work of Daniel Johnston at Redbud Gallery, Houston, Jan. 2019
Photo by David Ensminger

That particular survey featured works done in tandem with his sister Marjorie and inked with entire song lyrics; hence, the work is a bit more nuanced, heart-rendered, and brushed with mindful consistency. Cut’n’pasted and brightly drawn colored figures converged, lyrics flowed across the white pages with curved imperfection, and a mental map — a slanted and enchanted totality — of his being became evident, slightly.

Opposite of stereophonic, plastic and processed, Johnston was mostly a one-person voyage into his own hide’n’seek consciousness. He remained a visual prankster, a non-believer in a monochrome life, tanked-up on songs that rolled down through the years on wobbly wheels. They were never ear-splitting, calamitous, or venomous, even as the hardcore punk era throbbed around him and grunge, noise, and metal genres let loose a thousand chaos capturers.

Instead, he hammered away in the isolated, lonely parts of consciousness and culture, always on the brink-of-collapse, uncanny, woeful, on-the-cheap, open-eyed, brimming with awkward, perky melodies and soda pop-drizzled lips.

Like Casper, he was “smiling through his own personal hell.” But all that is over now. Speeding motorcycle has, at last, carried him beyond pain and struggles.

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