The Story of an Artist. Daniel Dale Johnston.

By Erin McGroovy –

To see more of Erin’s portfolio, take a look at her blog, Scatty Spoutings.

This year, Daniel Dale Johnston would have turned 59. His life was cut tragically short by a heart attack that he suffered in September of 2019, however his blissful, musical meanderings still float through the air of millions of fans’ homes like the hymns that they are.

Johnston epitomises the guise of a troubled artist. Born the youngest of five into a fundamentally Christian family in Sacramento, California, it was never a puzzle that he quite managed to fit into. Some of his earliest recordings include excerpts of his mother, Mabel, shouting at him, seemingly unhappy with the creative detour he’d taken from the traditional academic road they had set him on. Labelling him an, “unprofitable servant,” and his art simply, “satanic drawings.” These domestic spats were also reenacted by Daniel in home recorded short films made with his brother, wherein he plays himself as well as, in drag, his mother.

He studied for a few weeks at Abilene Christian University before dropping out due to pains in his arms – which turned out to be symptomatic of manic depression, and re-enrolled into an art programme at Kent State University. This is where he fell madly into the unrequited love of his life with classmate, Laurie Allen. 

She became his muse and resulted in the creation of much beautifully raw, naïve songwriting. Not only was she immortalised in music but into the artistic universe of recurrent characters and images he magic markered into existence. Forever Laurie will live alongside Joe the Boxer, Jeremiah the frog, and the Space Ducks on paper. Not forgetting the dozens of eyeballs he made his signature image in high school… and the hundreds of Christian fish symbols he graffitied inside the Statue of Liberty on a trip to New York, an offence for which he was arrested. 

Laurie already had a boyfriend though – ironically, a mortician, and Daniel fell deeper into his depression.

His parents pulled him out of college and sent him to live with his brother Dick, in Houston. With his piano left in his basement room back home, Dan knew he had to find some way to make music. He managed to get ahold of an organ and when his brother returned home from work one day, found his weight bench had been transformed into a recording studio. This is where the haunting, ragtime sound of album, ‘Yip/Jump Music’ originated. 

Sadly, Dick was too of the more conservative outlook that, to be successful in life, a person needed a steady, more conventional job. He was unsupportive in both Daniel’s musical and artistic pursuits, calling him a, “bum,” issuing him an eviction notice and eventually passing him on to his sister.

From here he disappeared. 

He had invested in a moped and joined a travelling fair. 

“The carnival pulled out leaving me a dizzy and confused individual,” Daniel said speaking of the head injuries he had suffered from a traveller who had beaten him up for taking too long in a portaloo. Having been dropped in the midst of the US bible belt in Austin, Texas, he thought of no other option but to seek solace from a church. 

Little did he know stopping in this town would be the best thing that ever happened to him.

He opened for local band, Glass Eye, he began passing out his muffled tapes to journalists at ‘The Chronical,’ to other musicians, as well as slipping them into the bags of food he sold at his McDonalds job. Sometimes he wouldn’t have enough left, so in this case, would record himself singing the entirety of the album just to pass another to someone else. 

In 1985, MTV’s ‘The Cutting Edge’ came to Austin to film a show. This was a music programme featuring artists who may not otherwise be broadcast on the channel, other artists given screen time in the early stages of their career include, Madonna, R.E.M and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Daniel wasn’t scheduled to be featured and they had already filmed plenty of other artists but he walked right up anyway, parading his ‘Hi, How Are You’ tape and telling the world how he had a, ” nervous breakdown whilst recording it.”

It’s easy to forget that whilst he’s achieving all of these things, he was still extremely mentally ill, because he was seemingly so unstoppable. He was brimming with an eccentric, jovial kind of confidence and being so productive, creating all of this ostentatiously, lyrically dense and maudlin music. Winning titles at 1986 ‘Austin Music Awards’ for ‘Songwriter of the Year’ and ‘Best Folk Artist of the Year.’ 

Though it wasn’t long before all of his problems worked their way to the forefront again.

He spent a lot of time with his manager, with whom he would smoke copious amounts of weed to the point where his attitudes changed and he was refusing to play gigs. Many thought the fame had gone to his head, but it appeared to be a much deeper rooted issue – “I used to be [Daniel Johnston], now I don’t know.” 

Some people just shouldn’t take LSD – Daniel Johnston is a prime example. It tends to take your brain in the direction it is already pointing at the time, so if you are feeling depressed or anxious, psychedelics can amplify this whilst you are tripping and it can be hard to navigate your way out. Even so, at a Butthole Surfers gig on 11th September 1986, he dropped acid for the first time and stumbled further into the solipsistic vaudeville his life had become.

In the following months, he was tripping a lot. The angelic, wholesome, pure character we had of him before disintegrated entirely. Practically his only topic of conversation was the devil. He was put in jail for assaulting his manager – hitting him over the head with a metal pipe and broke his brothers rib in a fight on Christmas Day over the taking down of The Beatles album Dan had hung on the tree. After being forcibly removed from his sibling’s home by the police, he was found in the middle of the night, waist deep in an Austin river preaching about baptism to an audience solely of unnerved passersby: this resulted in his first admission to a mental hospital. 

