Between institutional stays for manic depression, pop savant Daniel Johnston has recorded a vast and remarkable body of inimitably ingenuous songs, using whatever resources were at hand: a dinky cassette machine or a 48-track studio, playing piano or guitar and singing in a boyishly vulnerable tremble. Equally disturbing in its weirdness and beautiful in its Beatlesque melodicism and loopy invention, Johnston’s music is an extraordinary mixture of art and madness. But the fringe-weird product of a pitiable genius carries with it an uneasy air of freakshow exploitation. As difficult as it is to resist his innocent charms, it’s no easier to view Johnston’s cult-figure prominence (and short-lived major-label contract) without some concern.
Born in California and raised in West Virginia, Johnston wound up in Austin, Texas, where he began recording and giving away homemade tapes at the beginning of the ’80s; the local Stress label later distributed them as inexpensive cassettes with photocopied covers of his cartoons. The collections are wildly uneven: Songs of Pain is lucid, incisive and invigorating. On the other hand, Don’t Be Scared is disjointed, a muddy transliteration of some fine songs. As musically accomplished and clear as Songs of Pain, the quietly harrowing and confessional The What of Whom rivetingly sets plaintive cries for help to tender melodies. More Songs of Pain, performed forthrightly on piano and voice (except for the sound of a TV announcer and a 60-cycle hum that occasionally find their way to tape), fits a sweet version of Johnston’s beloved Beatles’ “I Will” amid intensely winsome originals and a jaunty instrumental. Dating from the same time but unreleased for nearly a decade, The Lost Recordings I is a hissy, badly edited and haphazard effort that could have easily remained out of circulation.
Johnston first reached vinyl with Homestead’s 1988 reissue of Hi, How Are You. Despite the muffled sound and toy instruments, there’s no mistaking the inspired wit and riveting honesty. “Big Business Monkey” attacks an employer with venom and clever rhymes; “I’ll Never Marry,” the now-classic “Walking the Cow” and “She Called Pest Control” allude to romantic problems. While “Hey Joe” rewrites “Hey Jude,” the anguished autobiographical complaints of “Keep Punching Joe” is simply sung over a big-band swing record.
The two-record Yip/Jump Music is more consistent in sound and style, less angry and performed almost entirely on cheap chord organ. The lyrics offer enthusiastic elegies to “The Beatles,” “God” and “Casper the Friendly Ghost,” while exploring personal issues in “Sorry Entertainer” and “I Live for Love.” The album’s standout is “King Kong,” an extended and erudite a cappella plot summary and analysis.
Back in the tape-only world, Retired Boxer is of generally high quality, with exemplary piano playing, a reminiscence about Daniel by an unidentified acquaintance, a Christmas greeting and the moving “I’ll Do Anything but Break Dance for Ya, Darling.” The eighteen-song Respect (available in Spain on 10-inch vinyl) is also brilliant, loaded with the remorseful “An Angel Cry,” a solemn cover of “A Little Bit of Soap,” a grimly offbeat interpretation of “Heartbreak Hotel” and the sharply worded “Just Like a Widow.”
Recorded as badly as possible, Austin’s Texas Instruments give Johnston electric support on five Continued Story tracks (including a “Cadillac Ranch” parody entitled “Funeral Home”). Played on two guitars, “Ain’t No Woman Gonna Make a George Jones Outta Me” is a left-field winner, as are Johnston’s measured piano version of “I Saw Her Standing There,” the rocking “Ghost of Our Love” and “Girls.” There’s more chaff than usual, but not enough to outweigh the good stuff. (The contents of Continued Story are included on the CD of Hi, How Are You.) The bootleg-quality Live at SXSW finds Daniel and his acoustic guitar enthusiastically performing his songs (a couple of them twice) at three Austin venues.
Following a joint venture with Jad Fair (who, by comparison, seems about as offbeat as an insurance salesman), Daniel released 1990: four 1988 live tracks and a half-dozen professional studio recordings, one with instrumental assists from drummer Steve Shelley and guitarist Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth. (Producer Kramer plays on the magnificent “Some Things Last a Long Time,” a bewitching song co-written with Fair.) Clear sound, well-recorded piano and a touch of echo on the vocals don’t damage Johnston’s basic virtues, but neither do they make these songs — most strongly religious — any better than they would have been on a two-dollar cassette.
