For God and Country

Regular readers of the Chronicle may have said upon seeing this week's cover, "Hey, wait a minute! Wasn't there a feature on this Daniel Johnston guy just a few months ago?" Indeed there was, in our big South by Southwest 99 issue [Vol. 18 No. 29] -- to commemorate the impending release of his Rejected Unknown album. Due to the erratic state of the recording industry these days, that album didn't appear on the racks until just last week. As such, the irrepressible Kathy McCarty, Glass Eye co-founder and until recently local musician, who released her own album of Daniel Johnston covers, Dead Dog's Eyeball, a few years ago, requested, nay, demanded, that we run another piece on Daniel to coincide with the real release of his album. In fact, she went so far as to provide the article in question herself to save time. Who are we to argue with such dedication? -- Ken Lieck

silhouette of jonhston

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

Daniel Johnston is really fat now. Somehow, this makes him look taller, too -- more imposing. A little scary. Gone is the weedy, nervous, desperate little guy who could hardly stammer out a meek "Hello" to the "rock stars" on local bar stages. Now, there's this gigantic, nervous, desperate guy claiming the stage himself. A cult Austin musical figure with a genuine sense of finally belonging up there among his heroes.

Befitting this new stature, a lot of exciting things are happening for Daniel right now: A book about him is being published, his art career is taking off around the country and in Europe -- exhibits opening in New York, Dallas, Germany, the Netherlands, Los Angeles, and Austin -- and his first release in six years is finally out. The album, Rejected Unknown, is being issued on start-up Austin indie New Improved Music, with an initial run of only 2,000 copies. Naturally, there's a story behind this limited pressing, which I will now tell you. Here's what happened.

After the release of Daniel's major-label debut for Atlantic Records in 1993, Fun, a former bandmate of mine in Glass Eye, Brian Beattie, began carting a home studio out to the suburbs of Houston where Daniel lives with his parents to record a couple of tunes for the movies. One song, "Casper," was cut and used in the film Kids, while another tune, "Impossible Love," was recorded for use in The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers Movie. A slight kink developed, however; Daniel didn't want to do "Impossible Love" for The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers Movie. Possibly because the song was about his objet d'obsession, Laurie the Undertaker's Wife (whom he had sworn to quit writing about), or possibly because he had wanted to record the tune with Austin's on-again/off-again Rhythm Rats, Daniel just didn't want to record the song as per Atlantic's request.

comic 1

illustration by Daniel Johnston

Since getting Daniel to change his mind is like pulling out a tree stump with a bicycle and some kite string, it came as little surprise that the singer-songwriter claimed he had "lost the lyrics" to the tune. Nevertheless, eager to halt the gentle insistence that he record the song, Daniel finally whipped out his ancient acoustic guitar -- the same one used on all his early cassette recordings (and which he busted into a million pieces a week later because he felt someone else was controlling his fingers) -- and according to Beattie, wrote another entirely different song called "Impossible Love" in "a spastic bout of inspiration and fear."

Naturally, only Daniel Johnston could hope that his A&R man at Atlantic, respected jazz producer Yves Beauvois, wouldn't notice the substitution; to give Daniel credit, many A&R guys probably wouldn't (okay, okay, I'm jaded!). The song was, however, instantly rejected in disgust by Beauvois as being "in a depressing minor key." It was never even submitted to the people making the film.

"Now, I don't mean to nitpick," says Beattie, "but the song is in a major key, and is quite hopeful and wistful!"

Either way, Atlantic rejected it. Today, it's the opening track on Rejected Unknown. Which is just as well; ultimately, Atlantic wanted Daniel to be "slick." The very fact that anyone could even conceive of Daniel being "slick" clearly illustrates the chasm between the Artist and The Guys Watching the Bottom Line. Daniel's inherent charm lies rather in the direction of being "raw." Naturally, Atlantic eventually dropped Daniel.

Unfazed by the major's defection, Johnston and Beattie continued to record. Every four weeks or so, Beattie would spend two hours packing up the studio, three hours driving to Daniel's house, four to five hours recording, then break it all down and drive back to Austin. Due to Johnston's ever-changing mental weather, sometimes they wouldn't even get one song; other times, says Beattie, "Daniel's genius antennae would shoot up into the sky, and a song that sounded like it had existed forever would come uninterrupted out of his mind and his hands."

What Atlantic could not understand the indies were thrilled by, and Daniel eventually reached an agreement with Portland, Oregon's Tim/Kerr Records, the album scheduled for a February '99 street date. It was never released. After being pushed back a number of times, the Pacific Northwest indie finally revealed it had lost its financial backers and closed down its operations. Negotiations with other indie labels began, and again the interminable contractual processes dragged on and on. Offers are currently being examined and haggled over, and Daniel and his management are taking their time deciding.

