- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 4, 2004

NEW YORK — When Nirvana performed “Lithium” at the 1992 MTV Music Video Awards, Kurt Cobain wore a curious T-shirt with a frog logo and the question, “Hi, how are you?”

The shirt was designed by a man Mr. Cobain frequently declared his all-time favorite songwriter: Daniel Johnston. Today, Mr. Johnston remains not only an influence musicians wear on their sleeves, but a kind of godfather of low-fi pop.

His new album features covers of Mr. Johnston’s music — with contributions from Beck, Tom Waits, the Flaming Lips and many more — plus a second disc of the original recordings. It’s titled “The Late, Great Daniel Johnston,” and features his tombstone on the cover.

Of course, the man in a suit looking down at the grave is Mr. Johnston, who is alive and well. But the album seeks a little pre-posthumous recognition for the 42-year-old singer, who has bipolar disorder and now lives with his parents in a small Texas town.

“I’m dead,” Mr. Johnston said when reached by telephone at his home in Waller, Texas. “You’ve called heaven.”

Speaking on the phone with Mr. Johnston is a bit like talking to a lazy psychic healer, who speaks mystically on music instead of the spirit world. His slow Southern drawl comes with little urgency and a friendly absent-mindedness — at one point Mr. Johnston put the phone down for a good two minutes to fetch an orange soda, his favorite beverage.

Mr. Johnston recorded most of his best-known songs on a $60 boombox in the ‘80s and early ‘90s while living in Austin, Texas. The bare-bones sound, compulsively recorded out of a genuine passion for music, makes Mr. Johnston something like the indie rock equivalent of blues legend Robert Johnson.

While his songs remain largely unfamiliar to music fans, they’re famous among musicians — who view Mr. Johnston as a “songwriter’s songwriter.” In the liner notes of the new disc, E, the lead singer of the Eels, says: “Any one of us would sell our mothers to write a song as good as one of Daniel’s.”

Mr. Johnston sings in a high, scraggly, childlike voice over crude piano or guitar that often doesn’t adhere to strict rules of tempo or rhythm. The music is very raw, without the high production gloss that can aid listeners. But this intimate recording works because of the devastating honesty of Mr. Johnston’s lyrics, and it’s always been part of his allure.

“I think it’s more intriguing coming from that Special Olympics hi-fi recording,” says Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, who both appears on the album and co-produced it. “There’s something about Daniel’s songs coming out of his body that’s just a miracle.”

Jordan Trachtenberg, the head of Gammon Records and the other producer, had the idea of the cover record while making a new CD with Mr. Johnston. It arose as both a way of spreading Mr. Johnston’s music and as a fund-raiser for the man who has been in and out of mental hospitals for much of his life. (Antidepressants have made Mr. Johnston more stable these days.)

The combination of songwriting talent and mental health problems leads Mr. Trachtenberg to declare: “He’s the Brian Wilson of my generation. He doesn’t have the mechanism to hide things that you and I do.”

Mr. Johnston has had brushes with fame before. In 1985, he was featured in an MTV show about the Austin scene and then signed to Atlantic Records.

“It was like being on ‘Bonanza,’” Mr. Johnston remembers. “I was just like a star, and I couldn’t get away.”

At the time, Mr. Johnston was clearly not ready for the mainstream. The sessions with Atlantic were marred by bouts of depression, resulting in the ironically titled “Fun,” released in 1994, which sold poorly.

He has put out a dozen albums and at least as many cassette tapes over the years, but commercial success has still eluded him. Now, Mr. Trachtenberg hopes the impressive roster of musicians on the tribute album will draw new fans and help Mr. Johnston build his own home next to his parents’.

“It’s a cheap trick,” Mr. Trachtenberg said. “It’s a big piece of bait on a very sharp hook.”

As good as the covers are, that hook — the original songs by Mr. Johnston — is the real attraction here. His tunes of unrequited love, loneliness and abiding hope are remarkably powerful, leaving musicians slack-jawed in awe.

“It’s just not as easy as Daniel makes it sound to write a song,” says Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio. “You just know he was made to write songs.”

Mr. Johnston plans to keep busy churning those tunes out. He also continues to draw cartoons (like the one Mr. Cobain wore) and has even had his work shown in galleries in Los Angeles and in Europe.

“I just want to keep on making music and keep making cartoons,” he says simply.

Still, Mr. Johnston does have one regret. As a huge Beatles fan, he wishes one more artist could have contributed a cover: Paul McCartney.

“Man,” he says, “he wouldn’t do one of my songs!”

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