During an early-’90s stretch back in West Virginia, Johnston made the wonderful and accessible Artistic Vice with a six-piece band, including four guitarists besides the star (who apparently had no access to a piano at Chuck Picklesimer’s house, where Kramer came down to produce). The ebullient blast of lo-fi electric garage-rock begins by declaring-with conviction — “My Life Is Starting Over” and includes such enthusiastically upbeat declarations as “I Feel So High,” “Hoping” (“…there is a God”), “Happy Soul,” “I Killed the Monster” and “It’s Got to Be Good.” An especially unsettling homage to his cartoon friend (“I Know Caspar”), the Rorschach recitations of “A Ghost Story” and “The Startling Facts” and several more miserable episodes in Johnston’s series of obsessive love odes to the unrequited love of his life quash any illusions of mental health, but the glimmers of deliverance make this cogent album as encouraging as it is enjoyable.
Johnston might not top the short list of rock’n’rollers least likely to be invited into the corporate boardroom, but he’s definitely up there. Nonetheless, in an industry stampeded by the rise of “alternative rock,” the signing of a genuine underground cult icon proved irresistible, and, after much to-ing and fro-ing, Johnston wound up with an Atlantic Records contract and made Fun with producer Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers. Not too surprisingly, Johnston’s fragile music wilts in an atmosphere of orderly organization, pristine sound and occasionally ambitious arrangements (“Life in Vain,” “Happy Time” and “Lousy Weekend,” which employ strings, are the exceptions to an otherwise spare instrumental rule). Themes and subjects that previously prompted radiant songs of broken glass from Johnston here fail to spark anything memorable (“Love Wheel” and “Silly Love” come close, though, and Leary’s manic guitar storms shock “Psycho Nightmare” to life). Ignoring the butterfly-on-a-wheel circumstances of its creation, there’s nothing identifiably wrong with the record, but Fun is — fittingly or not — the most forgettable album in Johnston’s catalogue. Happy Time, a red-vinyl 7-inch preview of Fun, contains two tracks from it, an unreleased original (“Come See Me Tonight”) and a wavery rendition of the Beatles’ “Love Me Do.”
Big Big World is a British EP containing ’86 recordings: the title track, “The Rhythm Rats,” “I Stand Horrified,” “December Blues” plus, on CD only, “Hard Time.” The ’89-vintage Laurie EP (a name that will register pungently with fans) also contains “The Monster Inside of Me,” “Whiz Kid” and “The Lennon Song.” It’s Spooky is the belated UK issue, with bonus tracks, of Jad Fair and Daniel Johnston.
In addition to Texan Kathy McCarty’s extraordinary 1994 tribute album, Dead Dog’s Eyeball, there’s a German-label series of four-song, four-band EPs on which assorted indie rockers do Daniel’s music. Vol. 1 features the Television Personalities and Bartlebees. Vol. 2 stars the McTells and some lesser-knowns. Vol. 3 has Half Japanese and the Bedlam Rovers. Vol. 4 includes tracks by Kickstand (with Luna’s Dean Wareham helping out) and the Mad Scene.
The latest tribute project, The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered, makes an effort to popularize him through star power. (The inclusion of a second disc containing the artist’s originals of the same songs for comparison suggests a target audience not overly familiar with the oeuvre.) The talent lineup is formidable, and rare for such projects since it employs many of the people most relevant to the artist in question. Jad Fair (backed by Teenage Fanclub), Calvin Johnson, Gordon Gano and Vic Chesnutt are ideal choices, with such richly individual voices that the simple approach, just singing the songs, works well here; others of less distinction turn respect into timidity and deliver dullness. No one here matches McCarty’s ingenious discoveries about the songs, but Death Cab for Cutie gussies up “Dream Scream” to fine effect, as does Mercury Rev with “Blue Clouds.” And while the desire to add something is commendable, it matters what is added. Tom Waits turns “King Kong” into a gospelly vocalese extravaganza that doesn’t work; Bright Eyes throws an extraneous noise guitar solo into “Devil Town,” and TV on the Radio, in the process of putting “Walking the Cow” to sleep, underlays the track with white noise.