Daniel Johnston – Forever Young

December 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: Music Australia Guide #72, December/January 2009-2010.

Texan outsider musician Daniel Johnston has battled mental illness to become one America’s most prolific and most loved songwriters. By Dan Rule

Name Daniel Johnston.
Born 1961, Sacramento, California, USA.
Passion Marvel Comics, The Beatles.

‘60s/Early 70s Born in Sacramento, California, Johnston moves to rural West Virginia as a child. It’s clear from an early age that Johnston isn’t like other kids. Intermittently shy and manic, he spends much of his early alone listening to the Beatles and poring over Marvel and DC comic books.

1970s Johnston avidly takes to drawing and music and soon begins writing his own Beatles-inspired material on guitar and piano. He buys a Sony boom-box and begins recording his songs.

1980 Johnston’s often obsessive behaviour takes a turn for the worst and he becomes deeply depressed and self-destructive. He is later diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He releases his first, crudely recorded cassette Songs of Pain, replete with hand-drawn packaging.

1983 Despite his illness, he moves to Austin, Texas and is embraced by the eclectic music scene. Releases his classic album Hi, How Are You?

1985 Features on an episode of MTV’s The Cutting Edge. Almost overnight, Johnston becomes an underground cult hero.

Late ‘80s/Early ‘90s Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo and Tom Waits name-check Johnston in interviews, but while his star is on the rise, Johnston’s mental health becomes increasingly unstable. He releases his classic record 1990 between stints in a mental facility.

1994 A major label bidding war breaks out after Kurt Cobain is snapped wearing one of Johnston’s Hi, How Are You? album t-shirts. Atlantic eventually releases the acclaimed Fun.

1995–2003 With his illness under relative control, Johnston records a string of catchy, intelligent, refreshingly honest pop records.

2004 Releases Discovered Recovered, a collection of Johnston covers by the likes of Mercury Rev, Tom Waits, Beck, Death Cab for Cutie, The Flaming Lips and countless others.

2005 Dutch documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston receives the Director’s Award at Sundance, though the the experience leaves Johnston disillusioned.

2006 Johnston’s artwork is included in the esteemed Whitney Biennial.

2009 He releases his reflective, lushly produced new album Is and Always Was.


On creativity… “I just like to get to work, you know. I feel my best when I’m doing something, but when I’m not doing something I’m like the laziest sod you could ever know, just laying in bed and sleeping all day. Because I’m a manic depressive, when I get depressed it’s serious business, you know. I think that being creative, in whatever way, is just the best way of staying alive. It’s good therapy.”

On comics… “Jack Kirby was always my favourite, but I like all kinds. I like Paul Glacey – he did The Master of Kung-Fu with Marvel Comics – and all kinds of guys. A lot of my favourite art comes from Marvel and DC really. I’m into Batman right now. I like Batman.”

On The Beatles… “I was very shy and withdrawn and I didn’t have any friends, but I started listening to the Beatles and the first thing I knew, I was coming onto girls in an English accent. I started to get popular and I started writing songs and destiny was calling me, you know. It was the Beatles that led me.”

On collecting… “Because we go on all these tours, I buy comic books and records a lot – I can spend 500 dollars in one shot. And now, I have so many books and so many records and so many albums and things that dad’s going to build an addition to the house.”

Is and Always Was is out now though huB the laBel/Albert Productions

Visit: hihowareyou.com


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