The Human Struggle: Daniel Johnston - Pioneer of DIY
Daniel Johnston is an indie legend - a pioneer of the DIY aesthetics that exploded the '80s and '90s musical scene into a new era. The music he created caused a huge cultural shift in how we view art, music, and personal issues in relation to the music that artists create.
Daniel Johnston was born in Sacramento, California in 1961. By the time he released Hi, How Are You, he was 22 with five full length recordings under his belt. He would self record, produce and distribute his albums on cassette tapes, which he would share with anyone around the Austin area, most notably at a McDonalds in the city. His art was praised for the lo-fi DIY sound that was floating around Austin throughout the years, with large turnouts for his concerts. His popularity exploded thanks to Kurt Cobain wearing a shirt displaying his album cover, allowing Daniel to sign to a record label in 1994 and to produce his much anticipated, professionally recorded album, Fun. Unfortunately, Atlantic Records considered the release to be a flop, and they swiftly dropped him from the label after the release.
While we fans are left with a massive catalogue of cassettes and recordings from throughout his career, many fans yearn for the passion, innocence and creative outpourings that come from his most recognizable work, Hi, How Are You, created in 1983. From its opening track, the somber "Poor You", in which Johnston intimately expresses his angel at night, who comes to console him and sympathize with his pain. The album picks up with the next track "Big Business Monkey", which introduces the listener to the pounding of keys on a seemingly cheap and small piano, while showcasing the raw, passionate delivery which continues to run full course throughout the album. The most incredible aspects of this album come from moments like this, where fully realized, fleshed out songs are created and recorded as simply as possible. It allows these themes to be presented to the listener as they were meant to be - candid, sincere, and emotional. From the feverish playing of Johnston to the half-shouted delivery, one can listen to this record and feel the exact moment and location of the creator. Nothing seems off-limits when you listen to this song - it feels as if you’ve been transported into Johnston's maniacal world of fast food, shitty managers and frustrating days. The closing lines on the song resonate the most, with Johnston singing:
And you can have it now
But you can’t take it with you
Everything you cling to will rot
And everything you do will be forgot
By everyone you ever tried to impress
Many times in Johnston's songs he emphasizes the inevitable end of existence, sometimes in a way that isn’t so obvious, such as the tracks "I Am a Baby (In My Universe)" and "I’ll Never Marry". Johnston expresses with obvious sarcasm, expressing that since he’s 22 he’ll live forever, on "I Am a Baby", while on the opposite end of the spectrum, expresses his misfortune of never finding love and dying alone on "I’ll Never Marry". The latter song is a true representation of how many with depression and other mental issues feel in regards to love and relationships, and is thus very easy to relate to.
The world of Daniel Johnston's emotional expressions are not limited to sadness and despair, as he showcases his songwriting talent on the expressive "Walking the Cow". This song emanates peace, calm serenity, and even joy, reminiscent of a slow walk through a forest with a friend by your side. This carefree expression is rare throughout Johnston's work, and thus stands out through the number of covers and re-workings created by different artists, most famously Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, who played his own version to open every show of his 2008 solo tour. The song is tightly written, expressive, and easy to digest - perhaps the most accessible of his work. This flow of creativity and incredible songwriting continues throughout the record, such as the track "Desperate Man Blues", which makes use of a pre-recorded jazz track from Johnny Dankworth. Johnston transforms the basic jazz recording into a passionate explosion, methodically expressing the pain and hopelessness of his everyday life and the tragedy of having nowhere to go and nothing to do.
"Hey Joe" continues to explore feelings of pain and hopelessness through a different perspective, as Johnston writes in the third person, expressing hope for the four characters in the song. In the tracklisting, this is a huge shift from "Desperate Man Blues", which sees Johnston as the one expressing hopelessness with a need for someone else to give him hope. When taken in relation to his episodes of manic depression, one can see the correlation between moments of extreme highs and dismal lows.
Truly enough has been said about Johnston's mental health issues - Johnston suffered from huge manic depressive episodes, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder throughout his life, and continues to struggle with these health issues to this day. These commentaries have truly been a double-edged sword for Johnston, as many people credit his fame to have something to do with his health problems, some being so bold to proclaim that Johnston has been bastardized by the hipster generation, which views him as a musical circus act. For journalists and so-called fans to express these opinions truly shows their shallow, uneducated views, for it seems as though these people have fallen into the trap of combining the art and the artist. For someone to say that his art is ruined by popularity and that his musical expressions are somehow tainted by his mental health is an incredible insult to the hours of dedicated creative showcasings throughout Johnston's career.
"For someone to say that his musical expressions are somehow tainted by his mental health is an incredible insult to the hours of dedicated creative showcasings throughout Johnston's career."
The other side of the proverbial coin is that Johnston's songwriting while dealing with his mental illness has created a lot of waves, musically and culturally. Many musicians don’t shy away from talking about their human struggles. This can be credited to many artists over the years such as blues and big band musicians, however smaller artists such as Johnston can be attributed to being at the forefront of emotive and hopeless expressions and themes in their music. On Johnston's birthday in 2018, the state of Texas proclaimed January 22nd to be henceforth known as Hi, How Are You Day, to celebrate Johnston's musical career and to continue to slowly opening conversations regarding mental health issues and how we as a society can support and encourage those dealing with these issues. Taking one look at the musicians we know and love these days, we can see that emotive, open expression is what separates true artistry from just another singer playing their music.
The cultural influence of Daniel Johnston's creations can be seen in the rise of the '80s and '90s DIY bands that came from the underground to gain popular appeal. The rise of punk bands such as Fugazi, The Descendents, and Black Flag showcased the power of self recording and creating a scene without the use of a record label, just like Johnston back in the '80s. This DIY epidemic continued into the '90s with bands such as Pixies, Nirvana and Sonic Youth showcasing their talents through the underground scenes and through overwhelming self promotion. These days, with the internet, artists still use these same tactics, especially self recording, through sites such as Bandcamp and Soundcloud, to push their sound further out into the world. This attitude of DIY is most usually accredited to punk bands, however many people accredit Johnston as the one to encourage all artists, no matter the skill or the instruments available, to push their creations out into the world and to put themselves on an emotional display.
Thanks to Johnston's recordings, our culture has grown to be more accepting of passionate, self made artists and allowing of these artists to express the issues that they deal with on a regular basis. With Johnston rarely playing shows and living a quiet life, all of us hope he knows the massive positive influence that continues to be on display throughout our musical landscape. Johnston's work will continue to inspire the passionate DIY artists, and for generations he will be hailed as a lo-fi legend.