His manager, clearly in the dark or simply ignorant in regards to Johnston’s fragile mental standing, had him released. Shortly after which, Dan threw away all of his belongings excluding his guitar and tape recorder, sparking fears he was going to commit suicide. This prompted his, “lost year,” spent in bed at his parents home trialing different medications. 

It may have been lost to Daniel but he had a new manager, one who was working tirelessly, showing his music to different artists across America; including Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth. 

A meeting was set up between the artists in New York and of course, Daniel was given a gig. He began preaching onstage to the audience and at one point began crying, quite clearly on the brink of complete mental breakdown/psychosis. 

He feared Steve Shelley, Jad Fair or one of the other musicians he was working with would ring his family and they would have him institutionalised, so he ran away. Home footage shows Sonic Youth trawling the streets searching for him and upon his discovery Dan has only to say that he’s, “on a message from God to stay in New York for 2 more weeks.” This he did, through nights in mens shelters, where he was assaulted and constantly losing possessions to theft, yet he was truly having the time of his life. 

He was hospitalised almost immediately upon his return from the city. 

He was deeply troubled still, even once he had left and the fact he was ducking his medication only heightened his state. He wore exclusively all white clothing and was arrested yet again. This time he had gone up and pounded on an old lady’s door who had asked him to be quiet as he was shouting in the street, delusional, thinking that everyone was possessed by the devil. He instilled so much fear in the woman that she believed her only option was to jump out of her second storey window, breaking both her ankles. Daniel’s belief was that it was the demons who had thrown her out of the window. 

Almost as soon as he had been released, he was sent back to the mental institution once again.

Daniel’s mugshot following the disturbance with elderly lady

1990 and Daniel was back out into the world. It was the Austin Music Awards, and, without knowledge of anyone, he had stopped taking his medication for a few weeks prior, as he did with every performance, because he knew he would play better. That it would be more raw. In fairness, he played his eloquent, ballad led music incredibly, with standing ovations and crowds stomping their feet to the point where the floor was vibrating. 

But with every high in Daniel’s life, seemingly came an inevitable low.

In documentary, ‘The Devil and Daniel Johnston,’ father, Bill, has tears rolling down his face as he recounts the tale of how himself and his son almost lost their lives. 

They were on a plane, Daniel reading a ‘Casper the Friendly Ghost’ comic. The front cover of which depicted Casper with a parachute. Dan turned to his dad and asked if they could jump out of the plane, his father obviously denied his wishes but Daniel was having none of it. He took the keys from the ignition and threw them out of the window. Bill managed to regain control and land the plane in-between two trees but it was a close call. 

On the drive home from the accident they saw a church bulletin board reading; ‘God promises a safe landing but not a calm voyage.’ So maybe Daniel did have some kind of guardian angel on his side after all.

Scene of plane crash

This is when it dawned on the family how ill their son really was and he embarked on his fourth stay in a mental institution, this time for five months. 

Although he lived a relatively quiet life from the safety of his parents home from this point onwards, he continued with his art, which has been shown in galleries across the world, for example, London’s Aquarium Gallery and New York’s Clementine Gallery. As well as with his music, and even creating his own comic book, an iPhone game and partaking in a collaboration with ‘Supreme.’ Not to forget being an inspiration to millions. Kurt Cobain namely as one of those – slightly digging Johnston out of his underground scene by wearing his ‘Hi, How Are You’ t-shirt on various occasions, showcased in the mainstream media.

In fact, there are a multitude of famous names who have covered Daniel’s songs or mentioned his name in praise. These include, The Flaming Lips, Death Cab For Cutie, Beck and Pearl Jam. In the summer of 2017, members of Wilco, Built to Spill and Fugazi joined Daniel as his backing band on a final tour. Actor Elijah Wood, referred to him as a, “beautiful, gentle treasure,” David Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, tweeted: “My dad introduced me to Daniel Johnston’s music… Once I’d listened to a few songs, I heard the DNA of so many others’ work. A unique and special human.” Lana del Ray and Mac Miller both donated $10,000 to a kickstarter campaign for the production of biopic, ‘Hi, How Are You Daniel Johnston?’ Even Matt Groening said in review of ‘Rejected Unknown,’ “he’s my favourite song writer.”

With a discography of over 20 albums filled with heart achingly sincere yet simplistic ruminations, hundreds of lurid, idiosyncratic works of art and the most harrowing personal story filled with unrequited love, cosmic mishaps and existential torment, it isn’t hard to see why so many have fallen in love with the frenzied, forlorn rock and roll and the man who created it.

Daniel Johnston, my most favourite musician and artist in the world. You have inspired me to persevere, taught me to always follow my heart and to never give up on my dreams. Your music and story have helped me through my darkest days and given me the hope to carry on. I adore you with every ounce of my soul. You and your influence will be truly perennial.

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