Happy 60th Birthday Mr Johnston
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
18 albums spanning from 1988 to 2010, Daniel Johnston is one of the most prolific and revered songwriters and visual artists of our time - and there was certainly nobody quite like him. A cult hero who was admired by the likes of Kurt Cobain, Tom Waits, the Flaming Lips, Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo, many of whom who covered lo-fi songs that encompassed significant whimsy and great angst.
I was lucky enough to see Daniel perform live during his 2012 tour and was in fact the introduction to his work for me. I was very confused by what I was watching and yet totally transfixed, I knew nothing of his back catalogue or his complicated history with mental health and the beloved nature of his following. We were in a church in winter and it was cold and sharp in the air but the atmosphere was warm and welcoming as he so often was himself.
A self proposed legend who made it become reality, Johnston started out his journey by handing out cassette tapes of his home recordings around Austin, Texas having moved there from his hometown of West Virginia. He garnered a cult-like following on the local music scene but gained wider exposure when MTV filmed a programme on the Austin music scene in 1985 for its series The Cutting Edge. Johnston's performance brought him almost overnight acclaim, and his early home recordings received a belated vinyl release on the indie label Homestead.
Lyrically, Johnston was verging on brutal with his honesty of battles with mental health and his unrequited love but the sincerity and the commitment to hoping and working towards something better was a story that inspired and brought a legion of fans over the course of two decades. Timeless and pure, each generation seems to re-find Johnston and his stories, along with his signature style of art. Never an accomplished player and with a voice in a high register he was never destined to be a mainstream star but the aching and emotional sincerity of tracks Life in Vain and True Love Will Find You In The End ensured a place was carved out all for himself in his career.
Johnston was known for creating his own artwork to accompany his album releases, including the iconic frog for 1983 release 'Hi, How Are You' which went on to inspire Matt Groening's own work when creating The Simpsons.
Eventually his battles with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia became too much and his final tour was to be in 2017 where soon after he was largely confined to the family home. Health issues had hindered his music career but also threatened his life, where on one occasion he tried to crash a plane being flown by his father.
"It sure was embarrassing," Johnston later reflected in an interview with the Austin Chronicle. "Every terrible dilemma, every fabled mistake. Nothing I can do about it now, though. I wish they'd added a laugh track to it, because it sure is funny".
A letter to his manager when Daniel was incarcerated featuring his now famous artistic style.
In 2005 a short film titled 'Hi, How Are You Daniel Johnston?' was released and produced by Lana Del Rey and Mac Miller with Gabriel Sunday directing. This brought a whole new generation of music lovers to his work with Lana Del Rey also covering a track of his at the end of the film. An evocative, hallucinogenic portrait of Johnston, taking a look at his writing process is both beautiful and difficult to watch, but as with his live performances it's seemingly impossible to take your eyes away from it's mesmerising nature.
We are in no doubt that his music and his story will continue to inspire future musicians for generations to come and today, on what would have been his 60th birthday we raise a glass to the true artist, the true one of a kind, the boy with the cassette tapes -
Daniel Dale Johnson
January 22nd 1961 - September 11th 2019
You can discover more of Daniel's work via his website (and we implore you to do so) https://www.hihowareyou.com
Written by Jacko Hooper @jacko_hooper