By Mark Guarino
Daniel Johnston is 40 years old. He lives with his parents. He has severe manic depression and has spent time in and out of mental hospitals.
Yet his songs have been covered by the likes of Pearl Jam, Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth, Beck, Wilco and many others. Kurt Cobain was a fan and regularly wore a T-shirt with one of Johnston’s designs. But perhaps most ironic of all, Johnston — who displays no sense of star power — was discovered by MTV.
The phenomenon around him started when he was in his early twenties and could be found on the streetcorners of Austin hocking his early recordings on lo-fi audio cassettes. Since then he became the poster boy for primitive music, a genre whose imperfections are its very draw.
The musicians considered outsiders generally sing off-key, write simple tunes and record using primitive equipment (Johnston first used a Sanyo boombox). But the spirit of the music — unaware and unironic —excuses its oddities and its warmth is what makes it so special.
“It’s Spooky,” the 1989 album by Johnston and another primitive musician Jad Fair, has just been reissued by the Bloomington, Ind. label Jagjaguwar after ten years of being out of print. For many, it’s considered a genre classic.
“When I first heard it, it was a shocker,” said Jonathan Cargill of Jagjaguwar. “It opened my eyes to music that to music that is not super polished and highly produced. It was just guys hanging out in their living room banging on instruments, yet writing intelligent songs with witty lyrics. It was refreshing to hear.”
The idea of primitive music didn’t start with Johnston. Fans of the genre point to the Smithsonian’s Anthology of American Folk Music, first released in 1952. Archived by Harry Smith, it introduced to the world dozens of blues and hillbilly singers, gospel shouters, jug bands, bluegrass groups and others ignored by the commercial record industry because either it didn’t understand them or were entirely unaware of them altogether. When Bob Dylan and The Band recorded their “Basement Tapes,” Dylan’s very idea was to shut off the world and recreate the rudimentary purity of that collection.
Johnston was born in West Virginia, but migrated to Austin where he and his self-released tapes became notorious. Jeff Tartakov first met Johnston on his own front porch. He heard Johnston outside, singing songs with Tartakov’s roommate. Tartakov ended up working as Johnston’s manager for seven years (Johnston’s father manages him today).
“When I first met him, he was famous for giving away tapes and spending all his paychecks from McDonald’s on making them,” Tartakov said. “I convinced him that he could at least break even.”
Tartakov helped Johnston set up a publishing company for his songs and he also created Stress, a label to sell his music. In 1985, the MTV show “Cutting Edge” filmed a special Austin-themed show that ended up profiling Johnston. His cult status grew and soon, record stores nationwide stocked his music. When grunge hit, labels scoured cities for anything considered hip and contrary to the mainstream. Johnston was signed to Atlantic, which released “Fun” in 1995.
Depending on your disposition towards mental illness, however, all that attention was either a boon or a curse for Johnston, whose erratic behavior during that time landed him in mental hospitals. “I don’t think it was a positive experience for him. He was just out of place. He wasn’t well during that time and not able to rise to the occasion,” said Tartakov.
“It’s Spooky” was released before his notoriety. “Back then it just seemed like the world was opening up,” said Johnston, speaking by phone from his kitchen in Waller, Tex., where he lives today. After it was released though, Johnston lived in different mental hospitals for three years. “I wasn’t really writing songs at all,” he remembered.
In between daily tea and Pizza Hut breaks, the album was recorded over one week in Fair’s home in Maryland. Fair — founder of the ‘80s band Half Japanese — is known for incorporating his childlike wonder to his own music. Over simple keyboards, drums and guitars, the two-minute songs cover a wide list of subjects including Casper the Friendly Ghost, Satan, love and the innocence of happiness. The music is altogether funny, disturbing and warm.
“It was a lot of fun,” Johnston said. “It was just a chemistry thing. He had a lot of lyrics and I’d look at his lyrics and in a zip, we’d have another song.”
The original “It’s Spooky” was released on the label 50,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Watts Records, owned by Penn Jillete of the magic duo Penn and Teller. Its reissue includes six extra songs and a CD-Rom video of Johnston singing “Don’t Play Cards With Satan” (Fair and Johnston also made home videos of each song). The pair enjoyed the collaboration so much, they recorded a follow-up which Jagjaguwar will release in October.
Today, Johnston’s daily routine is pretty similar to the one he grew up with. “I listen to records, I smoke and write every day and draw,” he said. He also formed a new band, Danny and the Nightmares, with some local musicians. Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers, who also produced “Fun,” has promised he’d produce their first record.
But a vigorous touring schedule to clubs and art galleries (he is also an accomplished outsider artist) has kept him on the move. This year alone, Johnston has or will play shows in South Africa, London, Paris and L.A.
“It’s more fun than ever,” he reports. “I’m making a living. It’s my dreams come true.”