Though he began making home recordings as a youth, Johnston was in the right place at the right time when he started hand-distributing cassette tapes of his songs around Austin, Texas (where he moved from West Virginia) in the early '80s. This is when Austin was rising as a real hotspot for underground music, a situation facilitated in part by the town's reputation as the outlaw country and left-field folk capital of the U.S. throughout the '70s. Highlighted by Johnston's sometimes out-of-tune acoustic guitar, a pump organ, and reedy vocals, the minimal pop songs that filled these early cassettes won the hearts of local established rockers and owners of record stores. Adorned with one of Johnston's unique drawings, each release covered Johnston's growing obsessions with childlike lost love, the Beatles, the devil, God, and comic-book superhero Captain America. He enjoyed a small burst of exposure in 1985, when MTV shot an Austin-based special in which Johnston was featured prominently. (Note: This was the same show that brought temporary fame to Cleveland's Toby Radloff, Harvey Pekar's "nerd" friend in American Splendor.)
Despite this, Johnston remained fairly provincial until around 1990, when attention from underground rock icons opened Johnston to a wider audience. Sometimes, his mental state would prove a major obstacle, exemplified when the members of Sonic Youth brought Johnston to New York in the late '80s, only to have him disappear for several days.
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