“Do yourself a favor, become your own savior.”
- the man himself
A Foreword by
I first met Daniel Johnston in the early 1980s. My friends and I used to shop for used vinyl at a record store on the Drag named Sound Exchange. We started noticing this weird guy in a McDonald’s uniform following people around the store, asking if he could give them his tape. He finally annoyed my college girlfriend so much she came over to me one afternoon and said “Please get rid of this guy. He won’t leave me alone.”
Politely I walked over to him and said, “Dude, I’ll take one of your tapes but you have to quit harassing my girlfriend.” He excitedly handed one over to me. It was an original signed “Hi, How Are You!” with the alien frog drawing.
A couple years later, I started reading poetry at a club near UT campus called the Beach Cabaret. I fell into friendships with many of the regulars there, including two bartenders who became the guitarists in my first band Peace Corpse. Daniel used to gig there frequently, standing all alone on stage with just his guitar. It took a lot of guts, as back then, not many of the “hipster” punks liked him or his music. He took a lot of abuse but he persevered and played many times, eventually appearing on the famous MTV episode in 1985 tapes at the Beach Cabaret. And he also appeared on the album of the mid-80s punk festival Woodshock, with a good track called “The Marching Guitars”.
People began to take him and and music more seriously. There was a local promoter Jerry “Dog” Schadle who used to curate these multimedia gigs called “Flying Horse Symposiums”. He would have some of the major bands of the scene back then such as Scratch Acid and Poison 13 play, as well as let me and others open for the bands reading poetry, often with exotic instrumental backing like bongos, violin, and harmonica. I still have some flyers and cassette tapes from those events, with Daniel and I listed on the bill together.
Dog also published a ‘zine titled Flying Horse where he would publish me, Daniel, Biscuit of the Big Boys, with other poets, visual art, and have interviews and articles with bands. Daniel would sometimes sit with me and Jerry at a table outside while we drank beer. I remember Daniel being a gentle soul with a quiet demeanor, and I never understood why people would be so mean to him.
Many years later in the early 2000s, after all the hoopla with Kurt Cobain wearing Daniel’s T-shirt (I sometimes wonder if Kurt came to Woodshock 86. I have a memory of sitting in the van of a Seattle band called the U-Men, smoking a joint after our set, with a quiet kid in the corner with a shock of blond hair-who knows?), my guitarist Mitch and I were living in Houston and we decided to see Daniel backed by a local band at a club named FitzGerald’s. After his set, Daniel was lurking around the back bar. I said, “We should go say hi.” Mitch said, “I doubt he remembers us”. We walked over and introduced ourselves as regulars at the Beach back in the 80s. He kind of cocked his head, looked at me for a second and said “You’re the poet. I remember you.”. “ That’s right” I laughed. “Daniel. I’m still a poet.” I guess we were all lifers in one way or another.
Hearing about Daniel’s death brought back a flood of memories. The fact he died at the same age as my Father (58), who was going through his last days in that era, only made the news more poignant to me. It also made me more determined than ever to release a book of my own 1980s song lyrics with flyers, press clippings and other memorabilia. Dustin Pickering of Transcendent Zero Press has agreed to publish it and we’re going to include some of those live tapes from back in the day as well. So Daniel lives on in his music, visual art, and his ability to inspire others to continue the legacy of our wild youth in the Austin alternative scene of the 1980s. R.I.P. Daniel Johnston. May your troubled soul find the solace we all deserve.
When I was young
I worked at a mcDonalds
I got a little older
& a doctor diagnosed me
with a schizoaffective disorder
& I got a little older &
I started drawing funny pictures on the wall
& I got a little older &
I believe in god
& I believe in the devil &
the devil knows my name.
In the thunderous bloom
And the whisk
Of mounting sensation
Where the only
Way out is through
And the things
That go crash
And spider brains
The rush of discordance
Against the allure of dysfunction
Notes in the night sky
Bending into emptiness
And it’s all just love
Jeremiah’s dark blues
Downloading a dream
Behind the ganglia
On the planet of the dogs
A diaspora of the past
Institutions and dark places
As he breathes toward the light
Pages on fire
“I’m a Sorry Entertainer”
in search of daniel johnston
disturbing the difference with panther claws which
mark my words, mike my words. words developed
from black marks, ready-get set-go. shaving salt
block for dull-witted zombies. a call in the middle
of liver & onions saying keith richard’s internal
organs are in transplant poll & aren’t you lucky
because it’s your turn. my marching hairline will
stop retreating & charge forward to ‘street fighting
man’ while shriveled black fruit can pass for a b-3.
brass pipes are running under the choir & up the other
side or cheap chord organ. as i’m going under i hear
something about nocturnal discharge at half price
before the sun goes down. will it still be there when
i come to? dreams generating gravity from jury-
rigged clandestine repairs. ghostly presence is the star
of this show. smoking bone heat wilting in the heat
of tedious recreation. inventing sleep by drilling
boredom & traveling partner’s caress. aggravated
breasts are mulched into concaved multiple disorders.
poison kiss trying to lynch limbs on the sly. enflamed
blind eyes are jostling for a proposition. memorize
the title of this show. it will be one performance only.
flesh pajamas with seahorse sequel designs are
sweetening the pipes.
in memory of daniel johnston
encyclopedic knowledge of irrational thinking is
unbuttoning yet another dream slowly, seductively,
in what might pass for harmonious seclusion. collective
whopping was allegedly rooting out the problems
& was pulverized. jaded virgin claims to have the
key to unlocking authentic visions. however, body
of evidence suggests otherwise, & screams that
sprawling mounds aren’t for sale. rousing the
dialect with rattling floorboards, attics filled with
bad memories, & shavings from the final death poem
of dancing child. a string quartet for plodding plotlines
competes with columns of this year’s assets. boom of
confidence is frightening off all wildlife except for
buzzing metal birds which could be a spitting image
of tinnitus trying to silence fables like barge of fools
with nosferatu-looking shadows walking the deck
after the moon awakens. tarnishing repentance while
polishing the two-toned satellite which no one
believes in besides myself, yet judge my actions
with every flaming clause. whispering pines are
usually right on the money. but these are desperate
times. plowing ad infinitum for everlasting, not
eclipsed by evil eye. sheer quantity doesn’t feel like
a good bet. painful evidence, though once the so-called
scourge of light, is now viewed with a headless torso
which won’t argue my point.
