Daniel Johnston

29 03 2011

DanDaniel Johnston is one of my favorite artists.  If you’re unfamiliar with his work, to see one of his drawings or listen to one of his recordings you likely wouldn’t be terribly impressed.  But after hearing more of his work it becomes apparent that Daniel Johnston is an inspired visionary.  He is not the best performer in comparison to some more accomplished artists but if you have an understanding of what Daniel Johnston is about and what he lives for, his performances take on a whole new meaning.

Art and music flow from Daniel like water down the Nile.  He is unstoppable and it is as though he can’t help but create music and art.  He has many recurring themes throughout his art, mostly of battles between good and evil and the same themes run through his songs.  Much of what he sings about has to do with his affection for a never gotten love interest named Lori.   He met her in his youth and followed her with a video camera as his way of worshiping and admiring her.  He did get her to say, “I love you Danny” but that was only to satisfy him and she eventually went on to marry an undertaker who he used as the subject of many songs.

His mother would lecture him endlessly about his slothfulness and call him an unprofitable servant of the Lord (he would call himself an unserviceable prophet) as he spent all of his time drawing, writing and recording.  Daniel grew up with faith in his religion and a profound fear of hell and damnation.  He spoke often of Satan and the torment of the devil in his songs and in his conversations and lived in fear of losing his soul.  One therapist said about Daniel, after analyzing his drawings, that he is surely going to heaven because it’s obvious he has already been to hell.

Daniel finally realized one of his life long dreams by accident when MTV profiled the Austin music scene in the mid eighties.  Dan worked his way in front of the cameras, was interviewed and eventually given a spot live on MTV performing his songs.  The world was finally introduced to Daniel Johnston and his career began to bloom. But Daniel perceived the experience as a dichotomy or paradox in that MTV was serving the devil but there he was on MTV, just like he said he would as a kid.

When Dan was still pretty young he began to develop bi-polar disorder which became so severe he spent a lot of time in and out of many mental institutions.  He changed suddenly from a happy and care free young boy to a troubled and self loathing youth.

When he was in New York City spending time with the members of Sonic Youth he had a severe episode and was again sent to a mental facility.  He was accidentally released on a clerical error and found himself at CBGB that evening and opened up for the LA band fIREHOSE.

Daniel Johnston had many extreme episodes of mania where he would essentially lose touch with reality.  One time he was in his father’s private airplane, his father piloting and he turned the engine off and threw the keys out the window.  The airplane crash landed in the trees and both were uninjured.  Another time he whacked his manager over the head with a lead pipe three times.  Daniel has been quoted as saying, “I whammed him, I whammed him good“.  After these episodes he again found himself committed to mental institutions where he realized the horror of what he had done.

As Dan got older and into his forties he went back to living with his parents, taking his meds and focusing on writing and playing music.  Dan tours the world and elsewhere performing his music to the delight of devoted fans.  Sometimes his shows are sub-par and sometimes they are purely brilliant.  True fans love his performances either way.

God bless Daniel Johnston.  The poor man has been tormented all of his life and he has produced some amazing art and beautiful songs.  Over 400 artists have covered his music including Beck, fIREHOSE, Sonic Youth, Death Cab for Cutie, Tom Waits, David Bowie, Built to Spill and Pearl Jam.

Daniel’s life has been chronicled in the movie “The Devil and Daniel Johnston“.  It spans over twenty years of Daniel’s life as he had recorded most of his life on video and audio tape.  Learn more about Daniel Johnston at his fan site rejectedunknown.com

(some images used without permission of the artist)

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