Daniel Johnston’s End of Innocence

Insight on his major label debut, Kathy McCarty’s Dead Dog’s Eyeball and excerpts from a previously unpublished interview from 1986

by d.n.l.

Daniel in 1992 at Austin State Hospital. Photo by Jeff Tartakov.

Update from the author, d.n.l., September 2021, on the eve of the opening of the art and multimedia exhibit, Daniel Johnston: I Live My Broken Dreams at the Contemporary Austin.

In the summer of 1985 I watched the MTV show The Cutting Edge, hosted by the Fleshtones Peter Zaremba. They had assembled an entire episode highlighting the music of Austin, Texas. Since 1984 I had been visiting Austin, looking to make the jump from Midland to a city that had an actual music scene. The program featured the latest crop of bands, calling the scene New Sincerity, with the bands Zeitgeist (later The Reivers), the True Believers, Doctors Mob, the Wild Seeds and Glass Eye. There was a pretext to the show that one of the bands was going to be given a record contract with I.R.S Records. That prize went to an act that nobody had heard of and had only recently moved to Austin — Timbuk 3. The real star of the show? This geeky guy with a high singing voice and a guitar strapped around his neck handing out his self-made tapes: Daniel Johnston! I immediately felt a kinship with him, and knew that whenever I finally made the move I would seek him out. In early 1986 I moved to Austin and Daniel was told that this guy who loved his music was working at Discount Records on the Drag (as Guadalupe St. in the heart of the University of Texas campus was called) and he should stop by and meet me. He came by, wearing his McDonald’s uniform, and we instantly hit it off. We seemed to run into each other quite frequently. He had a lot going on. I had a lot going on. I found a ‘zine called Flying Horse and offered my services. The first thing I suggested was a short interview with Daniel Johnston. By then I was working at Inner Sanctum Records, a legendary shop that was falling on hard times. Daniel came by to do the interview and, along with my coworker and my friend, we conducted this 15 minute conversation. I had dived in headfirst into his music and his artwork (every time I saw him he was handing me a flyer he’d made for different things). At one point in the interview he says “it’s hard to answer your questions when you already know the answers!” Listening to the conversation, you hear an intelligent and ambitious artist seemingly ready for the stardom we all kind of thought would never come, no matter how well deserved it would be. I was starting my recording project and we discussed working on a song together. Then he was gone for the summer and the next thing I knew, he was back, and had the freakout that ended with Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black talking him out of a wintery creek. Things were never the same and if you’re reading this you likely know the rest of his story. 

Original article from Pop Culture Press #33, 1995.

I can remember the first time I heard of Daniel Johnston. I saw him on MTV’s The Cutting Edge, the famous Austin episode.

I remember thinking what a geek he was, passing out his tape, showing up several times in the show, but I sought out his music when I moved to Austin. This was during the days when he hand-colored and glued the cassette covers himself. His music was the early soundtrack of my life in Austin. His childlike innocence and enthusiasm brought out things in me I had never known before, but when I played it to a girlfriend who was living in Odessa (Texas), it might just as well have been music made by an alien. My early days in Austin ended when the Space Shuttle crashed and I discovered Bad Moon Rising by Sonic Youth. I sought Daniel out and befriended him, and interviewed him for a fanzine that never materialized. 

Daniel on the MTV show, I.R.S.’s The Cutting Edge in 1985.

Over the years I followed him though a friendship with his long time manager Jeff Tartakov, and through all the rough times. I remember Jeff telling me about Daniel pushing the old lady out of a window, and getting arrested for drawing the Christian fish symbol all over the Statue of Liberty while he was living in New York. In 1990, we met again when Daniel returned for South by Southwest for an in-store appearance at Sound Exchange. That same year, I was friends with Caroline — she was the inspiration for his song “I Did Acid With Caroline.”

Daniel was going back and forth between the State Hospital and his parent’s house, and escaping for these adventures. 

We met again when Daniel appeared on the TV show Knee Jerk, which I co-hosted with Mark Capps and aired on Austin Access Television Monday nights, but my interest in him declined because he could be mean and bullish to people. He never seemed to realize how devoted his manager was, and when Daniel was close to landing a deal with Elektra Records, he terminated their relationship. From that period on, I sided with Tartakov because he was a good friend, and because I knew Daniel wasn’t the same guy I had met those eight years ago. The innocence was gone. He was long past being pure of heart.

Listening to his new album, Fun, I am amazed at how much Daniel sounds pulled together after so many Humpty Dumpty falls. The songs are all pretty great, and I’ve always wondered what he would sound like with proper musicians and production. I doubt that old girlfriend would think this is so alien. Of course Butthole Surfer guitarist Paul Leary provides the production and musical accompaniment, revisiting a collaboration that started back in 1986-87 during Daniel’s acid days, and resulted in a freakout that ended with Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black talking him out of a wintery creek. This was the time he was convinced that the Army was in Abilene poisoning the water, which later led to his song “Devil Town.”This was the turning point for him. 

The new collaboration is more fully realized than the A Texas Trip compilation tracks were, and somehow, when Daniel opens his mouth and starts singing again he sounds innocent and sweet again. It’s a worthy effort, but so much of the credit must go to Leary for carrying this off and making Johnston sound like a major label artist.

