Daniel Johnston - Biography

By Scott Feemster

Daniel Johnston is an American so-called “outsider” singer, songwriter, musician and artist who has steadily gained notoriety and fame, especially in underground rock circles, over the course of the last 20+ years. His naive, yet engaging, emotionally open and direct style of songwriting and performing has garnered him a worldwide legion of fans, including many notable musicians and performers.


            Daniel Dale Johnston was born January 22nd, 1961 in Sacramento, California, and was the youngest of five children in his parent's Christian fundamentalist household. Soon after his birth, his family moved to New Cumberland, West Virginia, in the so-called northern panhandle between Ohio and Pennsylvania. His father, a former World War II fighter pilot and engineer, had moved the family after accepting a job with the Quaker State oil company. Young Daniel's first love was drawing, and he often drew and doodled wildly imaginative drawings of big-eyed animals, people and, one of his favorite comic book heroes, Captain America. His interest in art soon expanded to an interest in music, with early favorites including Neil Young, Queen, David Bromberg, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and especially, the Beatles. Though Johnston didn't start writing and recording his own songs until he was a teenager, he remembers composing tunes at an early age, saying “when I was a kid, probably nine, I used to bang around on the piano, making up horror movie themes. When I got a bit older, I'd be mowing my lawn and I'd make up songs and sing them. No one could hear me 'cause of the lawn mower.” By the time he was a teenager, he had taken up the guitar, a chord organ and the piano, and he and his friends would record their own tapes of songs and trade them among themselves. After he graduated high school, he attended Abilene Christian University in West Texas for a year, but while there, it became apparent that Johnston's mental problems, including bipolar disorder, manic depression, and schizophrenia, were becoming more pronounced and problematic. He moved back home and attended the East Liverpool branch of Kent State University, taking mostly art classes and spending a great deal of time in his family home's cellar, writing and recording music. It was during this period of time where Johnston developed his trademark style of insistent, primitive piano, organ or guitar backing his high-pitched, reedy vocals singing songs whose eccentric lyrical obsessions usually ran the gamut or unrequited love, (especially for a classmate of his, Laurie Allen), Christian images, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Captain America, and his obsession with Satan and the number nine, among many other subjects. Johnston would record the songs on his boombox recorder, make copies, and then draw a cover drawing and sell them or trade them with whoever was interested. Calling his own “record label” Stress, he recorded and released his first two cassettes Songs Of Pain and More Songs Of Pain (both 1980). The pain in the titles mostly came from the realization that Laurie Allen had married someone else, namely an undertaker, and that would fuel one of Johnston's other lyrical obsessions, death. Johnston recorded two more cassette releases in 1982, Don't Be Scared and The What Of Whom (both Stress). (Many of Johnston's early releases have been re-released on CD in later years by the label run by Johnston and his family, Eternal Yip Eye/The Johnston Family.)


            By 1983, Johnston needed a change and moved to Houston, Texas, and lived with his brother while working at Astro World. Johnston brought along his instruments and and his boombox, and while living with his brother recorded two more tapes, Yip/Jump Music: Summer 1983 and Hi, How Are You?(both Stress).  The cassettes featured songs that would be considered Johnston classics later, including “Sorry Entertainer” and “Speeding Motorcycle”. After a while, Johnston moved on to live in San Marcos, Texas and eventually joined up with a traveling carnival, working as a carny and selling corndogs. Johnston found the carnival life inspiring and stayed with the troupe for five months, eventually landing in Austin. Austin, Texas has always been a music town, and in the mid-eighties it was the hub of a particularly twisted post-punk/underground scene that boasted the likes of the Big Boys, Scratch Acid, the Butthole Surfers, Glass Eye, and Zeitgeist to name just a few. Even in such a wide ranging field, Johnston was an iconoclast. He handed out free tapes to people around town and played gigs when he was able, and eventually some of the local record stores began buying his tapes from him and selling them. Soon he became a local celebrity of sorts, and when the city's music scene was due to be covered by a film crew from MTV's popular “Cutting Edge” show, many of the local musicians suggested they do a feature on Johnston. After airing of the show, Johnston became a minor celebrity not only in his adopted home town, but nationwide among alternative/underground musicians and fans. Record stores from around the country started carrying Johnston's cassettes and Homestead Records re-released Hi, How Are You in 1983 and issued a new collection, Continued Story, in 1985.  The public found Johnston's pleading, heart-felt, (and, yes, manic), vocal delivery and simple pop tunes a refreshing alternative to much of the fuzz-drenched post-punk sturm und drang that was so popular in alternative circles at the time.


