Kurt Cobain rocking a Daniel Johnston T-shirt @ the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards
BY JOSH PELTA-HELLER Daniel Johnston died of a suspected heart attack on Tuesday, at his Texas home. He was 58. For most of his life, the unlikely rockstar struggled with mental illness, battling schizophrenia and bipolar disorders, and admirably surmounted these formidable hurdles to be able to write and perform his own work for the large fandom that he garnered, and leave a legacy on the craft with an influential voice uniquely his own.
When I met him in 2012, he was lounging in his Union Transfer green room in gray striped sweat suit — the same outfit in which he’d endearingly take the stage a couple hours later. He shyly but politely tolerated a few questions, unpretentiously nursing a can of diet coke, and avoiding eye contact for the duration of our short conversation.
Having started off recording his own compositions on a little boom box at home, Johnston’s music began to gain notoriety when he moved to Austin, Texas, in the mid-eighties. He told me, “I was poor, and I was just making tapes for my friends for years, and they would just treat me like a celebrity, they’d turn the tape recorder on and they would interview me and stuff – it was hilarious…” Johnston was somewhat warmer, at this point, having taken some delight in these memories. A degree of joy was evident. “I mean, back in those days, a long long time ago, they made me feel like more of a star than these days, even with the big crowds. They made me feel famous. I sort of miss that.”
Johnston’s popularity surged when Kurt Cobain wore a shirt that featured one of Johnston’s drawings to the MTV Music Awards in 1992, hurtling Johnston into the spotlight, at least momentarily, and resulting in thousands of new fans discovering his music. And it wasn’t just Cobain who championed the underground singer and songwriter: Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder sings Johnston’s hit “Walking The Cow” routinely at both solo and Pearl Jam shows, and Yo La Tengo have made a favorite of his song “Speeding Motorcycle.” Johnston’s tribute record, a double disc called “Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered,” released in 2004, featured twelve songs that were both performed by the artist himself and also juxtaposed with covers of those same songs by the likes of Beck, the Eels, Bright Eyes, The Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano, T.V. On The Radio, and Death Cab For Cutie, among others. All told, it’s a nice panel of names to have as fans in your corner.
When I asked Johnston what it meant to him when he found out that Cobain publicly declared his love for him, he responded with a sudden effusive exuberance, and recounted the moment. “My ex-manager came to visit, and showed me [Cobain] wearing a ‘Hi, How Are You’ t-shirt on MTV – you know, it was hanging on my wall!” I noted the obvious: “Sure, that was your drawing.” He said, “yeah! And so, you know. That was pretty cool,” adding, “He was really famous.”
PHOTO CREDIT: Daniel Johnston @ Union Transfer circa 2012 by JOSH PELTA-HELLER