Basement Poet: The Life and Death of Daniel Johnston

Jamie Hayes

Daniel Dale Johnston was born in Sacramento, California on January 22, 1961. He had five older siblings, and his family was deeply religious. His father, a WWII fighter-pilot, took a job in West Virginia soon after Daniel was born.

That was where he grew up. Johnston’s first forays into art were doodles—the beginnings of the fantastic and bizarre drawings that he would scrawl on his tapes and records for the rest of his life. However, by the time he was nine, Daniel was already making music.

The Story of an Artist

Daniel’s earliest memories of writing songs saw him playing around on his family’s piano, writing themes for horror movies. Later, he recalled making up songs and singing them while mowing the lawn. Under the blare of the machine, he could sing to his heart’s content, and no one could hear him for the noise.

By the time he was a teenager, Daniel started recording his own songs on a cheap Sanyo boombox. He quickly learned that you didn’t need a studio or fancy or recording equipment to create and share your music.

This Is a Promise With a Catch

Daniel finished high school and enrolled in the art program at Abilene Christian University in Texas—the state that would eventually become his home—but he didn’t last long. Soon after leaving home, his mental problems became more pronounced.

Johnson suffered from bipolar disorder, manic depression, and schizophrenia. After just two weeks at Abilene, Johnson dropped out and returned to West Virginia. He didn’t give up on school entirely, taking some classes at Kent State University, but he would never finish a degree.

Devil Town

After returning home, Daniel spent most of his time in his family’s cellar, recording music. He created his own “record label,” Stress, and started releasing his own albums, starting with Songs of Pain and More Songs of Pain, both in 1980.

Eventually, Daniel moved out once again. He headed back down to Texas, becoming a carny in a traveling carnival. After selling corn dogs with the troupe for five months, he ended up in Austin—a city to which he’d be inextricably linked for the rest of his life.

Hi, How Are You?

Daniel got a job at a McDonald’s in Austin, but he still spent every free hour recording songs. Putting his music directly onto blank tape, he would make the copies himself, draw cover art, and hand them out to pretty girls on the street. Daniel wanted to be famous, like his idols, the Beatles, and he was doing everything he could to get there.

He became something of a local celebrity. While bussing tables at McDonald’s, he would introduce himself to customers and try to get them to buy his tapes. He would bug local artists for the same reason, or to let him up on stage to perform his music.

Why Are You so Odd?

After a while, Johnston had gained something of a foothold in the Austin music scene. Anyone who listened to his tapes would quickly notice that he wasn’t quite like anyone else. His lyrics were direct and childish, yet also shockingly sincere and intense. Somehow, their buzzing, lo-fi sound made them even more compelling. Before long, his tapes made it to the shelves of some local record stores, and all the local bands knew about Daniel.

So in 1985, when MTV’s show Cutting Edge came to town, several Austin musicians suggested that they do a feature on Daniel. The show hit the airwaves nationwide and people all across America came to know Daniel.

Step Out Into the Light, The Light

Now, Daniel’s tapes could be found on shelves from New York to Los Angeles. His iconic album Hi, How Are You—which would eventually be made even more famous by Kurt Cobain, who frequently wore a shirt featuring its cover art—was rereleased and printed on vinyl.

This new fame brought new opportunities, most notably, the chance to tour with Sonic Youth. Daniel moved to New York to prepare for the tour, and while there, recorded his 11th album, 1990, featuring one of his most enduring songs, the reedy and heartbreaking “True Love Will Find You in the End.”

The Devil Has Texas

Despite his rising fame, Daniel’s mental problems were still very present in his life, and the next couple of years would be some of his darkest. In New York, he was arrested for vandalizing the Statue of Liberty. Then, after he was released from police custody, he spent hours wandering the city alone in a daze, terrifying his family.

Daniel returned to Texas soon after the incident, but his trials were only getting worse. While on a bus home, Daniel saw cow skulls lying near the side of the road and took it as a sign that the devil had taken over Texas. Horrified and experiencing a psychotic break, Daniel got off at the wrong town and wandered into the home of an old woman. He became convinced that the woman was possessed by the devil, and became so aggressive that she jumped out of a second-story window in fear, breaking both of her legs.

Not long after, while flying home from a music festival in a private plane piloted by his father, Daniel had another psychotic break and aggressively took over control of the plane. He eventually removed the ignition keys and threw them out of a window, forcing his father to make an emergency landing. Everyone survived, but the crash destroyed the plane.

Daniel Johnston and his father

Sadly, Daniel’s mental illness had become a threat to others. His family was forced to place him in a mental institution against his will in 1990.  Daniel would spend most of the next decade in and out of similar institutions, struggling to find medications that could help him manage his illness.

I’m Walking Down That Lonely Road

Yet, Daniel was still at the height of his popularity through this harrowing time. While he was institutionalized, two different record companies, Elektra and Atlantic began a bidding war to try and sign him. Johnston eventually signed with the latter, because he believed that Metallica, who were signed to Elektra, were servants of the devil.

Daniel released just one album with Atlantic. The record, titled Fun, was a commercial disappointment, and the label dropped him not long after its release.

True Love Will Find You In the End

Around the year 2000, with the support of his family and proper medication, Daniel started doing better mentally. The next decade saw a renewed interest in his work. In 2004, he released a compilation album, The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered, which featured several popular artists, like Death Cab for Cutie, Beck, and the Flaming Lips, covering his music.

Then, in 2005, director Jeff Feuerzeig created a documentary about his life and struggle. Titled The Devil and Daniel Johnson, the critically acclaimed movie introduced even more people to his music. Daniel also took his creative life into his own hands and started releasing music on his own label, called Eternal Yip Eye Music.

An Artist Growing Old

Daniel and his family continued to deal with his mental issues throughout the 2010s, yet his physical health also began to decline. As his brother/manager put it, “Keeping him healthy has been the struggle and when he’s not well, you deal with a different person.” His final years were spent dealing with frequent hospitalizations and changes to his medication.

In early September 2019, Daniel went to the hospital one more time due to a kidney malfunction. He returned home on Tuesday the 10th, and his brother described him as in good spirits: “As good as I’ve seen him in years…he was happy to be home.” That night, Daniel turned away a caretaker who came to check on him at around 8:30 pm. He was found dead the next morning, of what is believed to have been a heart attack.

In the days following Daniel’s death, a flood of tributes revealed just how many lives his music touched. The iconic Austin mural featuring his Jeremiah the Innocent character from Hi, How Are You? has received a steady flow of mourners, come to pay tribute to the lost poet. Bands such as the National, the Flaming Lips, and Wilco (with whom Daniel had played mere months before his death) performed his songs at their concerts.

The National

Don’t Be Sad, I Know You Will

Like so many who suffer from mental illness, Daniel Johnson lived a troubled life. In his worse moments, he could be inappropriate, awkward, aggressive, or even dangerous. To be perfectly honest, it can be hard to watch interviews with him at times. But witnessing mental illness often makes people uncomfortable.

Daniel Johnson showed that people with mental illness should not be discounted or ignored. Despite his bipolar disorder, or depression, or schizophrenia, Daniel was a creative mind like the world has rarely seen. His head was filled with music, and his songs are something unique, unlike anything else in popular culture.

Daniel Johnson’s mind caused him a lot of pain, but it was his own.

Sources: 1, 23456789

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