Artwork by Daniel Johnston
BY JON HOULON When I lived in Austin in the early 90s, Daniel Johnston hovered over the place like a ghost. He made his name there in the 80s but had since been institutionalized after clubbing a friend with a lead pipe or baptizing himself in a fountain on campus. Equally felonious, perhaps. But I didn’t know any of that back then as I puzzled over his hand-labelled cassettes in the local music section of Tower Records on Guadalupe. I couldn’t be bothered at the time. I wish I had.
Like many, I found my way into Danny’s stuff via The Devil And Daniel Johnston which is, arguably, the best music documentary ever made (tho, the one about Anvil is pretty great too!). The Devil is the only movie I ever saw where I walked right back in after seeing it to watch it again. The last scene of the Devil is one for the ages: Daniel tricked out in a ghost costume while “Some Things Last A Long Time” plays. Some things really do. If you’re truly fucked up, you’ll remain so until you die on the natural bridge. It’s sad but it’s true. Treatment-resistant depression or whatever name you want to give it. In short, Jesus wept and so did I. I became, as Danny sings, “a man obsessed.”
The best show I saw was in Houston at Rudyard’s in the Montrose district. Before the show, I found myself sitting next to the man himself at the bar. He, a diabetic, slurping down Cokes; me, a diabetic too, slurping down margaritas. That night he played with a very young band that had literally stumbled across him in Waller where Danny lived with his parents. Danny and the Nightmares they called themselves. Gig might have even been on Halloween. The gig was off the rails … but in a good way, like the stuff that made Daniel Johnston a legend: the tapes, the tapes, the tapes.
You gotta hear the tapes Daniel recorded on a piano in his parents’ basement in wild West Virginia and later at his brother’s place in Houston on a chord organ in the garage. This is the stuff that marks Daniel’s genius. Everything after that, everything after he was discovered, is unremarkable. There are some good songs here and there but they don’t touch the tapes from 1980 to 1985.
Compared to MP3s or whatever sound-forsaken media you listen to, the tapes that DJ recorded on a $59 boombox sound superior. As an engineer, I’d mention Danny alongside Geoff Emerick, Shelly Yakus, and Jimmy Iovine. It’s not the crackle, the out-of-tune piano, the unholy rattling that accompanies the chord-organ songs on Yip/Jump Music. It’s the fact that Daniel got it down. It’s about microphone placement. Engineering 101. You try to record something on a boom-box and see how far you get. His voice is in perfect relation to the volume of the instrument. The rattle and the hum. Townes Van Zandt talked about Bukka White’s “sky-songs.” Directly from the sky to the pen. Daniel Johnston’s best work achieves this effect: down from the sky, into Dan’s pen, onto the paper in the notebook, banged out on the piano, warbly vocals and all. No mediation. The thing itself.
And don’t worry about Daniel’s artwork. I mean, if you’re into comics, maybe. But it’s not Rothko or even Roy de Forest. DJ’s visual vocabulary is based on Marvel, Caspar the Friendly Ghost, and whoever else occupies the arrested mind. The best songs forgo this lazy lexicon in favor of raw truth: dark wolves and scrambled eggs.
I recognize that in the digital dungeon of the modern age, it is very unlikely that you will check out Welcome To My World which is culled almost exclusively from the tapes. Nor will you – as I faithfully did as a stan, man — track down the actual tapes in all of their analogue lo-fi glory. So lemme make it easy for you. Here’s Danny on the cusp of fame. Living his broken dreams before everyone tried to fix ‘em with medication and hi-fidelity. How cool was this guy then? Dylan ’64? Listen to the way he says they tried to put him in a home. Watch the knowing glance to the camera. There could be a Daniel Johnston living down the hall from you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jon Houlon fronts John Train which performss @ Fergie’s Pub (1214 Sansom Street) every Friday from 6-8PM Sept-Nov. Free!