In advance of Daniel Johnston's show in the Empire Music Hall, Belfast on April 4th, we wanted to find out just exactly why the singer provokes such reverence amongst music afficianados. Francis Jones tells us why the Texan is an inspiration for many.
Often, when musicians talk about their struggle with adversity they’re simply living up to a cliché. Not so, Daniel Johnston, a musician who’s battled manic depression and schizophrenia all his life. It’s a fight that was unflinchingly detailed in the 2006 documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
Now in his early 50s, Johnston began making music whilst still at high-school. By the mid-1980s, his ramshackle recordings – complete with his own distinctive artwork – had gained him a cult following in his hometown of Austin, Texas. In the early days, distribution was as primitive as his home-recording equipment – basically Johnston sold cassettes at shows, or handed them out to strangers. Those lucky enough to have one of his tapes thrust into their hands were struck by the unique rag-bag of influences the music contained - DIY attitude, a love of melody inspired by the Beatles and lyrics that betrayed his obsession with comic books and the Bible.
Over the years, he’s become more open in addressing the subject of his illness directly and, when he does so, it’s with disarming honesty and no little humour. Note the lyrics of 2009 track ‘I Had Lost My Mind’...
"I lost my head for a while, was off my rocker outta line, outta whack.
See I had this tiny crack in my head,
That slowly split open and my brain snoozed out,
Lyin' on the sidewalk and I didn't even know it.
I had lost my mind."
Losing your mind can be something of an impediment to a successful music career. One particularly alarming incident took place in 1990, when Johnston suffered a manic episode whilst aboard a small plane being piloted by his father. Believing he was Casper The Friendly Ghost, Johnston removed the key from the plane’s ignition and threw it out of the window. Thankfully, both he and his father survived the crash-landing unscathed. Nonetheless, the event saw Johnston temporarily committed to a mental hospital.
It was around this time that Kurt Cobain was famously pictured wearing a Daniel Johnston t-shirt with the iconic image of a goggle-eyed frog and the tagline, ‘Hi, How Are You’. The tenuous Nirvana connection had record labels scrambling to secure the signature of this previously unheard of musician. Johnston eventually went with Atlantic Records, having famously snubbed a multi-album deal with Elektra Records because Metallica was on their roster – he was convinced Metallica were possessed by Satan.
Somehow, though, despite his very real problems, he has not only survived, but prospered, gathering himself a devoted fan-base and inspiring a whole generation of musicians with his lo-fi brilliance. Admiring peers including Tom Waits, Beck, TV On The Radio, Eels, Bright Eyes, Death Cab for Cutie, Sparklehorse, Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips – covered his songs for the 2004 compilation, The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered.
Over the past three decades he’s put out umpteen of his own albums and collaborated on plenty more. Some have been great, others less so, but, in a way, that’s beside the point. His whole life, all he’s wanted to do is make music and perform. That he continues to do so is victory enough.
DANIEL JOHNSTON PLAYS THE EMPIRE ON APRIL 4.