Daniel Johnston

Scattered, Smothered and Covered

Music Features Daniel Johnston
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Perhaps more so than any other artist, Daniel Johnston embodies the do-it-yourself ethos of punk rock. For years, his “home studio” was nothing more than a portable Dictaphone, into which he strummed his guitar and sang. “It was the best tape recorder I ever had,” he says wistfully. It broke when he was recording his seminal album, Hi How Are You? “That’s why you’ll notice the tape speed changes on that record,” he says.

The rawness of Daniel’s music can be harsh for new listeners. Tape speed does often change mid chorus, songs are edited with the stop and start of a pause button and lyrics run the gamut from bizarre ramblings about King Kong and Captain America to heartbreaking accounts of what it’s like living life as a diagnosed manic depressive. There’s no doubt he’s odd, but repeated listenings reveal a startling talent to those patient enough to listen for it. Amidst tape hiss and sometimes muffled accompaniment, his endearing, childlike voice wraps the simplest of truths around luscious pop melodies.

Johnston earned what little fame he has one tape at a time. Standing outside of rock clubs in his hometown of Austin, Texas, he’d hand out self-made cassettes to anyone willing to listen. Each was adorned with his equally distinctive artwork—recurring images of alien frogs, multi-armed boxers and Casper the Friendly Ghost. These Songs of Pain anthologies quickly became the cherished stuff of indie-rock legend, with everyone from Sonic Youth to Yo La Tengo singing his praises and covering his songs.

“I really like the whole thing about a guy who works at McDonalds and makes his own tapes,” says Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne. “With Daniel, you hear that thing that makes a person say, ‘I want to sing’ in its purest form. It’s like a baby crying in the night.” The Flaming Lips are just one of a rich cadre of artists to appear on The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered, Covered — a long overdue tribute to Johnston released by Gammon records and produced by Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous.

Linkous had no trouble recruiting participation; acts ranging from Tom Waits to Death Cab for Cutie signed on for the project. At one point, David Bowie—a longtime fan—even agreed to write the album’s liner notes, but the plan fell through when his summer tour became too much to schedule around. “Can you imagine what it would have done for Daniel to have someone like Bowie say how special he is?” Linkous asks.

Each artist brings an original interpretation to this intensely personal body of work—from Beck’s Dylanesque interpretation of “Things Take a Long Time” to M. Ward’s somber reading of “Story of an Artist.” But as good as the covers are, the record’s true innovation is the bonus disc of original recordings—a rarity for tribute compilations, and a real treat for Johnston fans since so many of his songs were previously available only on first runs of his cassettes. “There are so many people who are really into the bands on this CD,” Linkous says. “I hope they dig around a little bit and get turned on to Daniel’s music.”

Johnston has even higher hopes. “These songs sound great,” he says. “Real professional. It would be a dream come true if someone could finally have a really big hit with one of my songs.”