As with other talented but troubled artists such as Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson, and Roky Erickson, Daniel Johnston fights a daily battle with the chronic mental illness that has plagued him nearly his entire life. However, despite recurrent bouts of delusional behavior wherein he has physically endangered himself and others, Johnston has carved out a respectable, influential career as a singer/songwriter of extraordinary talent who has grown since his first crudely recorded cassette was released in 1980. He became the singer/songwriter of choice of the alternative/underground rock scene, and at various times has had his work championed by members of Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Butthole Surfers, Half Japanese, Nirvana (Kurt Cobain was often photographed wearing a Daniel Johnston T-shirt), and numerous others.
Until the '90s, Johnston's recordings were basically homemade affairs, his plain voice accompanied by crude piano and guitar playing. His narrative concerns focused mainly on lost love, the pain of miscommunication, his love for the Beatles, and comic-book superhero Captain America. Johnston's music is unflinchingly direct, almost embarrassingly and painfully honest. Because of this and his increasingly erratic behavior, he was considered a local hero in his home of Austin, TX (where he moved from rural West Virginia), but too extreme to engender the interest of a record label. That situation changed in 1985, when MTV filmed a program on the Austin music scene. Johnston's performance brought him almost overnight acclaim, and he went from local legend to national cult figure. Soon, many of his self-released cassette recordings (on his appropriately named Stress label) began showing up in hip record stores from Boston to L.A., and the buzz was that Daniel Johnston was the coolest. There was, however, a grim side to this "success," as if his mental illness was the primary component of his hipness; therefore, there was a feeling that those not close to him were marketing his illness as much as his talent. Sadly, Johnston's behavior wasn't helping, and he was institutionalized twice in the late '80s after his refusal to take medication led to two dangerous episodes.
In the late '80s, indie label Homestead issued some of Johnston's early recordings on vinyl and a full-blown appreciation of Johnston's work was well underway. Soon he was recording solo and with Half Japanese mastermind Jad Fair on the Shimmy Disc indie label, and later with Butthole Surfer Paul Leary, who may well be the best producer/musical accompanist Johnston ever had. Johnston, to the amazement of virtually everyone, recorded for Atlantic, and despite occasional behavioral lapses, seemed more self-assured than ever. As a result, in the late '90s and 2000s, he recorded some of the best music of his career — smart, ebullient pop with ringing guitars, primitive keyboards, and a wonderfully naïve way of looking at the world. Although he sometimes becomes sad and bitter, cynicism and self-pity aren't his style, and that makes the little tragedies and epiphanies he writes about all the more compelling. Johnston was exposed to an even larger audience in 2005 with the release of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a feature-length documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, eventually making its way around the world. The Electric Ghosts, an album credited to the duo of Johnston and Don "Jack Medicine" Goede, arrived in March 2006, followed by Is and Always Was in 2009. In 2010, Johnston worked with BEAM, an 11-piece orchestra from the Netherlands, touring with them and eventually recording some tracks with them for his album Beam Me Up!, which featured a mix of new solo work as well as some re-recorded classics. Johnston's world may seem small, but it's much bigger and friendlier than that of your wildest imagination. ~ John Dougan