Somehow, though, I’ve found that I strongly prefer K. McCarty’s album of Daniel’s songs, Dead Dog’s Eyeball (Bar/None), because it reminded me of the way I originally felt about Johnston’s music. Kathy has an even longer association with Daniel; in fact her old band Glass Eye was one of the first to let Daniel play before their sets at (north UT campus dive) The Beach. Her versions, backed by various members of her old band (and produced by Brian Beattie, her long time collaborator in Glass Eye), legitimize what was always there beneath the clicking organ and tape his of those earlier efforts much more than what Daniel is doing now. Both are polished and without the original element of amateurism that endeared so many, but McCarty has such a reverence for the work that you can’t help but think that Daniel would’ve done them the same way if he’d had the means. A number of bands, from Yo La Tengo to fIREHOSE  have covered his songs and it’s always been speculated that a tribute album is imminent. From the earliest speculation Glass Eye was always included, so it’s no surprise that McCarty has chosen this as her first solo effort. Bringing life into such classics as “Rocket Ship” and “Sorry Entertainer” couldn’t have been easy, but sounds so. I almost prefer her “Rocket Ship” to the original. I remember trying, in vain, to record his “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Your Grievances” with a member of Go! Dog! Go! back in 1987 and giving up on it because we could only make it sound normal. It’s not as though McCarty doesn’t make Daniel’s songs sound normal, because she does, but she also manages to capture the soul. She has made the songs about herself as much as Daniel did, and not only succeeds in bringing his songs alive, but also makes us aware of her enormous talents. 

In the Spring of 1986, the first year I lived in Austin, I worked for four months at Inner Sanctum Records. I had started a band called Sister/Lovers with my then best friend David. I was also working on my last full album, Dreams About Reality, and this interview took place around the same time. A snippet of the interview appears on that tape, which has never been officially released. 

Daniel in 1992 at Austin State Hospital. Photo by Jeff Tartakov.

PCP: When did you write your first song? Wasn’t it “Grievances”?

DANIEL: That’s right, that’s my Song of Songs. That’s the first time I ever really got a song I really liked. It was about this girl I fell in love with who married an undertaker, and all of my songs are based on that song. 

PCP: Didn’t you also refer to this on “Funeral Home”? “Going to a funeral home and never coming back.”

DANIEL: Yeah, a lot of my songs are about funeral homes. I always quote it. It’s all the same. Once I had that song I went from there. There was this girl, and I wrote this song, “I Love Your Ankles” or something., and I played it for her on the piano at the university and she said “gee, you do that well” and that’s all it took. Every day after that I was sitting at the pianist going bum-bum-bum. I never really stopped. Then I got this song “Grievances” and they all refer to that song.

PCP: So, did she make a George Jones out of you?

DANIEL: No, that’s not that girl. (Laughs) What’s the next question? 

PCP: What’s the story behind the cartoon world you’ve created on the covers?

DANIEL: I draw pictures all the time and when I come up with one I like a lot it seems to mean it.

PCP: How are they connected with your songs?

DANIEL: I draw pictures and I sing songs, it’s the same thing. 

PCP: How did your work with Texas Instruments come about? 

DANIEL: Well, Kim Fowley wanted to produce me, so they gave me free studio time to see what I sounded like. I was hanging around with Dave Woody (T. I. guitarist), and we went in one night and recorded about five songs. I said “Alright, play some slow blues” and they played some slow blues and we recorded it. Then I said “play some avant-garde” and we recorded it, and then we really worked on one called “Ghost of Our Love.” I really like that. Then about two weeks later Bill Anderson came in and recorded with us on a song called “Girls.” I really like that one. Those are all on the Continued Stories tape. 

The author with Daniel at Sound Exchange (record store on The Drag, ie. Guadalupe St.) in 1990. Photo by Jeff Tartakov.

PCP: When do you think you’re going to get your compilation record together? 

DANIEL: Hopefully in about six months. 

PCP: Who do you have lined up for that? 

DANIEL: I got Zeitgeist, True Believers, Chlorine, Glass Eye, the B-Surfers [Daniel wouldn’t say Butthole, which is pretty sweet], Poison 13, One Second Zero, the Dishes, the Rhythm Rats and the Floating Skulls. We hope to do that album and Joe Nick Patoski is helping me arrange that.

PCP: You should get Not Daniel Johnston to be on it too! What did you think of that tape?

DANIEL: The Parody tape? Very excellent, and I listened to it a whole bunch of times. I thought it was excellent. 

PCP: Have you ever met him? He’s a really nice guy. He said he did a lot of that stuff a long time ago and heard your tapes and thought “well, I have some stuff that sounds like that,” and he made it up and put it out. 

DANIEL: Yeah, I think when people hear me, a lot of paranoiacs and schizophrenics and wimp type people come out of the closet. I think that’s great. A lot of people listen to me and say “that guy’s crazy!” I don’t know what I meant by that statement before, about wimps. Somebody told me my music sounds wimpy, but I don’t know. 

PCP: What did you think of his song “McDonald’s”? Do you still work there?

DANIEL: Yeah, I still work there. I wrote a song about McDonald’s, it goes like this (to the tune of “Tiger By the Tail” by Buck Owens)- “He’s got McDonald’s on the brain it’s plain to see / When I saw him on the street the first thing he said to me / Boy we sure can make those Big Macs fast!” / He’s got McDonalds on the brain it’s plain to see / They say around on their 15 minute break showing the scars on their arms / They talked about how fast they made those hamburgers and talked about the times they got burnt/ They’ve got McDonalds on the brain it’s plain to see.”

PCP: So your favorite group is the Beatles right?

DANIEL: Yeah, they’re the greatest, yeah, I really love the Beatles, but lately I’ve mostly been listening to the Carpenters and the B-Surfers.

For more on Daniel’s life and career, watch The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005) streaming on Amazon. The art and multimedia exhibit, Daniel Johnston: I Live My Broken Dreams at the Contemporary Austin runs through March 20, 2022.

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