He’s Daniel Johnston, And He Was Gonna Be Famous

One of the best-loved songwriters in the alternative rock universe is a 44-year-old manic depressive who lives with his parents in Waller. Be careful what you wish for.
Daniel in his parent’s garage November 2004
Photograph by Dan Winters

Broken Dreams

He burst from the busboy’s closet near the kitchen, maneuvered his way through the crowd as though he were late, and stepped behind the microphone on the tiny stage. Then he began playing, so nervous he looked like he was about to cry. He was thin and waifish, in his early twenties, and strummed his small guitar awkwardly. It was out of tune, which made it sound like a cracked ukulele. His voice cracked too as he sang that first wistful melody:

When I was out in San Marcos, a year ago today / They probably would have put me in a home.

Hmmm, I thought, strangely garbled syntax, a hint of being damaged.

The wildest summer, that I ever knew / I had a flat tire down memory lane.

Now that was a great line. By the time he got to the chorus, I was hooked:

I live my broken dreams.

He jumped into the second song, which was about Casper the Friendly Ghost and seemed to be an allegory about Jesus, or maybe it was just about the cartoon. “This is a joke,” a woman in front of me said to her friend. “Right?”

It was 1985, a club called the Beach near the University of Texas at Austin, and Daniel Johnston was opening for a local band called Glass Eye. I had heard about him, this kid who was handing out homemade tapes with strange cartoons on the covers to anyone who would take them, telling people that he had had a nervous breakdown and that he was going to be famous. Well, everyone in the Austin music scene in 1985 thought he or she was going to be famous.

His third song was called “The Marching Guitars,” which soared over a repeating circle of chords:

No one can stop them / The marching guitars.

The city was full of combustible guitar bands intent on conquering America, and this sounded like an anthem. At least it did to me and the other songwriters, musicians, and scenesters who had come to hear Daniel play. To everyone else, it sounded like he was quite possibly retarded. When he was done with his eight-minute set, he ran from the stage, through the crowd, and back into the closet, pulling the door shut like a coffin.

It wasn’t long after that show, only the third of his career, that Daniel would get the fame he wanted so desperately: MTV, big shows in front of adoring fans, a major-label deal, his artwork hung in galleries in London and Berlin. He would become an underground hero, his songs covered by dozens of fringe indie bands and musicians with names like Wimp Factor 14 and Weird Paul Petroskey but also by some of the biggest bands in alternative rock, such as Yo La Tengo, Pearl Jam, Death Cab for Cutie, and Sparklehorse. The musicians were attracted to the songs themselves, wide-eyed ballads like “True Love Will Find You in the End,” vows of hope in the face of despair like “Living Life,” and desperate songs of fear like “Don’t Play Cards With Satan.” But they were also intrigued by the romance of his mental illness. Daniel is a manic-depressive, and with his stardom have come extended stays in mental hospitals as well as violent psychotic explosions in which he has almost killed himself and others, including his father. Most romantic of all, for the past fourteen years one of the voices of his generation—the generation whose lead singer, Kurt Cobain, blew his brains out more than a decade ago—has been living at home with his parents.

I went to visit him in November. The Johnstons live in a nice ranch house on three acres in the small town of Waller, about thirty miles northwest of Houston. This is conservative country, and the mailbox of the songwriter for the alternative nation had a Bush ’04 sticker on it. Daniel met me at the door, twice as big as the last time I’d seen him and with silver hair cut in no particular style and dark eyebrows. He looked at least 10 years older than his 44 years, and his face seemed pinched in pain or fatigue. We shook hands and he introduced me to his parents, who are both fundamentalist Christians, members of the Church of Christ. Mabel, 81, is sweet and frail and suffers from Parkinson’s. Bill, 82, is no-nonsense but friendly. He is now Daniel’s manager, the only rock and roll handler to ever fly fighter planes against the Japanese in World War II and then accompany his son on tour in Japan 55 years later.

We stood in the living room, where, above the TV, was some of Daniel’s high school artwork—color drawings of Casper and Ratzoid, one of Daniel’s rodent-faced creations, as well as one that read “Artist of the World.” On the walls were photos of him performing at various shows in the nineties. There was also a large, maybe thirty- by twenty-inch photo in a thick gold frame of two boys standing in the shallow water of a lake, one, about three, holding a fishing pole, the line of which had hooked a small toy boat, and the other, about nine, smiling and pointing at the boat. It was the very portrait of childhood innocence and was hung under two track lights, which made it seem like something in a gallery. It was Daniel and his older brother, Dick, on their grandfather’s West Virginia farm, in 1964.

As we talked in the living room, Daniel nervously ran his hand over his stomach. He was dressed in warm-up pants and a thin, well-worn T-shirt that clung to his belly like a balloon; there was a faint gray stain over his chest. He told his parents how he had opened for my band once at the Beach in 1985. We talked about how little money we’d made but how much fun it had been. He said that he had talked his way onto MTV and that he had run around telling everyone

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