The Late Movies: Daniel Johnston, Beautiful Singer of Broken Dreams
Daniel Johnston is a singer, songwriter, guitarist, pianist, and visual artist…who happens to suffer from crippling bipolar disorder. His songs are generally sweet, vulnerable, and at least a little weird. As Johnston has aged, his delivery has become increasingly warbly, though his youthful spirit shines through: the man radiates a wonderful mixture of joy and grief. There’s a quality to his work that’s disarming in the extreme — assuming you’re along for the ride. Among my friends, Daniel Johnston is either someone who makes you cry with joy or makes you hit the STOP button promptly. I hope that tonight I will turn you into the former kind of person by showing you ten lovely songs.
(By the way, if you look Johnston up you’ll note the Hi, How Are You art which was popularized to many music fans via Kurt Cobain’s shirt featuring the frog. You’ll also come across the excellent, heartbreaking documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston — if you’re at all interested in this man, watch the trailer and then rent the film.)
“Story of an Artist”
From the Don’t Be Scared album. “Listen up and I’ll tell a story about an artist growing old. Some would try for fame and glory; others aren’t so bold.” Clips from The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
“To understand and be understood is to be free.” One of the most tender, heartbreaking performances I’ve seen. From The Angel and Daniel Johnston – Live at the Union Chapel, a live concert recording.
“Life in Vain”
With Swell Season and a children’s choir on Austin City Limits. Beautiful. “It’s so tough just to be alive when I feel like the living dead. I’m giving it up so plain, I’m living my life in vain, and where am I going to?”
“And I saw you at the funeral, you were standing there like a temple. I said ‘Hi, how are you, hello,’ and I pulled up the casket and crawled in. Yes, I did.” Stick around for the brief discussion at the end.
“True Love Will Find You in the End”
Live at the Black Cat in DC, February 2008. “Ladies and gentlemen, merry Christmas, thank you very much, good night.”
“I Live My Broken Dreams”
From one of the times Johnston was on MTV. 1985, Austin, Texas. “My hopes lay shattered like a mirror on the floor; I see myself and I look really scattered. But I live my broken dreams.”
“I took my lucky break and I broke it in two; put on my worried shoes.” 2009. “Okay, thanks, but maybe that song’s a little bit too long for you.”
Live on the Henry Rollins Show, with a somewhat awkward intro explaining a bit about who Johnston is. “Another day in the past, and every hour I’m haunting. Everybody is wearing a mask, playing skip-to-the-lou, my darling.”
2008. Johnston improvises at The Smokebrush Gallery in Colorado Springs. My favorite part starts about two minutes in. Watch him pull together all sorts of melodies and styles into a sort of freeform ragtimey jazz.
Interview and Snippets of Songs
“Just because I drew a boxer doesn’t mean I want to box.” Check out the bit of “Mean Girls Give Pleasure” around 2:30.
Post Your Favorites
YouTube is full of beautiful Johnston performances. Post your favorites in the comments! Also, very special thanks to my friend Kelli Rule, a painter and graphic artist who found most of these videos.