By Noah Hubbell
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"I just got back from London, home of the Beatles," he says over the phone from the house he shares with his elderly parents in Waller, Texas -- a small rural community about sixty miles from Austin and the nearest shopping center. "They were such charming personalities. We drove around and saw a lot. We saw Big Ben. And I was thinking a lot about John [Lennon]. He was the best -- you bet."
Johnston's career as an unwitting self-made cult icon, champion of closet recording and tortured tramp songwriter has been peppered with plenty of reverent, nasal-tinged nods to the Fab Four. Those who've followed the breadcrumb trail of his recordings over the past twenty years know that the Beatles occupy a special space within Johnston's life, along with such standbys as Frankenstein, Captain America, the Big Bopper, Casper the Friendly Ghost and other characters who populate the crowded corners of his exhaustive and often obtuse imagination. Yip Jump Music, released in 1983 by Homestead Records, contained an entire lengthy homage to the band, simply titled "The Beatles." Backed by a humming, church-style organ, he wrapped his own adolescent devotionals around a sincere, if simplistic, assessment of the band's worth and career trajectory: "They really were very good/They deserved all their success/And they worked so ha-ha-hard/ They didn't buy their success...Everybody wanted to be like them/Everybody wanted to be the Beatles/ And I wanted to be like him.../But he died."
"The Beatles are the main ones for me, and I want to make it show more and more," Johnston says. "I'm not going to do it as a copycat, but I'm just going to study -- just for basic ideas, and the energy and inspiration. It's par excellence. So I'm just going to carry that weight, because they really saved my life."
There may be more to Johnston's statement than the excited exhalation of a hardcore fan. In the Beatles' music, he found some relief from the manic depression, innate oddness and emotional disquiet that have been a part of his life, like a persistent psychic itch, for most of his 41 years. As a teenager whose social awkwardness sailed far beyond the usual level of adolescent geekdom, Johnston found solace in music, art and other subjects he encountered in the stacks of the school library, a dusty refuge from the cruelty of other kids.
"When I went to high school, I had my first depression," he says. "I didn't have any friends and was just a total dork. I became a loner, just really depressed and shy. But I loved art and the library; I would always be drawing. My art teachers always encouraged me to do my art. They said that it was part of my ego, to keep me alive. When I got into the Beatles my senior year, I started pretending I was the Beatles, like talking in a British accent and coming on to girls. I started writing Songs of Pain, and I felt like a superstar. And five years later I was on MTV. So I guess it was really the Beatles that did it."
Though it took a while for Johnston to approach anything resembling superstar status, stories of his frequently bizarre behavior did give him a sort of backward social cachet as a charmingly unpredictable local weirdo among the hipster underground in Austin. (Johnston and his family had moved there from West Virginia in the late '70s.) He bolstered that role by hawking homemade recordings (beginning with Songs of Pain, later released by Stress in 1980) at the record store across the street from the McDonald's where he worked.
Many of those tapes wound up in the hands of scenesters in the still-small Austin music world and, later, in the bins of underground retailers in New York City. Aided by periodic bursts of publicity, including an appearance on MTV's The Cutting Edge in 1985, Johnston slowly found his way into the awareness -- and the record collections -- of a grassroots network of fans who shared a taste for "outsider" music. His work has been praised by fellow artists from the late Kurt Cobain (who never seemed to tire of wearing his black-and-white line-drawn Daniel Johnston T-shirt for photo shoots) to Simpsons creator Matt Groening (who has repeatedly cited Johnston as his favorite songwriter). Recently, people have been discovering Johnston through an unlikely source: "Speeding Motorcycle," his ode to love and automotives, currently provides the soundtrack for a frequently aired Target commercial. (That rendition is a cover performed by Boston songbird Mary Lou Lord.) Readers have discovered him as well. Two versions of Johnston's life and work appear in book form: Tarssa Yazdani's Johnston biography, Hi, How Are You, was published by Soft Skull Press in 1999, while Irwin Chusid devotes a chapter of Songs in the Key of Z, his guide to contemporary oddball musicians, to the songwriter.
Trained musically by his siblings and his churchgoing mother, who wanted her children to learn Christian hymns, Johnston first began making music for a very small audience consisting of himself, his friends and his family. His initial creative endeavors involved sitting in the living room and banging out songs on the family piano in kind of spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness concerts with no real beginning or end. Johnston's recorded output now stands at sixteen CDs. With the exception of 1994's Fun (an inexplicable outing for Atlantic Records), all but one have been released on independent imprints.