In the 2005 documentary The Devil And Daniel Johnston, Jeff Tartakov — who founded Stress Records in order to help Johnston mass-release his tapes — stated that he set up his publishing company because “I felt like for him to actually make a living, he would be better off if other, more well-known artists were to cover his material.” That’s a kind way of saying that he considered Johnston to be a better songwriter than performer. And for a long stretch of Johnston’s time coming up in Austin, Texas in the ’80s, his amateurish performances on guitar and his anxious stage presence lent him this sense of strangeness that a lot of scenesters let get in the way of what he actually wrote. A lot of his early acquaintances in Austin keep referring to him in the documentary as “weird” or “strange” or just flat-out “crazy” — which, considering Johnston’s very real and often-debilitating struggles with manic depression and schizophrenia, seem like inconsiderate ways of foisting outsider cred upon him.
But in honor of Johnston’s 58th birthday on 1/22, this edition of Gotcha Covered is running concurrently with the city of Austin’s declaration of today as Hi, How Are You Day, both a celebration of Johnston’s work and a support effort for people with mental health issues. It’s a much-needed recognition on both fronts. I have to admit that my attitude towards the cult of Daniel Johnston wasn’t always charitable — when I brought it up for the cover he did of The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” with Jad Fair, I more or less agreed with this Guardian piece from a decade back that questioned the ways in which his mental health was intertwined with his reputation for “outsider genius” and “childlike” musicality. But it’s Johnston’s straightforwardness that makes his music powerful — he doesn’t bother much with pretense or complicated concepts in his lyrics, and that’s why they hit so close to the heart. Everything else is in the performance, and when they’re taken from the realm of his unadorned voice and solo instrumentation into the hands of someone else, those powerful feelings take on another state that only emphasizes how strange he isn’t, and how real he is.
The Dead Milkmen – “Rocketship” (1987)
It might be saying something that one of the first bands to cover Daniel Johnston for a wider audience (though not that much wider) was the comedy-punk goofs in the Dead Milkmen, who slotted their version of Yip/Jump Music cut “Rocket Ship” on their album Bucky Fellini between a song about an idiot-slacker utopia (“City Of Mud”) and another song about nitro-burning funny cars (“Nitro Burning Funny Cars”). Amongst that kind of irritable-outsider cartoon surliness, where the breakout hit was a quasi-ironic jingoistic gay-joke sneer at synthpop, Johnston’s lighthearted lyrics seem unusually nice — he’s not leaving for outer space because Earth sucks, he’s just leaving because why not? I’ll still take the wheezy-sounding, percussively pounding weight-bench-studio minimalism of the original over the shorter-but-somehow-slower rock-band stomp of the Dead Milkmen’s version — it’s just not the same without the countdown not actually being timed to anything — but at least this cover is an actual “anything” worth dancing to.
Yo La Tengo – “Speeding Motorcycle” (1990)
Of all the Daniel Johnston covers there are, this feels the most like The Famous One — one I admittedly omitted from my Yo La Tengo covers roundup, granted, but what can you do when the motorcycle’s actually a moped and the Famous One of the Famous One — the time Johnston phoned in to perform it with Yo La Tengo on WFMU in 1990 — is actually more a collaboration than a cover? This one feels a bit more resonant from his absence, though: It came out the same year that Johnston went from an Austin music festival comeback appearance to forcing the plane his father was piloting to crash (both escaped mostly unscathed) to being institutionalized in a mental hospital for an extended stay, all in the span of just a couple days. It’s another stylistic inversion — intricately played harmonizing guitars where Johnston was amateurish, calm where Johnston was jumpy, wafting where he was hammering — but the sense of awe at the possibility of going somewhere, whether it’s running away with a traveling carnival or just finding yourself aimlessly roaming, is right there, same as ever.
P – “I Save Cigarette Butts” (1995)
This is a weird one: P was a one-off supergroup of sorts featuring the Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes and motion picture homunculus Johnny Depp, maybe best-known for their brush with history as the band playing the Viper Room as River Phoenix was having a fatal overdose-induced seizure on the sidewalk outside. Haynes knew Johnston when they were both part of the Austin scene in 1986 — which proved fateful when Johnston picked a Butthole Surfers concert as the ideal location for him to try acid for the first time. Some people trace Johnston’s mental break to that particular moment, which makes it an odd tribute to kick off P’s only album with a cover of “I Save Cigarette Butts” (one of two covers on the album, alongside a half-louche sitar-rock send-up of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”).
