Daniel Johnston was found dead of natural causes (a heart attack was suspected) on September 11, 2019, at his home, just a day after his release from a hospital where he was being treated for kidney illness. He was fifty-eight. But more important than how he died was how he lived, and the art he left behind.
His adopted hometown of Austin, Texas will celebrate the annual “Hi, How Are You?” Day on January 21, 2024, to observe his birthday and commemorate his music and visual art. Inspired by his artwork of a bullfrog nicknamed Jeremiah as painted on a mural in Austin (still preserved, despite the demolishing of the building on which it was painted) and used for a 1983 album, people everywhere are encouraged to check in on a neighbor, friend, co-worker, family member or loved one and ask, “Hi, How Are You?” Johnston’s struggles with mental illness were well-documented, as he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia or manic-depressive schizophrenia. One of his relative claims to fame was Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, at the height of his fame, often photographed wearing a T-shirt featuring the album’s artwork. Cobain listed Johnston’s “Yip/Jump Music,” another release from 1983, as one of his favorite fifty albums.
Timed to coincide with “Hi, How Are You?” Day, Shimmy-Disc is releasing “Alive in New York City,” recorded in the spring of 2000. This is the first time a Johnston live performance is getting an official release on vinyl, in partnership with his estate, and the label is pulling out all of the proverbial stops. The first pressing is limited to 555 hand-numbered LPs on 150-gram black vinyl. It will be available only from the Shimmy-Shop and Bandcamp, and includes an art print of a previously unseen Daniel Johnston colored-marker drawing. The second pressing will come in an edition of 999 LPs pressed on “ghost white vinyl,” inspired by Johnston’s love of Casper The Friendly Ghost. An “invisible clear” vinyl pressing is also available for pre-order, scheduled in stores on January 19, along with a limited-edition fifty-six-minute cassette. Each vinyl purchase will include a fold-out poster of Johnston in New York City and a free digital download card that also includes “The Telephone Demos,” a collection of demos recorded… on the phone. “Alive in New York City” also includes a brief excerpt from a street interview Johnston gave while in New York City, recorded during the same period, in which he says, “When you’re writing, if you forget the love thing, you’re wasting your time, just remember to try to love.” He goes on, “When somebody is supposedly gone, they ain’t really. Because, you know, you can put on a record and there they are, they’re not gone. That’s what they call somebody immortal, he never leaves us.”
Shimmy-Disc’s Kramer, a frequent collaborator and producer of Johnston, says via email that he discovered the DAT recording of this concert in 2020, labeled only as “Daniel – NYC April 2000″ in a box of hundreds of tapes. “It had my own handwriting on it, but seeing those scribblings summoned no memories,” he says. His only creative function was to master this audio, in addition to mixing and recording the live performance in 2000, although he can’t recall the venue.
He feels fortunate to have been there, wherever it might have been, “as an active participant in capturing Daniel’s unique brilliance as an artist nurtured by his audience,” especially since Johnston’s live act was hit-or-miss. “He was not always a performer who came to the stage with his psyche and voice ready to give their all,” he says, so he was glad “to have had all the primal facets in place on this particular night in New York City.”
“When the tape resurfaced and I opened Pandora’s memory box for a listen, I knew it was beyond special. It was pure Daniel, live and one-hundred-percent unfiltered, a full and fearless performance captured in amber, as it were, and I felt it would be essential listening for any fan who may never have had the chance to see him live, at least not on a good night. And these recordings prove that this was indeed a very good night. You can hear it in his voice, in his forceful and trembling focus and humor—the illicit abandon and freedom felt in his soul as it soared above the crowd—the intensity of his guitar playing. This was Daniel the troubadour at the very top of his game. I couldn’t just keep it to myself. That would have been the wrong thing to do.”
