Outsider’s triumph

It’s hard to believe that a song from America’s premier outsider musician could be used to hawk leather jackets for Target, but there it is on a television screen near you: folks preening in their Target-bought leathers while Mary Lou Lord strums a street-busker version of Daniel Johnston’s “Speeding Motorcycle.”

“I haven’t seen the commercial yet, but all my friends have seen it. … I think it’s pretty cool,” said a gleeful Johnston from his parents’ home in Waller, Texas.

Over two decades, Johnston has persevered, continuing to make his heartfelt, innocent songs even as he grapples with his own mental illness.

After many periods of darkness, Johnston now copes with the help of medication and the supervision of his parents.

In the midst of his largest-ever U.S. tour, the 40-year-old Johnston will play at the Magic Stick next Wednesday, Dec. 5.

Like the rough, self-taught, visionary work of outsiders in the visual arts, Johnston’s songs are the result of a unique creative sensibility, often tempered by struggles with his own inner demons.

Unlike some others who’ve brought their outsider status to rock, Johnston’s songs aren’t mere novelties. They’re poignant, charming, haunting. Populated by his personal pantheon of heroes and villains, his songs of love and his songs of pain have yielded some genuine classics: “Walking the Cow,” “Sorry Entertainer,” “Casper the Friendly Ghost” and “Speeding Motorcycle,” among others.

On record, he accompanies himself on a cheap acoustic guitar and a secondhand chord organ, as well as the occasional appropriation of a schmaltzy big band record for a backing track.

Initially recording albums like Songs of Pain and Hi, How Are You? live onto cassette, Johnston earned a cult following in the fertile college music scene of 1980s Austin, Texas, where he moved after leaving behind a strict religious upbringing in West Virginia.

As he explained, “When I first started out I was writing songs, and I was making tapes for my friends. I just had a tape recorder, a handheld tape recorder. And cheap tapes is all I’d buy — three for a dollar. “

Even before his self-released cassettes began to be reissued on the indie label Homestead, Johnston became a cause célebrè, with many of his Austin peers covering his songs. Johnston also found admirers like his naive-rock comrade Jad Fair, noise-rockers Sonic Youth, and indie titans Yo La Tengo singing his praises and his songs. His fate as an indie icon was sealed when Kurt Cobain began wearing shirts featuring Johnston’s drawings. (Johnston is also an accomplished visual artist.)

But the threat of imagined impending stardom weighed heavily on Johnston. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Johnston had notorious run-ins with the music industry, authorities, and neighbors — and spent time in institutions.

Talking with Johnston nowadays recalls listening to other musicians who triumphed over mental illness, such as Brian Wilson. Johnston speaks positively and enthusiastically about his life at the present. He’s especially thankful for the role his father plays in bringing stability to his once-tumultuous musical career. His latest record, Rejected Unknown, is a triumph, as Johnston’s best since the days when he was pressing the record and pause buttons on his cheap tape recorders.

Recorded at home on portable equipment, songs including “Impossible Love” and “Funeral Girl” revisit Johnston’s classic themes of unrequited love.

Still, the old conflicts arise now and then, as Johnston explained. “There was one track that mentioned marijuana, and it was going to be on the original album. But my parents heard it, and they wouldn’t let me have it on the album. They were going to kick me out of the house. Mom and Dad said, ‘Pack your bags, you’re out of here!’ They even got my suitcase on my bed, and I was packing up and everything. And I said, ‘Mom, I won’t have it on the album.’ And they said I could stay.

“It sounded like a hit, it was rock ’n’ roll and everything. … Now that my dad’s my manager, we’re trying to talk him in to having this song on the next album.”

In the meantime, Johnston continues to create music, and patiently awaits that first post-Target royalty check. “I’ve always dreamed that someday somebody would try to have a hit with one of my songs. That would be my dream, so I could get rich someday.”

Daniel Johnston
Wednesday, Dec. 5
Magic Stick
4120 Woodward, Detroit
Call 313-833-9700

Greg Baise finds musical treasures for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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