How NOT to write about music – 103. Daniel Johnston

Here is something I wrote about Daniel for my International Pop Underground series on the Domino Records website several years back.

I cannot write anything else now. I am too sad.

R.I.P. Daniel. I hope you find the peace in death you struggled to find in life.


Hi, How Are You?
(Stress/Homestead, 1983 / 89)

I first heard Daniel’s plaintive, wandering voice back in the late 80’s. My old best friend from my teenage years was round at my house in Cricklewood, London; he wanted to hear something different. So we slapped on this odd-looking record with a picture of a bug-eyed frog monstrosity on its sleeve. Our first reaction: hysterical laughter. Here was a guy clearly so deranged he couldn’t sing properly, couldn’t draw properly (witness the cover art), couldn’t write songs… yet was still allowed to make records. Oh, what a grand jape.

Days later, I listened to it again. My reaction: it reduced me to tears. Taken in solitude, his voice shook with an almost unbearable loneliness and pain; his songs were naive, direct, deeply moving. Not only that, but the way his voice wavered and shook with dysfunctional desire for females he might once have met on the street, and the need to fit into regular society, reminded me of my younger self. When I was 15, 16, I used to pound the keys on my family’s piano for hours on end, playing my Beatles songbook from beginning to end, adding new meanings and words of my own, repeating phrases endlessly, trying to make sense of life and failing, dismally.

Daniel had reached a step further on from my more naive, purer self, though. He wrote his own pain.

I investigated further, and discovered that he used to wander the streets of Austin, Texas trying to sell his home-made cassette albums to anyone he met. That he had been in and out of mental institutions for most of his life. That he had once tried to push a man out a second-story window, that he was obsessed with a girl named Laura who very probably wasn’t even aware of his existence, that he thought some people to be possessed by demons. That there was something deeply disturbing about his personal life.

But hell, I didn’t care about that. It was his songs; his simple, incisive, painfully lonely songs, that I was interested in, that I couldn’t stop playing. Not the freakshow. It was his voice that moved me, his high, almost falsetto quaver that moved me as profoundly as any bluesman of old. Not the freakshow. Daniel loved The Beatles and Casper The Friendly Ghost (his alter-ego); he couldn’t communicate with girls any which way. I could certainly relate to that. I was still a virgin at the age of 23. (No. Not through choice.)

One by one, I tracked down all of his dozen or so tapes. One by one, I bought the CDs and listened to the stories and to the hipsters who had by now picked up on him. Later, I even gave Kurt Cobain my much-cherished ‘Hi, How Are You?’ t-shirt, on strict instructions that he was to wear it in photo shoots, to give Daniel a much-needed boost of publicity, so he could release more songs. This was after Kurt had complained he never had anything decent to wear for magazine interviews. He eventually swapped it for a funny anti-Pearl Jam top and I later received my shirt back. Which was kinda sad, I guess.

And still I wrote about Daniel, about how he moved me, to tears and beyond…

Once, his ex-manager stayed at my Brighton house and freaked out when I laid a knife on the table. Later, he sent me a signed copy of Richard Meltzer’s ‘The Aesthetics Of Rock’ (one of the first rock criticism books) released originally in the 60s, reissued with a Daniel Johnston cover. A few years later, I met the French A&R man who signed the poet to Atlantic and he gave me a drawing or two. A few days later, my bag got stolen from a hotel room I was lying comatose in at the time. I couldn’t believe it. Fortunately, the bag was found abandoned in a nearby bin; passport and Gameboy missing, but drawing intact. Some people just wouldn’t recognise soul even when confronted with it. The A&R man asked me if I wanted to interview Daniel, but I heard he was ill, so I declined…

And meanwhile, acts like Yo La Tengo and The Pastels and Jad Fair and Sonic Boom were covering his songs, sensitively, soulfully, but never as movingly as the original…

And always I dreamed of the day I would see Daniel live, but I was scared; scared that in the flesh he might disappoint, that the assholes who would doubtless be present with me would spoil my excitement, charge my consciousness with the wrong emotions…

And then, one weekend in 1998, I travelled down to Portland for a music conference, more by coercion than design…

Photography: Steve Gullick

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