I’ll admit it. I was alive for eight months of a decade that still has people saluting and glamming and has blog(s) getting complete makeovers to celebrate how impressionable it still is on music today. There. I said it.
I’m young and impressionable and I like the 90s. I like the 90s so much I wish the 90s came in a scented candle or aftershave so I could be reminded of all the LSD in Billy Corgan’s hair length…Or maybe turning ten.
Point is, I just don’t identify with the 80s. Then it hit me, lying here conjuring up witty metaphors about all the bands that should have been around in the 80s so I wouldn’t have to listen to them – who can identify less with the 80s than me, but is aaaalllso from the 80s? Flip over the popsicle stick and the answer is Mr. Daniel Johnston.
Anything you may want to know about Johnston could probably be learned from the all-too notorious film documenting his life, The Devil and Daniel Johnston. The gem actually has more that you’ll probably want to know if you’re on one of those “information diets,” so I’ll try to keep this as candy-flavored as I can.
When I said Johnston didn’t identify with the 80s, that was me just getting my foot in the themed door so my editor would pass this article. The reality is, I doubt Johnston would’ve felt comfortable with any era. Perhaps he would’ve felt at home in the sixteen and seventeen-hundreds. There weren’t any airplanes back then (watch the film If you don’t get this joke; it’s worth it) his capacity for being over-the-top would’ve been foreshadowed by witch-hunts and chastity belts. He is the epitome of the anti-rock star. I bet he hated the 80s! The spandex! The apparent American Apparel?! Growing up, Johnston spent more time recording songs in a garage using a recording mechanism built from the bones of a weight machine than he did trying on basics or skinny jeans. His brand of folk music was new to the world; Austin, Texas, was willing to call him their own and when MTV aired a performance of his in 1985, the rest of America slowly caught on. A cult developed and even more notoriety was gained when multiple photos were released of Kurt Cobain wearing a T-shirt with the graphics of Daniel Johnston’s album Hi, How Are You? It never really stopped…today you can buy an iPhone app of the same name. If you’re still learning new things about Daniel Johnston, up to and including his name, then thank me now for forgoing an article on “Why the 80s were too much for Blondie to handle.”
As time moved on, so did Johnston’s “chill” side. Incidents with members of Sonic Youth, his parents, record companies, and even the law all brought his infamy to a new level. Atlantic signed Johnston and something happened that I can neither prove nor disprove has happened before or since: there was a clause in the contract essentially stating that he didn’t have to tour, he didn’t have to promote, and he needed to get better. His stints in mental hospitals and unreliable reputation were permitted, you might say. He was writing songs in which he professed followership to Jesus Christ, advocated the plight of the artist, and sold the listener on his love for Laura. She turned out to be a girl he knew in college. Nothing ever went anywhere for them by today’s standards, but even know, Laura is his muse and the inspiration for so many great songs.
The aforementioned unstoppable notoriety I was talking about didn’t just come from another side of the fence either. Art collectors began buying his drawings (oh, yeah – he’s a very talented artist from the 80s too!) and musicians took to covering his songs: Beck, the Flaming Lips, Beach House, M. Ward and Bright Eyes, to name a few. If you’re ever in Sacramento, check out the Verge Gallery to go see his installment, “The Museum of Love.” People still can’t get enough of Johnston…but I think we’ve seen enough spandex. Just maybe.
In spite of his cult following, the religiosity of his fan base never broke through the underground. It is remarkable that someone of his songwriting caliber and life-story didn’t have enough clout, but then, it must’ve been hard for a star to shine amongst the sequins of the 80s. Maybe that’s why he named an album 1990; he just couldn’t wait for the decade to be over. Perhaps this period in our musical history was a cloud over the proverbial heads of so many artists, much like artists today are declared to be “ahead of their time.” We can hypothesize and regret, but there is very little to be said for our misunderstanding of artists like Daniel Johnston other than poor excuses. I’m just glad I wasn’t around to miss that boat. And that’s why I’m ok with never understanding 80s nights at bars or why it took a documentary for people to start listening to “The Story of An Artist.”