Daniel Johnston: The First 50 Years

SXSW panels

Ballroom Dancing
Photo by Gary Miller

Daniel Johnston: The First 50 Years

Austin Convention Center, Wednesday, March 16

Like O. Henry before him, Daniel Johnston and his Austin tenure have become the stuff of legend. Although Wednesday's panel was advertised as a half-century retrospective, Johnston's Austin years dominated the discourse. Rebuffing the notion that Johnston's mental illness fueled his songwriting prowess, Chronicle Editor Louis Black explained that the young McDonald's employee was merely considered eccentric in the context of mid-1980s Austin music. "We didn't know he was crazy when we fell in love with his music," Black asserted. Johnston's high school art buddy David Thornberry and his brother Dick Johnston both noted a turn for the worse around Christmas 1986. "I remember looking him in the face and thinking, 'I don't even know if this is Daniel,'" his older brother recalled with emotion. Even so, it wasn't long before the hand-duped cassettes that Waterloo Records owner John Kunz called "William Blake meets Kmart Blue Light Special" spread beyond Austin, enchanting budding alt-icons like Kurt Cobain. These days, Johnston's "Hi, How Are You" mural at 21st and Guadalupe is closing in on official landmark status, so the warm greeting for the man himself was no surprise. After two songs on an out-of-tune guitar, Johnston made a hasty exit and began signing autographs.

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