A Mural Made Famous by Daniel Johnston
The Hi, How Are You Project is a non-profit organization inspiring new conversations around mental health issues by funding and creating thoughtful media content, projects, and events. The Foundation, created with the support of Daniel Johnston and Family, provides a platform for the exchange of ideas and education on mental well-being.
I admit that I learned about the project via the latest 5-Bullet Friday newsletter from Tim Ferriss, though I’m a little miffed that he identifies the organization as ‘so named for a mural made famous by Kurt Cobain.’ I mean, sure, I guess that’s technically true, but I still wouldn’t pass up a chance to give Daniel Johnston his propers.
This news sent me down a Daniel Johnston rabbit-hole. I was one of the lucky few who sent off for his home-dubbed cassette releases in the mid-80s. I discovered Johnston on an Austin-centric episode of the MTV show IRS’ The Cutting Edge. Do any of you remember that show? It was a considerable influence on this trapped-in-Central-Louisiana teenager. I was starved for new music and appreciated the variety of mostly American indie-bands introduced by host Peter Zaremba.
I know there’s a ‘best-of’ DVD retrospective of the show floating around, but I’d give a stack of bolo ties for a complete set of all the episodes. I’m sure re-licensing the music would be an impossibility but, seriously, that show is an important historical document of a special time. Young America was discovering its independent music scene, and it was a uniquely American scene, very different from the DIY bands and labels from across the pond. IRS’ The Cutting Edge should be playing in a museum.
I remember looking, years ago, for the clip of Daniel Johnston that inspired me to seek him out. I couldn’t find it anywhere. There are a lot of clips from IRS’ The Cutting Edge on YouTube but many of the iconic moments are missing. You would think there’d be a bazillion uploads of Run DMC performing in the streets of L.A. on the back of a moving flatbed truck, but there’s nothing.
I decided to look again after reading about the Hi, How Are You Project and hey, here it is — Daniel performing “Hard Time” for a single camera, as initially seen on IRS’ The Cutting Edge:
I was maybe 15 or 16 when I saw this, and I’m not sure what jumped out at me, what made me want to track down Daniel Johnston’s tapes. I was already into ‘weird’ music, but this isn’t that weird. The song is great. However, Johnston’s vocals are an acquired taste (to put it mildly), and the rockstar charisma quotient is at the bottom of the meter.
I think it’s the earnestness. Johnston is just so into it, inside his world. Others try to pull this off, but it’s almost always an act or a show, like Crispin Glover on Letterman (a TV appearance that also affected me at the time). It’s refreshing how honest Johnston is here, all coming through in the performance. Admittedly, you might not see it like I do and chances are it’s not for you. But Daniel Johnston must have been a revelation for this shy, geeky teenage kid who wanted nothing more than a pathway into a life of music-making. Like Daniel, you just had to believe in it.
So I sent off for a small bagful of Daniel Johnston cassettes from Stress Records (I probably got the address and info from an ad in Factsheet Five, a ‘zine that was basically my internet) which I listened to endlessly, much to the bewilderment of my friends. The songs were raw and real, and also touching and relatable. I was going through a lot, but not as much as Johnston was going through and, in its way, that made me feel better. I think this played a part in giving me the courage to pursue music.
There’s a fantastic documentary on Daniel Johnston, titled The Devil and Daniel Johnston. I highly recommend it — it’s a beautiful doorway into Johnston’s music and his heartbreaking world. And it always thrills me when his name comes up (which is why I was disappointed in Ferriss’s newsletter lack-of-mention), or someone covers his songs, or — miraculously from the lens of 1985 — one of his songs appears in a movie or a TV show. His artwork is terrific, too, always good for a smile.
Which brings us back to Hi, How Are You and the iconic mural. Don’t get me wrong — I’m thankful that Kurt Cobain frequently wore that t-shirt as it turned a lot of people on to Daniel Johnston. Cobain was good about using his influence to help out fringe musicians. And I’m also grateful that Ferriss is spreading the word about the Hi, How Are You Project, helping that worthy cause.
It’s always amazing to look back at our little pockets of music history and realize how they’ve spread out over time. These micro-scenes seem inconsequential while we’re living in them, meaningful to a privileged few. It helps us understand that everything has an influence. Our work may seem minor and unnoticed, but we should still give it our boldest effort. Great work often perseveres in ways we can’t predict.