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Music / Daniel Johnston

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Hi, how are you?

Daniel Dale Johnston (January 22, 1961 - September 11, 2019) was an American musician and artist. He has a strong cult following and is likely the most well-known "outsider musician", alongside being an artist/cartoonist who designed his own album covers.

Johnston was usually known for his lo-fi recordings from the 1980s, his most popular album being Hi, How Are You, released in 1983. He received a considerable Colbert Bump when Kurt Cobain wore a T-shirt with the album's cover on it and further named Johnston's Yip/Jump Music as one of his favorite albums. Other famous fans of his include Matt Groening, Johnny Depp, Tom Waits, David Bowie, Beck, Eddie Vedder, Jeff Tweedy, Built to Spill, Yo La Tengo, and Sonic Youth. In fact, many of these artists even recorded a tribute album for him. Johnston is also notable enough to have a documentary devoted to him: The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005).

Johnston was diagnosed with both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and as a result was in and out of mental institutions and suffered many mental breakdowns during his life, one of them in 1990 leading him to crash his father's plane while both were in it (fortunately, they survived the crash only mildly injured). As a result, his psychological issues informed the themes of a lot of his work, with frequent topics including loneliness and unrequited love. The aforementioned Hi, How Are You also remained unfinished due to a mental breakdown.

Johnston was also an identifiable loser geek who shared a love for comic books, music and old horror movies, pioneered home-recorded music and spent most of his life in his parents' house, cartooning and recording music. As much of a prototypical Starving Artist as he was, he did manage to make a career and gain some notability and respect in the Alternative Rock scene. Compared to other outsider musicians, he was also actually quite a capable musician on piano, guitar and mouth harmonica.

On September 11, 2019, The Austin Chronicle reported that Daniel passed away from a heart attack at the age of 58, leaving behind a legacy as one of the most important figures in the early years of alternative rock.

Releases with their own page:

Let me tell you about an artist...

  • Accentuate the Negative: His songs about being unrequited by society or loved ones are quite moving.
  • Alternative Rock: One of the cult musicians in the genre.
  • Annual Title: 1990 was released in 1990.
  • Author Appeal: Comic books, unrequited love, Jesus Christ, The Beatles, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and McDonald's.
  • Buffy Speak: From More Dead Than Alive
    I walked up to this psychological man, I said I got this problem about this coffin.
  • Catchphrase: Hi, how are you?
  • Careful with That Axe: in "Don't Play Cards With Satan",(1990 version) Daniel, shouts at the top of his lungs for 2 instances of the word "Satan" .
    I heard the voice of SATAN!!!! Crying in the woods...
  • Cut Short: He recorded most of his early songs on homemade cassette recordings. As a result a lot of songs end quite abrupt or with audible cuts. Especially the final track of each album also has an ending Cut Short.
  • Deconstruction: His entire oeuvre was about what it actually means to be a Woobie and a Cloudcuckoolander.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Many songs are about unrequited love. Daniel spent most of his life in his parents' house, because he was too mentally unstable to live on his own. Many of his songs deal with loneliness, rejection, lovesickness, breakups,... but at the same time can offer a voice of hope.
  • The Dog Bites Back: "No More Pushing Joe Around" seems to be about a man who's fed up with the world and decides to fight back.
    No more pushing Joe around
    No more pushing Joe around
    There'll be no more pushing Joe around
    He's up and punching now
  • Face on the Cover: albums that aren't billed as collaborations usually use Daniel's own artwork for the cover, but 1990 uses a photo of him posing in front of one of his paintings, while Artistic Vice is an artistic collage that prominently includes a childhood photo of himself.
  • Fading into the Next Song: His early recordings were made on cassette, thus naturally fade into each other.
  • Friendly Ghost: Daniel had a love for the character Casper the Friendly Ghost, whom he refers to often on his album covers and his songs.
  • God-Is-Love Songs: "God".
  • Homage: "The Beatles", "King Kong", "Caspar The Friendly Ghost",...
  • Indie Pop: An obscure Ur-Example for the genre.
  • Inspirationally Disadvantaged: He became extraordinarily influential on lo-fi music because of his Author Appeal.
  • Mad Artist: Sad real-life example. He had both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and had been in and out of mental institutions.
  • Mood Whiplash: In the album 1990, the previously mentioned Don't Play Cards With Satan ends with Daniel screaming "SATAN!!" at the top of his lungs. The next track is the happy and uplifting "True Love Will Find You In The End".
  • Never Accepted in His Hometown: "The Story Of An Artist".
  • New Sound Album:
    • Daniel's earlier albums mainly featured songs that were played on a piano. 1991's Artistic Vice did not feature any piano at all.
    • Most of his albums from 1979-88 (excluding 1985's Continued Story) were recorded on a cassette recorder, since his album 1990, his albums have been professionally produced in studios.
    • Fear Yourself can sound a little bit like Sparklehorse, due to Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous serving as Record Producer.
  • Outsider Music: One of the more well known musicians in the genre.
  • Pep-Talk Song: "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievances", "Get Yourself Together", "Hey Joe".
  • Rockumentary: The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
  • The Stoner: He was openly fond of marijuana, and advertised it in songs such as "Rock This Town". Interestingly, his early song "Pot Head" appears to be an Ode to Sobriety criticizing a stoner.
  • Trope Maker: Of home-recorded indie music.
  • Three Chords and the Truth: On guitar, Daniel pretty much only played very basic chords, and a lot of his guitar songs only use the G,C, and D chords. Still, he had an ear for melody and was more capable as a musician than many of his colleagues in the Outsider Music genre.
  • The Tyson Zone: Falls into this as a there's a lot of stories of him escaping mental institutions and the like.
  • Verbal Tic: In interviews, Dan tended to say "you know" a lot.
  • Vocal Evolution: Dan's voice changed a lot over the years. In the early 80s, his singing voice was almost boyish (listen to this recording of "To Go Home" off 1982's The What of Whom, in which he sounds like a 12-year-old, he was 21 during the recording of the song.). By the late 90s, his voice had changed dramatically, probably due to chain smoking and losing most of his teeth during one of his breakdowns.
  • The Unintelligible: Daniel mumbles so much on the track "Hot Water", from the 1979 tapes, that it seems like he isn't even singing in English.