Daniel Johnston is probably the preeminent, best-known musician within the touchy world of "outsider artists." His mental stability (he's manic depressive) has undergone mercurial changes over the course of a 20-plus-years career, yet his prolific nature and straight-from-the-heart homegrown folk music have yielded a worldwide cult following. His live performances are infrequent and erratic enough to make each one an event. Not only has his music made a lasting mark on a wide variety of fans and other musicians, Johnston is a highly gifted visual artist as well.
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.
Johnston's illness had always been of great concern to his parents, especially following a notorious event in 1990. After Johnston played to a packed house at Austin's South By Southwest music festival, the singer's father packed his son into the family's Cessna for a trip back to West Virginia. Sometime during the flight, Johnston had an episode and attempted to commandeer the plane, sending it crashing into a forest. Amazingly, both Johnston and his father emerged from the accident relatively unscathed.
This tumultuous side of Johnston's life was in strange contrast to what was happening with his career. Indie powerhouses Homestead and Shimmy Disc Records both released or re-released Johnston's cassette recordings on vinyl and CD. Johnston began collaborating with another outsider artist of rickety disposition, Half Japanese's Jad Fair. Austin stalwart Kathy McCarty (of Glass Eye) recorded an entire album of Johnston's songs, and his music was heralded by artists as diverse as Yo La Tengo, Pearl Jam, Beck, and Simpsons creator Matt Groening. Kurt Cobain frequently wore a Daniel Johnston T-shirt during photo sessions. All of this culminated in 1994 when Atlantic Records signed Johnston, resulting in one of that decade's strangest major-label decisions. The outcome was Fun, an album that's one of Johnston's best in the area of fully realized pop songs. He was dropped from the label when the album failed to sell over 7,000 copies. The next year, Johnston contributed two songs to the soundtrack to Kids, which would become one of the more successful indie-rock compilations of the era.
Johnston weathered serious ups and downs with his illness as the '90s came to a close and mostly kept a lower profile. His weight ballooned due to a diet of Mountain Dew (another obsession) and candy. An interesting album surfaced in 2003 — a collaboration between Johnston and Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous — and a few solo albums followed on his own label (probably run by a family member, fan, or friend).
Opinions regarding Johnston's actual musical talent are divided, but there's no doubt that his mental illness has added to his allure. (See the late Wesley Willis for an example of another unfortunate misbalance between popularity and exploitation that ultimately proved very unhealthy.) The spectrum of Johnston's songwriting ability runs from lush, perfect pop to extreme minimalism that can border on grating. Around 150 musicians have covered Johnston's songs, and Mary Lou Lord's version of "Speeding Motorcycle" was featured a few years ago in a Target commercial.
In 2005, the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston wowed audiences at Sundance and exposed the Johnston story to a new, younger set of potential fans. Musicians and various underground luminaries are interviewed throughout, comparing Johnston's gift to that of Beach Boy Brian Wilson (a ridiculous notion), but the documentary is an excellent if slightly skewed starting place for those curious about this enigmatic career.
As an added bonus to Johnston's performance at the Hi-Tone Café this week, Harlan T. Bobo will not only be opening the evening but backing Johnston on several songs. As such, Memphis' stop on Johnston's very short tour should be a special evening.
With Harlan T. Bobo
The Hi-Tone Café
Thursday, August 9th
Showtime 9 p.m.; tickets: $13 in advance, $15 at the door