By Kevin Baxter
Earlier this month, we lost one of the most brilliant songwriters with one of the most interesting lives to touch music. Daniel Johnston is usually described as an outsider folk artist who got recognition partially due to the sheer amount of cassettes he would hand out for free. While working at a McDonald’s in Austin, for instance, he would pass out his home-recorded tapes, sometimes putting them in the to-go bags.
His album Hi, How Are You?, which was released in 1983, is definitely his most recognized release; surely having to do with Kurt Cobain wearing T-shirts of it in several pictures throughout ’92, most notably during the 1992 MTV Music Awards. But Cobain is not the only highly-successful artist who had their eyes on Johnston; others include Tom Waits, The Flaming Lips, Beck, Sonic Youth, etc. To this day, Johnston is seen as a genius songwriter whose ascent was only halted by the same powerful mind that brought him there.
Not all was happy in Johnston’s life. He first started showing signs of his mental illness when his family sent him to college at Abilene Christian University; he would allegedly wander around in a confused state. After having to return home, they sent him to a university closer to where they lived: Kent State East Liverpool.
This is where Johnston met Laurie Allen, they became friends while he was in school. Johnston later would fall in love with Allen. This seemed to be more of a one-sided ‘love’, because Allen was dating an undertaker. This inspired him greatly to focus more on his music, becoming a topic of many songs.
Johnston never graduated but dropped out of school and went to Houston to live with his brother until Johnston was evicted and shortly after ran away to join the carnival. Nobody knew where he had gone for months. Luckily for Johnston, the carnival brought him right where he needed to go. Johnston left the carnival one night after getting into a fight with a fellow worker. The city he departed in happened to be Austin, Texas, where Johnston would eventually make a name for himself among the indie/underground scene.
While in Austin, Johnston worked at a McDonald’s and would regularly hand out his cassettes at work, as well as around the city. The amount of people hearing these cassettes started a buzz around the community; so much so, that when MTV’s, “The Cutting Edge”, came through Austin, Johnston appeared on the show. His appearance helped blast him off as one of the biggest acts talked about in underground and indie circles. Everything was going well for Johnston.
At this time in the mid-80s, Johnston’s mental health started to take a sharp decline. He would soon be diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and have many experiences in and out of mental health hospitals. The most notable story being when Johnston, while his father was flying a private two-seat plane, believing he was Casper The Friendly Ghost, removed the key and threw it out of the window. His father was forced to crash land the plane; luckily, they both survived.
Johnston’s life is one riddled with genius and despair. In spite of his physical and mental health issues, Johnston continued to write music every day; once saying, “I can’t stop writing. If I did stop, there could be nothing.” His work has inspired many artists across all domains and will continue to do so. May Johnston rest easy.