            Soon Johnston's songs were being covered by the likes of the Dead Milkmen and the Butthole Surfers, and Johnston was even asked to be the opening act on a tour Sonic Youth was undertaking. While in New York preparing for the tour, he collaborated with Sonic Youth members Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelly and Half Japanese mainman Jad Fair on the album 1990, released on noted New York producer Kramer's label Shimmy Disc. (Johnston also collaborated with Fair on the 1989 album It's Spooky on the 50 Skidillion Watts label).  As much as a certain amount of success was coming Johnston's way, he was also still battling his mental disorders, and, while in New York, he was arrested for vandalizing the Statue of Liberty and, after being released, spent hours wandering around the city before anyone could find him. On a bus on the way back home, Johnston saw cow skulls in the Texas desert and took it as a sign that Satan had taken over Texas. Rattled, Johnston got off in the wrong town and wandered around all night before eventually entering the home of an elderly woman. Believing the woman was possessed by the Devil, Johnston scared the woman enough that she jumped from a second-story window and broke both of her ankles. On a later occasion in 1990, while returning back to the Johnston family's home in West Virginia from an appearance in Austin on board a private plane piloted by Johnston's father, Daniel had another manic episode and wrestled control of the plane from his father and threw the ignition keys out the window in mid-air. Johnston's father was able to gain control of the aircraft again, but had to make an emergency landing during which the airplane was destroyed. Johnston's family finally made the painful decision to have him involuntarily committed to a mental hospital.


            Johnston spent the better part of the 90's in and out of mental institutions, trying to cope with his many disorders and trying to find drugs that would help his conditions and help him to remain functional and lucid. A notable fan of Johnston's was Kurt Cobain, who was often seen wearing a t-shirt with Johnston's artwork for his Hi, How Are You release. Cobain even went so far as to wear the t-shirt to the 1992 MTV Awards, thus exposing Johnston's name to an ever wider audience. Johnston got the chance to appeal to a truly nationwide audience in 1994 when he was signed to Atlantic Records and released the album Fun that same year. The record was produced by Butthole Surfers guitarist Paul Leary and was a much more, (for Johnston), polished record, but the album ended up selling slightly over 6,000 copies, and he was soon dropped by the label. Even after that disappointing release, Elektra Records wanted to sign Johnston, but he turned the label down during one of his psychotic phases, claiming that potential Elektra labelmates Metallica were under the control of Satan. Johnston released just three other releases in the 90's besides Fun, 1990's Live At SXSW (Stress), 1993's Artistic Vice (Positive) and 1999's Rejected (Tim/Kerr).


            By around the year 2000, with the help of his family and better psychotropic medications,  Daniel Johnston had gotten to a better place mentally. An album of material Johnston had recorded in the late 90's came out in 2001, Rejected Unknown (Gammon), followed two years later by a collaboration with long-time fan Mark Linkous of  Sparklehorse, Fear Yourself (Gammon)(2003). The album proved to be a high-water mark for Johnston, as he found Linkous' off-beat sensibilities and production skills to be a good match for his own. Johnston also started a series of collaboration projects around the same time, one called Hyperjinx Tricycle with musicians Ron English and Jack Medicine, and another with neighbors Jason and Bridget Nightmare called Danny and the Nightmares. Hyperjinx Tricycle put out a self titled album in 2000, followed by singles in 2002 and 2003. Danny and the Nightmares have put out a series of releases, including Danny and the Nightmares (Eternal Yip Eye/ The Johnston Family)(1999), The End Is Near (Cool Beans)(2003), Freak Brain (Sympathy Records)(2005), and The Death Of Satan (Munster Records)(2007). At around the same time, Johnston's parents had moved to Waller, Texas and had bought a property where both they and Johnston could live in adjacent houses. The family also set up their own small record company with Daniel, Eternal Yip Eye/The Johnston Family, to release both new and re-issued material. The label released More Songs Of Pain and Frankenstein Love in 2005. Also in 2005, the Texas-based theater company Infernal Bridegroom Productions received a grant to work with Johnston to create a rock opera based on his songs, titled Speeding Motorcycle. During this time Johnston's artwork was also being recognized, showing in fine art galleries around the world, and some of his drawings were even included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial. In 2006, the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston was released. Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, the film documented Johnston's extremely rocky road to notoriety and his battle with his mental disorders. This exposed Johnston in a much more sympathetic light to a wide audience again and the film gained overwhelmingly positive reviews. Johnston collaborated with musician Jack Medicine on the 2006 album The Electric Ghosts (Important), and also released the career overview Welcome To My World (Eternal Yip Eye/The Johnston Family) and an album of new material, Lost And Found (Sketchbook) the same year.  Johnston continues performing and garnering the hard-won respect of his fellow musicians and songwriters.


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