Kramer recalls his relationship with Johnston as being a “soul brother, a wild and unpredictable friend, co-creators. We said things to each other outside of language, beyond the common standards of human fellowship. Musically, we offered our talents to each other without pretense. We both understood that we were forever there for each other, quietly bonded by our increasingly broken human hearts, by lost musical notes and notebooks, lyrical cascades strung together by creative abandon, and with the elemental knowledge that where those uncensored musical aspirations took us (along with the kindness found simply by the spending of time together), we had a bond that would survive Death. And now,” Kramer says, “here we are, with him on one side of it, and myself on the other. Yet somehow, the Friendship endures.”
In terms of Daniel Johnston’s visual art, for the most part simple line drawings but in some cases much more detailed, comic-book-inspired paintings, just as in his music, his work firmly put him in the outsider category. Julie Webb, owner of Webb Gallery in Waxahachie, Texas, mounted an exhibition of the work of Johnston and his frequent collaborator Jad Fair (of Half Japanese fame) in 1998. She recounts her relationship with Johnston as being “challenging,” initially because he couldn’t see the value of creating art that was larger than his usual format, eight-and-a-half-by-eleven inches (the size of a regular sheet of paper). The 1998 exhibit would be the first in which Johnston would intentionally create art in a larger size. Webb and her husband, gallery co-creator Bruce Lee, went so far as to send him larger paper and donate art supplies to encourage a larger scale, and they turned out to be “amazing pieces” she says. His artwork would have never been known if he hadn’t used it on his cassette and album covers, and he did drawings of “things that he was into, like superheroes, for years without thinking about it ever being in a gallery,” she says, so that, “along with the repetitiveness of his subject matter, definitely qualifies him as an outsider artist.”
Is there a nexus between his musical art and visual art? Kramer argues that the two are intertwined, as they must be with any multidisciplinary artist. “The music, the visual art, are all his modes of communicating with the world, and with himself. You can’t deny a connection or suggest that one was mutually exclusive of the other. They are the harmonic convergence of the life paths of a creative genius.” Analogous to Johnston’s struggles with his own mental health, Kramer posits that “Daniel was a champion of dualities, particularly his own. He wanted his own beauties and terrors presented together, entwined in a single frame. Suffering and frustration, of which he sang so poignantly, was inextricable from his more joyous self. It’s SO easy to hear. Just below the surface of even his most playful songs lies a precariously dormant horror, lurking, waiting to escape, and escape it always did. His genius was in his seemingly effortless ability to articulate those hidden parts of himself.” Kramer believes that he “was a man-child filled and overflowing with Love and Loneliness, Happiness and Loss, and all the good and the bad that came with it. He was only human, and his name was Daniel Johnston.”
Johnston’s genius at capturing these dualities is in abundant display on the thirteen songs of “ALIVE in NYC” alongside the “Telephone Demos.” If you can’t make it to Austin this month for “Hi, How Are You? Day,” and never got to see Daniel Johnston perform, these recorded performances are the closest we can come. It’s also a great time to reach out to someone, anyone, with the greeting, “Hi, How Are You?” Like that mural on a wall that now stands alone in Austin, it’s an idea that should live on.
Craig Bechtel is a freelance writer and has also been a Senior Staff Writer for Pop’stache. He is also a DJ, volunteer and Assistant Music Director for CHIRP Radio, 107.1 FM, and contributes occasionally to the CHIRP blog. As DJ Craig Reptile, you can hear him play music on the FM dial or at www.chirpradio.org most Sunday nights from 6pm to 9pm. He previously worked in radio at KVOE AM and Fox 105 in Emporia, Kansas, and served as a DJ, music director and general manager for WVKC at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where he also won the Davenport Prize for Poetry and earned a B.A. in English writing. Craig has been working in various capacities within the hotel and meetings industry for over twenty years, and presently works at a company that uses proprietary systems to develop proven data strategies that increase revenue, room nights and meeting attendance. In his spare time, he also fancies himself an armchair herpetologist, and thus in addition to a wife, son and cat, he has a day gecko and a veiled chameleon in his collection.