But that’s not the only dicey thing about it. Johnston’s original was eccentric and absurd (“Later that evening Frankenstein/ And the beauty queen sat thumbing through/ A Better Homes And Gardens magazine”) but not “crazy” or “freaked out” or whatever exploitative term people might huck at it — it was recorded early in his career when he was still in his late teens, a solo piano effort from when his inspired silliness long predated the turmoil. Hearing it turned into just another alt-rock song is kind of bewildering, though: Songs like “Speeding Motorcycle,” “Rocketship,” and “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievances” seem like they could easily translate into accessible pop songs on their own, but “I Save Cigarette Butts” is too intrinsically goofy to really register as one. Any rendition not involving a restlessly creative teenage kid banging this out on piano next to a janky old tape deck is going to seem insufficiently faithful, sure, but it really doesn’t work on the mid ’90s Sunset Strip.
Wilco – “True Love Will Find You In The End” (1999)
This is what I mean when I say that Daniel Johnston’s music isn’t necessarily beholden to its strangeness — it’s folk without the codification that comes with the rock-era notion of Folk, authentic without needing people to constantly elbow-nudge you about how Authentic it is. Maybe the best example of that is Wilco’s version of 1990 high point and best/signature Johnston song candidate “True Love Will Find You In The End,” a B-side to the UK single of “A Shot In The Arm” (incidentally, still my favorite song of theirs, speaking as a non-superfan). Jeff Tweedy doesn’t imitate Johnston’s voice — who can? — but he skillfully approaches the shaky but solid conviction of Johnston’s singing melody from the same place, and inhabits it the same way, even as the rest of the band expands the composition from the solo guitar starkness to an alt-country masterpiece replete with harmonica and steel guitar.
Sparklehorse – “My Yoke Is Heavy” (2000)
Sparklehorse were a band that always eluded me in that “I heard one album and felt nothing” sense; Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot didn’t do much for me in that certain way that had me concluding that the problem was me, more or less. So maybe it’s the case that another brush with Sparklehorse via the route of another troubled artist is the kind of perspective to realign things by. Having mostly known Mark Linkous for the lingering what-if left by his suicide — one that seems staggering to contemplate given a defiant survival of his near-overdose in 1996 — I’m hit pretty hard by his version of “My Yoke Is Heavy,” a big edifice of motorik groove and intermittent guitar distortion that only makes his pitched-up voice feel both smaller and heavier at the same time. It could just be retrospect that makes his delivery of lines like “Sometimes I climb high up a tree/ To let the wind blow in my face/ Sometimes I leave my cares lying in piles” feel like a weight on my chest — or it could be the realization I might’ve taken Linkous for granted (“Somewhat disturbing is the sound of birds singing/ When you know you don’t deserve it”).
Tom Waits – “King Kong” (2004)
Oh dang yes. Whose idea was this? Give them the Pulitzer. The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered has a bunch of well-of-course ideas for band-and-cover pairings — anyone who can trace that ’94 Mellow Gold/One Foot In The Grave/Stereopathetic Soulmanure post-antifolk trifecta back to Johnston as a touchstone should be amped to hear Beck do a solo acoustic “True Love Will Find You in the End”, and TV On The Radio fresh off Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes is an inspired choice to give a new voice to “Walking The Cow” — but “Tom Waits sings about a tragic, misunderstood 1930s movie monster” is a gimme and three quarters. He doesn’t sing it without accompaniment in the hauntingly droning way Johnston did — Marc Ribot joins him on increasingly agitated blues guitar, and there’s additional percussion from Linkous — but Waits nails every last unconventional pause and intonation (“But there was a pterodactyl … theeeeere“) while making his own gravelly flourishes count.
Beach House – “Some Things Last A Long Time” (2008)
Some people might swear by the time Lana Del Rey did a haunting acoustic version of it, but for my money Beach House’s breakthrough Devotion put out the most arresting version of “Some Things Last A Long Time” — all they had to do was take those simple piano chords and elaborate on them, add a drumbeat that sounds like the last brick from a crumbled Wall Of Sound, and give it more reverb than an empty warehouse. Johnston’s original seems to emanate from a deeper place, granted — it could be its lack of drums, the subtle nuance of the (very sparse) additional instrumentation beneath his piano, or the fact that it has even more negative space for the repetition of the lyrics to set in. But it’s hard to say that it doesn’t snatch breaths as a short but atmospheric dream-pop song.
Karen O – “Worried Shoes” (2009)
A lot has been said about the “childlike” aspects of Johnston’s music and personality, and it’s true his voice has a certain untouched-by-age cast to it — that, and his career feels like what would happen if the funny kid in your freshman high school class who made goofy little tape deck songs and could draw a pretty damn good Jack Kirby Captain America just … never stopped being that, and then he found a scene that dug him for it. This seems like a natural fit for Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, which amplified the whole creative-but-sad-kid undercurrents of the book into intensely tear-jerking widescreen. Or so I’ve read. I haven’t seen Where The Wild Things Are, and I don’t miss my childhood. But I do miss 2009, and I miss the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, so I might get a little choked up here anyways.