In the meantime, tired of telling his Austin nightclub audiences that the album would be out "soon," and "utterly frustrated at how lame everyone else is," Johnston decided (and got permission) to release the album locally with the help of Beattie.

comic 2

illustration by Daniel Johnston

While the recording of Rejected Unknown was moving forward in fits and starts -- at times impeded by Daniel's occasional committals to what he refers to as "The Loony Bin," not to mention the births of Beattie's two children -- the New York art world began taking note of Daniel's drawings. Artist Ron English actively sought him out after seeing his signature "Jeremiah the Frog" drawing on the 1994 South by Southwest tote bag. Finally tracking him down a year and a half later, English visited the singer in Texas, presenting Daniel with several prints of his own work upon their meeting. As English was leaving, Daniel came rushing down the driveway and presented the artist with 200 drawings.

"I couldn't refuse them, because that would have been an insult," explains English. "But I didn't feel right just taking them, because in my eyes the drawings were quite valuable. Don't get me wrong, I would have loved to have kept them, but he was just being too generous."

Instead, English opted to work some of Johnston's drawings into an upcoming gallery opening of his own. Exhibited December 1997, in New York City, all of Daniel's drawings and English's paintings sold out quickly. A similar art show was presented in Dallas in March 1998, this time accompanied by a live musical appearance from Daniel, and again all the musician's work sold out. The next show opened in April and lasted through the end of May 1998, at the Artefakt Gallery in Mulheim-Ruhr, Germany. This show featured the artwork of Daniel and longtime friend/songwriter/artist of similar repute Jad Fair. Six months later, another sold-out show in Berlin drew notice.

CBGB's gallery in New York, an offshoot of the legendary live music venue, was the next host of an opening this past February. Again pairing Johnston with English, the show was nothing less than an event, and by now Daniel devotees were so enthusiastic as to not only buy every available drawing, but also to steal all displayed photocopies, the numbers beneath the photocopies, and the signs placed the next day stating, "Due to theft we are unable to show you the Daniel Johnston Drawings."

The scene at this particular show waxed absolutely Warholian; at one point during his accompanying live performance, Daniel asked for a Coke and had at least seven brought forward by fans. He took sips from each, at which point the half-finished soft drinks were then snatched back and spirited away by giddy fans. Later, someone brought forward a chord organ (Daniel's signature instrument) and asked the singer to "touch it"; he obliged, and the fan retreated to the back of the hall squealing with delight. Walking over to a deli to get a bite to eat after his performance, Daniel was mobbed!

comic 3

illustration by Daniel Johnston

One of the patrons who purchased drawings at this particular gallery show was publisher Don Godey of SoftSkull Press. So impressed was he with the story behind Daniel Johnston that he immediately contracted Tarssa English to write a book about the elusive songwriter and artist. The result is Hi How Are You: The Definitive Daniel Johnston Handbook. It opens with a chronological history of Daniel Johnston and an analysis of his creative beginnings; a biographical context, if you will, in which to place the artist and his work. Happily, Daniel's visual art and his music are dealt with as part of the same creative expression. Next comes a critical analysis of both his drawings and his songs; one intriguing section examines Daniel's personal mythology, reoccurring themes like Casper the Friendly Ghost, Captain America, and The Man in the Polka Dot Underwear.

Each character's state of evolvement finds its parallel in Daniel's own personal evolution, and the author takes great pains in untangling the singer's "song clusters" for those unfamiliar with his large canon of songs. The author also expands upon Laurie the Undertaker's Wife -- who she really is and her role in Daniel's artistic vision. Finally, English attempts to describe the burgeoning cult phenomenon that is picking up speed around Daniel like the beginnings of a tornado. Most importantly, there are over 250 photographs and reproductions of Daniel Johnston's drawings.

Because the book doesn't hit the shelves until November, currently your best bet to view Daniel's drawing is on the Internet ( And did I mention, the album is out now? Rejected Unknown is available at local record stores around town.

"I feel really great, like things are going good! I like it a lot!" Daniel replied, when I asked him how he felt about all this. "I just played a couple of shows in New York and I really had a great time. It was wild!!"

I ribbed him about how it seems he's getting into what he used to refer to as "The Big Time."

"I'm not really ready for The Big Time," Daniel stammered with a bit of panic. Then, a little timid that he had maybe pushed The Big Time away before he'd really looked it over, he added, "but I'm going to keep trying and trying to get better and better, so I will be ready!!"

As the saying goes, ready or not. ...

johnston portrait

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More by Kathy McCarty
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Daniel Johnston's songs find new life in the rock opera 'Speeding Motorcycle'

Feb. 22, 2008

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