WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT . . . DANIEL JOHNSTON: In a mixed up, shook up world

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Daniel Johnston: Happy Time
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT . . . DANIEL JOHNSTON: In a mixed up, shook up world

Being eccentric or even downright loopy has never disqualified anyone from a career in rock culture. Indeed, some would argue being slightly off-beam is a prerequisite.

Rock is littered with oddballs: acid-damaged Syd Barrett, who signed out of Pink Floyd in '68 and reality shortly after; those Fleetwood Mac guitarists who went walkabout mid-career; Brian Wilson lolling on his bed for a decade . . . .

These are the well-known ones. There are others.

Out there in cultdom are 13th Floor Elevators' Roky Erikson, who signed up for drugs in the 60s, thought a Martian was inhabiting his body, and is a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic living in a halfway house; the late Skip Spence of Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape, who became a speedfreak schizophrenic; and Daniel Johnston.

Johnston has all the ingredients to qualify as a cult figure: Few have heard of him; slightly less obscure cult figures further up the totem pole acclaim him; and his music has been hard to find.

The perfect convergence. 

He's also slightly wonky in the brainbox, but that doesn't mean his music is rubbish -- you could make the case his art is the better for it.

A couple of Johnston's early 80s handmade tapes, Songs of Pain and More Songs of Pain, have been collated on to disc as The Early Recordings Volume 1.

It's great stuff -- if you like lo-fi recordings, a wobbly but honest voice singing about Jesus and unrequited love, offering hilarious rhymes and narratives, slightly unnerving stories involving killing, and melodies which we might charitably describe as childlike and free-ranging.

Johnston was born in California in 1961 to Christian fundamentalist parents and early on became a Beatles fan. He took to drawing in the scrawly manner of John Lennon and wanted to be a cartoonist. He majored in art, then moved to Texas, finally settling in Austin after five months with a travelling circus. And he grappled with manic depression.dan

He recorded lo-fi tapes which were mostly him banging a piano and punctuating his enjoyably oddball songs with funny addresses to his imagined audience: "Now without any further ado I'm going to do a little soft shoe and a little boogaloo for you."

He gave away the tapes on the street and became a local identity in Austin.

When in 85 MTV went to Austin to film some bands, they mentioned Johnston, he appeared on the show and suddenly Sonic Youth, the Butthole Surfers and Half Japanese were hailing him as a true original. The acclaim didn't help, however - he still worked at McDonald's - and Johnston ended up institutionalised twice during the late 80s.

Since then his life has stabilised, he's recorded with Jad Fair and the Buttholes' Paul Leary, Kurt Cobain wore a Johnston T-shirt and Matt (The Simpsons) Groening is big fan.

The Early Recordings Vol 1 double-disc compilation captures his emotion in honestly delivered, funny songs ("I'm a quitter, quit this, quit that") alongside aching songs of love for someone who will never return it. He lost his girlfriend to an undertaker and sings of it on the unaccompanied My Baby Cares for the Dead. 

His piano-playing is primitive, clowns and monkeys in cages are recurrent themes, you can hear his mum berate him as he's recording, and he sings about watching the toilet flush. (Cue sound of flushing toilet.)

There's a primitive Lennon quality to some songs (at other times he goes the whole hokey hoe-down) and lines leap out: "All that is made, is made to decay", "I'm the phantom of my own opera" and "She looks at me like a gun cocks".

More Dead Than Alive sounds like a shaggy-dog Dylan thing left off The Basement Tapes.devilanddaniel

Johnston doesn't fit anywhere in contemporary rock. For that reason alone he's worth hearing.

And the 2006 documentary about his laugh out loud/tragic life The Devil and Daniel Johnston is compelling.

His idiosyncratic art has gained as much of a profile as his music: it was included in the Whitney Biennial in 2006 and the Liverpool Biennial in 2008.


And you've got to admire someone who gives you a tireless quip you can use on your boss: "I don't want to hear about responsibilities, I got less important things to do."

I believe he's currently back living with his elderly mum and dad.

For other articles in the series of strange characters in music, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT . . . go here.

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