The acts snatched in the majors’ slow-rolling alt-rock rapture could largely be sorted into two categories. There were the underground luminaries who could not be translated into their employers’ script: reliable behavior, accessible songs. And there were those who’d read the success stories forwards and back, who could arrange meetings between idiosyncrasy and expectation.
Somewhere between those two sat Daniel Johnston, who died on Tuesday night (Sept. 10) at 58 from a heart attack, hunched over a chord organ, with the notes written onto the white keys. On the strength of his songwriting — A&R exec Yves Beauvais compared Johnston’s body of work to that of Hank Williams — and a Kurt Cobain cosign, Johnston signed to Atlantic.
The label tried to make him as comfortable as possible. Butthole Surfers’ Paul Leary (a fellow Austinite) signed on to produce. Bobbie Nelson (the legendary country pianist and Willie’s big sister) made a jaunty cameo. And the entire record — released in 1994 as, simply, Fun — was recorded in Johnston’s parents’ garage in Waller, Texas. Though Johnston had spent most of his life idolizing The Beatles, right down to dashing off catchy pop as casually as one might flip a burger, Fun was not a hit. Johnston wanted to be famous; so did his songs. Alas, they would not be — not to the extent he had envisioned in his early twenties, handing out self-recorded cassettes to Austin’s tastemakers.
But on a scale of, like, me to The Beatles, Johnston was much closer to the latter. He wrote at least one standard: “True Love Will Find You in the End,” a sawed-off statement of faith as plaintive as could be imagined. There were a couple dozen others from his early, prolific period: lo-fi depictions of unreturned love and creative frustration and cosmic struggle that turned up on untold mixtapes and in the repertoires of indie stalwarts. Before the C86 movement, he was mixing earnestness with wicked humor, recording without subsidy. The vérité dialogues on Johnston’s early, self-recorded cassettes were echoed on a thousand Alternative Nation releases; the hometape hiss would color everything from Michelle Shocked to the Mountain Goats. And — and! — he illustrated his own records; sketches that once sold for ten bucks in Austin record shops eventually made their way to collectors for hundreds or thousands.
Though he didn’t live in Austin for a particularly long time, it was foundational to his mythos, and Johnston’s death closes a chapter for the city. His ambition mirrored Austin’s: he moved to town as it was transforming from a quiet governmental/educational center to a tech/cultural magnet. 1985 brought him a wider audience when he appeared on an Austin-themed episode of MTV’s The Cutting Edge; two years later, the inaugural South by Southwest conference showcased a host of local acts to A&R departments from across the nation. While Daniel’s grandest ambitions weren’t realized, Austin’s were: SXSW – having long ago shed its focus on homegrown talent – is a behemoth.
Along with Johnston’s peers in the underground, the record shops that kept his cassettes in perpetual stock were priced out of the city core. Sound Exchange was one of them: a hole in the wall across from the University of Texas campus, it boasted a massive Johnston piece on its outside wall, painted a year before Fun’s release. It was a bullfrog character he called Jeremiah the Innocent, chirping Daniel’s signature “Hi, How Are You” greeting (from the cover of Johnston’s 1983 album of the same name) to locals and tourists. A decade later, the shop closed, and the fast-casual restaurant that took its place decided to knock out the wall. After sustained protest, the mural was spared. Eventually, the restaurant was supplanted by another one, calling itself — after consulting Johnston — Thai, How Are You?
By this point, Johnston had settled into a kind of cult eminence. Physical and mental health permitting, he undertook the occasional show or mini-tour, but largely seemed content to churn out endless drawings and song sketches at his home. It was years before he could record in the wake of Fun’s failure, but when he did, he found no shortage of collaborators — his final tour was backed by members of Built to Spill, Fugazi, and Wilco. And he found no shortage of fans: the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, drawing heavily on Daniel’s archives, introduced his successes and setbacks to a new generation. (Two members of that generation — Lana Del Rey and Mac Miller — executive-produced a short film starring Johnston in 2015.)
In an irony-soaked alt-rock scene weaned on confrontation and abrasion, Daniel Johnston’s output was a necessary counterbalance. Steeped in classic pop structure and form, his catalog — especially those iconic early tapes — is childlike and candid, lovestruck and snakebit, obsessed and awed. Unwilling to be relegated to the category of outsider artist, he talked, sung and drew his way into the consciousness of a city, then a scene. He may not have achieved the “fame and glory” — as he put it in 1982’s “Story of an Artist,” heard last year in a Macbook commercial — that he set out for. But that’s only because he asked for a world as large as the one he created.