December 29, 2020

Daniel Johnston: "Artist of the World"

Daniel’s keyboard — Photo by Sara Clarken and Oliver Maxwell Kupper

Listen up, and I’ll tell a story
About an artist growing old…

    It's hard to imagine a more poignant set of lyrics than those which begin Daniel Johnston’s 1982 track titled "The Story of An Artist,” especially when the aforementioned “artist growing old” is referring to none other than Daniel himself,  though notably only twenty-one years old at the time of its release.

    In the span of less than two minutes, a young Daniel goes on to tell the archetypical story of the modern artist caught floating betwixt two worlds — much like an atom cruelly suspended between the grips of a man-made ion trap. Here, the atom is Daniel, and the dueling electrodes which hold him afloat in a gravitational prison are the realities of which he sees himself as trapped between — one he views as a representation of death; the other, life.

     “The Story of An Artist” is, of course, an age-old myth. Where the man, the artist, the human being, is caught in the conflict between his idea of living, or that of dying . It is the question of whether I should I follow my dreams, or join the melange of the status quo?

Everyone, and friends and family
Saying, “Hey, get a job…
Why do you only do that only?
Why are you so odd?"

   Daniel lays this problem out, verse by verse, plain and simple. His music speaks of love, a burning passion for music...his bliss, as the master of myth, Joseph Campbell, would say. It is the mode of expression which gives Daniel Johnston life. He can do that thing only — the only thing no one wants him to do.

One of Daniel’s drawings depicting the fight between Good and Evil— Source


Kurt Cobain wearing Dan’s shirt, next to Flea — Photo by Kevin Mazur — Source


   Through authenticity, Daniel's music eventually led to recognition. An example is the famous picture above, featuring Kurt Cobain wearing a t-shirt with Daniel's Hi, How Are You album artwork. More recently, the same artwork was used as source imagery by world-renowned tattoo artist, Dr. Woo, who inked Daniel's iconic frog into rapper Kid Cudi's arm, which he then posted a picture of to Instagram, of course making sure to include a salute to the late, great Daniel Johnston.

    Additionally, just three months ago, a year after Daniel’s untimely death in September of 2019 at the age of 58, several prominent music artists (including Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, Phoebe Bridgers, Beck, Devendra Banhart, and others) came together to perform a virtual tribute album covering some of Daniel’s most beloved songs. The video is available here on Youtube. Watch and you will see that each performance is without frills, raw, honest, utterly sublime—conspicuous in a way where any outside viewer with knowledge of Daniel's music will see it as being consciously tailored for the essence of which they found love for Daniel Johnston in the first place.

    But even if you haven't heard Daniel's music, you may indeed already know him through his art, and perhaps without even knowing it. In the town of Austin, Texas, for example, his giant “Hi, How Are You?” mural still covers a large piece of real estate on the side of a building (formerly the Sound Exchange record store) located on the drag at 21st street and Guadelupe. I have been told you can't miss it.

“The Innocent Frog” mural, painted in 1992 — Source


    Now, given all this,  which dare I say is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Daniel's continued world influence, one might therefore imagine that much has already been written about the man, the artis, the tender genius, Daniel Johnston. Should you wish to seek the biographical bullet-points, I recommend first seeking the 2005 Sundance-winning documentary film, The Devil And Daniel Johnston.

    My contribution hereby aims to offer a more personal edge. A thank you letter, if you will. Primarily, to share what the man and his creations have given me—  a person striving to do my own thing, and that thing only. And I say my thanks as having known of Daniel’s existence for only just a short while , stretching no further than since the beginning of this year. Though his sound has been classified as lo-fi  (which is  described online as being "unsophisticated" and made with "low-level technology ")  my introduction, funnily enough, came via an avenue of high technologyin the form of a Spotify song recommendation.

    The first song I heard of Daniel’s was “True Love Will Find You in the End”.

    At ten seconds in, I stopped what I was doing, pencils down. By thirty, I was firmly convinced that the song was written for me to find at that singular moment of time being that my discovery came simultaneously with the grueling work I was then engaged in. With the final strum of Daniel’s guitar, I was surprised to discover that my eyes had become wet. This is it, I thought. The realizatio that Daniel Johnston has put it into words. Perfect, rudimentary, poetic words— distilled ruminations of life. How many times had I tried this myself without knowing this man had already done it for me!

Daniel and one of his drawings — Source

At the junction of creation lies man and the artist.

     Take just one, and lose sight of the whole. This is the duality.  Man and his shadow. There shall be no message without a messenger. Daniel's creations — the music and his seemingly endless production of drawings — are forever inexorably intertwined.

    To remove his sweet Laurie — his eternal well of unrequited joy, pain, inspiration — the very woman and human being he desired more than life itself, yet could not have due to matrimony with an undertaker , would quell the story before it even began.

Daniel during a shift at McDonalds in Austin, TX — Sour

To not consider Daniel's lifelong war with depression, the adverse reactions to drugs, both those prescribed and used recreationally...

    His extended stays at psychiatric institutions…

    The sneaking of individually recorded mixtapes into the orders of customers at the McDonalds restaurant where he worked in Austin, Texas…

    The almost unbelievable encounter with an elderly woman, whom Daniel so frightened that she leaped out of her second-story window and broke both her legs…

    Or the time in 1990 when he left a performance at an Austin Music Festival with his father in a private two-seater plane, only to suddenly assume the identity of one of his favorite characters, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and thus remove his father’s keys from the ignition, confidently chucking them out the window mid-flight…

    All these things unconsidered would only serve to reduce the three-dimensional being to the two, or even the one.

    But was the life worth the art?

    This is which has been debated often when it comes to the troubled lives of those who gave back the most— Kurt Cobain himself among the ranks. Yet, in my own personal opinion, Daniel Johnston is the artist of all artists. And I say this as a man who admires deeply the late, great Townes Van Zandt.

    What I see in Daniel is that every breath, ever interaction…every relation, and every detail of his day…all led to creation of the man revered, whose art and music is not only worth listening to, but should be an absolute requirement for any so-called artist striving for the honest expressions of the human condition.

    Daniel Johnston is more than an artist, he is a true human being. A man who, time-after-time, said NO to the pressures exerted upon him by society, family and friends. A man who did so, perhaps sacrificing everything in the process.

    Daniel Johnston was never as famous as he wanted to be, no, but he was honest and true to himself. How many of us can say the same?

    I foremost think of Daniel and how his story is typically painted as one of tragedy, but is it, really? Sure, Daniel may have only lived a short-while ,  encountering numerous problems in health, relationships, finances, etc.   Yet, at the same time, he was undeniably able to tap into the ever-elusive essence of humanity whilst simultaneously engaged in the deafening cacophony of wretched beings who have more and more forgotten the humble roots from which they originally came.

   To me, Daniel Johnston remains a god amongst men who only pretend. Thankfully, he has left us with immortal treasures.

Photo courtesy of Sony Picture Classics

“I forgot to grow up, I guess.

I’m a simple kind of guy, just like a child, drawing pictures and making up songs, playing around all the time.”

- Daniel Johnston, for Rolling Stone

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Brando Conklin © 2021