Daniel Johnston was born on January 22nd, 1961 in Sacramento, California but grew up West Virginia. He is a singer songwriter of low-fi music who gained a cult following in the depths of the underground alternative scene. Similarly to artists such as Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd or Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Daniel Johnston suffers from mental illness, specifically schizophrenia and manic depression. He spent much of his life in and out of mental institutions. He has an extensive career of eighteen studio albums and three live albums. He has collaborated with bands such as Yo La Tengo, Okkervil River, Sufjan Stevens, and others.
Due to the very do-it-yourself and low-fi nature of his music, his style is primarily lyrically driven. Critics of Johnston works constantly comment on the simplistic and childlike voice and lyric style. He began to gain notoriety when members of Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Butthole Surfers, Half Japanese spoke highly of Johnston. Kurt Cobain was often seen wearing a Daniel Johnston album promo shirt, which added to the hype surrounding Johnston. MTV did a short series on the Austin music scene (where Johnston lived throughout his adult life) and Johnston was thrown into the national spotlight. His fame danced a fine line. He felt as if the craze behind the love of his music was mostly due to his mental illness and that companies were taking advantage of him because of his illness. This thought led him to stop taking his medicine and caused two very dangerous episodes for Johnston.
Lyric 1: "Poor You" by Daniel Johnston
Hi, how are you?
Every morning he got up
Dreading each moment he had to be awake
He'd look at the floor, scribble on gum wrappers
He never found a better way to joke around
The clock would tick and time would slow
There wasn't anywhere he wouldn't go
To avoid having to see anyone
He'd sit in a chair and lean against a wall
But that didn't seem to matter much at all
But late at night he had a savior
In his sleep, in his dreams
She came to him and she said
"Poor you, poor you
No one understands you
Poor you, poor you"
And every word that everyone would say
Got mumbled up in his head
Like mumble-jumble and everywhere he went
It seemed like everyone was saying to him,
"Blah blah blah"
But late at night, he had a mistress
In his dreams, in his sleep
And she would say "poor you, poor you"
No one understands you
This story, though, not well told
Is not that old
It's not that funny, it's not that great
But I know it to be true
Because late at night, I have an angel
In my dreams, in my sleep
And as she runs her fingers through my hair
As I lay on her lap
And she says, "poor you, poor you
No one understands you, poor you
This is one of my two favorites of Daniel Johnston. A good quote from the biography from his website that pertains to this song is, “Johnston's music is unflinchingly direct, almost embarrassingly and painfully honest.” You can feel the sadness that drips from these lyrics. It is also, as stated before, difficult to fully understand what he actually thinks because of his mental illnesses. I believe in songs like this, it helps the reader. Johnston knows he has nothing to hide. He does not nuance or throw metaphors around, he simply writes his emotions, which in this case are bottom of the barrel fear and despair. The chorus particularly strikes me, “Poor you, poor you / No one understands you / Poor you, poor you.” In the actual song the melody is smooth and heartbreaking. The lyrics are so simple and the instrumentation is just an acoustic guitar but you can feel the absolute loneliness in Johnston’s voice.
It’s interesting later in the song he says, “This story old, though, not well told / Is not that old,” which tells us that when this was written he wanted everyone to know that this is something he goes through almost every night. Also, while this seems sad to read, he refers to this apparition that visits him in his dreams as an angel towards the end of the song. This angel runs her hands through his head while he sits on her lap. It is a comforting thought for him. This angel is cradling him in the depths of loneliness. And linking it back to the third line, “Dreading each moment he had to be awake,” shows that the only time of the day he enjoyed was when he was with this angel. Knowing what he know about Johnston’s life and illnesses, one can be certain he has felt this lonely and fearful. His lyrics are simple enough for anyone to relate to and also feel crippling pity for the most honest man there is.
Lyric 2: "Etiquette" by Daniel Johnston
Never noticed her
Why I noticed her so much
I made myself ridiculous
Never noticed her
But I made the blunder of trying to attract her attention instead of giving it
When I said hello
I had talked right past her
When she looked at me
I had glanced shyly to one side
I had been so self-conscience,
I acted self-conscience
Notice others and let them notice my directness
Whoo! Play it Phil! Whoo!
Don’t be scared; don’t be shy.
You’ll never know until you try, buddy
Fred is one of the richest people I have ever met
True, he does not have a hoard of money to give away
He cannot pay handsome salaries
He does not entertain lavishly
Or bestow costly gifts
But he overflows with the gold of sincere friendliness
And gets in return a self-satisfaction
An influence, and a power with people
That all the money in the mint could not buy
He does not wait to see if people will like him
Fred assumes they do like him
That is one of his secrets
He does not wait for them to say hello or smile first
He takes a friendly lead himself and everyone follows
That is another one of the secrets
He does not question whether or not
He will like a person
Or wait before deciding to be friendly
He takes it for granted
He will like everyone, every person
This is the third secret of friendliness
He magnifies other’s good points
No matter how inconsequential
He overlooks a few annoying qualities
Or major bad points
This is the fourth element in friendliness
Friendliness is very contagious
The trouble is that many of us wait
To catch it from someone else instead of
Giving the other fella a chance
This one, “Etiquette,” is my other favorite of Johnston from the album “Continued Story” released in 1985. This song is another example of simplicity and straight honesty from Johnston. I guess the first half of this song could be considered a ‘love’ song in the absolute bare bones sense of the term. Any other poet or songwriter would find a way to romanticize the moment they tried to woo another person, but Johnston just takes it to the lowest possible level. When other poets says, “I couldn’t keep my eye off you,” Johnston says he notices that he notices you so much. When a songwriter (cliché-ing-ly) says “Oh dog gunnit, I’m falling in love again,” Johnston says. “But I made the blunder of trying to attract her attention.” He then calls out his own self-conscious nature, specifically citing it in two straight lines. When you think to yourself “wow this is all a little direct and to the point,” do not worry, Johnston knows. For in the next line he says, “Notice others and let them notice my directness.” He plays on his own honesty and directness.
The second half of this song goes in a different direction. It is a quick story about a man named “Fred.” In a way, I believe Fred is Johnston, or more specifically partially him and what he strives to be. This Fred fella does not have money, fancy clothes, or many possessions but as Johnston says he “But he overflows with the gold of sincere friendliness.” He goes on to give Fred’s secrets continued to be revealed as these just seemingly childish mantras, but have complete truth behind them. Makes the reader want to be a little nicer as well. This song is another example of Johnston putting raw emotion to paper. When listening to this cringingly lo-fi, simplistic lyric song, I have to smile.He puts his happiness to his listeners. No frill or fanciness, just the base emotion and it works. My favorite excerpt from the song is the last few lines, “Friendliness is very contagious / The trouble is that many of us wait / To catch it from someone else instead of / Giving the other fella a chance.” He is certainly not wrong. After giving us the rules Fred lives by, he knows most people are not like Fred; but in these last few lines, he almost makes you feel bad you are not. He gives such simple guidelines to being rich in happiness through friendliness that it makes the reader think to himself or herself how simple it is. Daniel Johnston is direct!
ENGL4302 Spoken Word Poetry & Pedagogy at LSU