Daniel Johnston, the Texas-based lo-fi musician and visual artist, announces his final tour, backed by Built to Spill, Jeff Tweedy and more.
Photos of Kurt Cobain wearing the “Hi, How Are You: The Unfinished Album” t-shirt under an unbuttoned long-sleeve shirt. If you’re like me, that’s how you first became aware of singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston. It must have been 1991 or 1992, shortly after Nirvana had released Nevermind, and Kurt was everywhere you looked. He used his ubiquitous status to turn people on to Johnston as well as such bands as Flipper, Scratch Acid and The Vaselines by wearing their t-shirts… just like any other fan.
After being overheard singing “Speeding Motorcycle” to myself in the hallway at work, a co-worker lent me some cassette tapes that Johnston made in his Austin, Texas bedroom and handed out at his job at McDonald’s, as well as through local record stores and to people he met on the street. He’d hand them out to anyone who’d listen. Each cassette was its own little work of art, hand printed by Johnston and illustrated with Johnston’s child-like drawing of Casper the Friendly Ghost, superheroes like Captain America or his own creatures like the frog he named “Jeremiah the Innocent” that also appeared on Kurt’s t-shirt.
A Texas-based musician and visual artist, Johnston suffers from schizophrenia and manic depression, and draws inspiration from a myriad of sources including the Beatles, Casper, and an old friend named Laurie Allen who he’s has written a vast number of songs about.
In an interview from 2008, Daniel said of her, “Laurie was the great love of my life. She was like a sister. We were really close, like brother and sister. Really good friends. When she got married, it broke my heart.”
Johnston’s music is decidedly low-fi. His songs are sung in a high-pitched voice and he accompanies himself by banging on a piano or Casio keyboard or a simply strummed acoustic guitar. The themes of the songs are lost love, the triumph of good over evil and existential angst. His honesty and sincerity is disarming upon first listen, as is his brilliance and his tragedy. Along with his music, Johnston produces art – cartoon-like drawings of superheroes, imaginary characters and animals, demons, and babies that have shown in galleries around the world and sell for thousands of dollars.
In 2005, filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig released his documentary film, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, about the singer-songwriter, a sincere and respectful look at Johnston that examined his influences and the impact his mental illness had on his art and on the family members who look after him. Incorporating Daniel’s home movies, the film traces his early years in rural West Virginia, his self-described “loss of confidence” in junior high school, this creative process, and what happens when he goes off his medication. During one such episode, he attempts to crash the private plane being flown by his father, who manages to make an emergency landing.
In a 2013 article, The Onion’s A/V Club asked the question, Is Daniel Johnston a great musician or a victim of hipster exploitation? “For many, Daniel Johnston is one of the greatest musicians of his generation, despite (or because of) the fact that most of his output consists of lo-fi cassettes he recorded alone in his house. Others see a marginally talented songwriter whose naked sincerity as a performer, inextricable from his mental illness, has been inadvertently exploited by hipsters.”
I saw Daniel Johnston 10 years ago at a club on the Lower East Side. It was quite obvious that night that he was hanging on by a thread in terms of keeping his demons at bay. While I loved hearing his songs – simultaneously beautiful, charming and dreadfully dark and depressing – I couldn’t help feel creepy, like I was watching a man being tortured. It was much more uncomfortable than I could have expected.
Johnston has released 20 albums, countless collaborations, and side projects, and toured irregularly throughout the years. Now, he has just announced his final tour – five dates, beginning this fall. For each show, Johnston will be backed by a band he influenced and who is specific to that city.
• September 28 – New Orleans with Preservation All-Stars (The Joy Theatre)
• October 4 – Philadelphia with the Districts and Modern Baseball (Tower Theater)
• October 20 – Chicago with Jeff Tweedy & Friends (The Vic Theatre)
• November 8 – Portland, OR with Built to Spill and others (Revolution Hall)
• November 10 – Vancouver, BC with Built to Spill and others (Venue Nightclub)