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

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