In the Basement [daniel johnston d. 2019]
unplucked boy of sagacious
yr eyes wound with coils
wired to music it lit yr veins
remember the haunted path
where faces bled music
in their ironic stare
you are now crossing the threshold
seeing golden rocks
across the sea
yr mind a monarch
yr heart so much mischief
through the square apertures of time
lifts the translucent king
– graceful as slow motion
– strong as hypnosis
we pause before in the hereafter
strings plucked to raise our tombs
adam’s apple fallen from the neck
g-d lifted through the square apertures of time
a harmony lifted
dark descending chords
exprest the sympathies
of a faithless man
yr tomb empty as a shriek of a ghost
what love did make you boast
as sick softens the silence shifting
gone gone gone
are yr eyes
“The Day My Soul Wept His Eyes”
Was born the ghost
Of a lonely teenager
He died that way
It was from him
I learned how to
Ache like that
And I taught my daughters
To each ache like that
We share this together
And we know it
Like we share crooked teeth
We are real human beings
In a world full of
We are the few
Real human beings
Who love and feel pain
Who sing in public and
Weep behind our outstretched hands
Who dance in supermarkets and
Kiss each other to sleep
James Dennis Casey IV
The Artist Walks Alone Into the Ether
right this way to the museum of love
curated by the devil himself
artistic tragedy on display
recorded by a madman genius
hallucinogenic alien mixtape
singing to himself
lullabies of white noise dreams
behind a Red 100 held
between nicotine-stained fingers
when god is happy
and the sun is out
don’t forget to say your prayers
put the words on paper
and play the broken notes
in the end
if you go back
there’s nothing there
choose to live
not to die
but Daniel always
chose the darker side and
some things last a long time
love comes and love goes
to childlike minds
I’ll see you on the other side
So many cars in the way as
I tried to get home before
the storm hit. I saw one of
the guys downstairs out on
his deck, watching the splatter
begin. He wanted to watch
other people get wet
and remember how it feels.
I could smell water on
the air as I rushed past,
the electric tang on the back
of the tongue. Inside, it’s time
to collapse. The thing about
people is they’re magnets.
No matter how you try to lean,
they’ll pull you in. All of it
is work. The clouds are tired
of bearing all the weight
they’ve been given by the world.
The guy downstairs knows
something I don’t. When they
let it go, we’ll all be healed.
Just a bit. That’s enough for today.
Two-Headed Monster (for Daniel Johnston)
one head was jesus cavaliering through the streets of New York
banking up energy for the next rollercoaster down
every single moment of ugly
balanced with an equal measure of splendor
you were the real deal,
in a basement studio in your parents’ house in texas
you gave yourself over to the music
nonsensical genius poetry titles flowed from you, the other head
like consistent fire, in harmony
there was always more to create, more to burn
if you could’ve just gotten that one good thing down
then true love might’ve found you
in the end
TRUE LOVE WILL FIND YOU IN THE END
Days went by. Or were they years? Or just moments stretched to infinity?
Once again, Janus let his eyes roam, travelling from floor to wall to ceiling: seamless, circular, the room was one continuous crystalline white circumference in all directions. There were no windows, no doors. There was only the responder, which sat at the center of the room¾a small translucent device as alien and yet comforting as their surroundings¾through which they could “see”.
Mira sat on the floor across from Janus with a handful of crystals she had plucked from the wall scattered before her. “It’s no use is it?” she said, focusing on Janus’s upturned chin.
Janus looked down and closed his eyes. He fought back a moment of vertigo. It always made him dizzy if he examined the walls for too long. “I just don’t understand,” he said finally.
“Maybe it’s not for us to understand.”
“Then why else would we be here?” It was a question they always seemed to come back to, a circular argument like the room itself.
They had both awakened to find themselves in the room. They didn’t know why or for how long; they were just there, alone, abandoned it seemed, in this place that had no name. They had brought with them only their namesakes and fragments of their forgotten personalities. The only other thing they shared, besides their common fate, was a remembrance of some past event or experience neither could relate in specific terms; only that it was real, as real as they were at any given moment.
“Maybe there isn’t a way back.”
“But there has to be.”
Janus had tried many theories, the latest being that they had each somehow been separated from reality and one of the crystals contained the road back, if only they could find it. But, glancing around the room, at the thousands¾if not millions¾of crystals embedded in the walls, that hope now seemed nothing more than a distant glimmer.
Janus snapped out of his temporary fugue. “Try that one there,” he said, pointing to the collection of crystals at Mira’s feet.
“That one there… the one with the flaw.”
Mira studied each one. “What flaw?”
She looked up and saw that Janus was smiling. Each crystal was as beautiful and perfect as the next.
“They’re all flawed,” Janus said. “Their perfection is their flaw. Any one, I don’t care.”
Mira still looked closely at each one of the crystals before choosing. “Then I choose this one,” she said.
“Why that one?”
“Because it is the most perfect, and therefore the most flawed,” she said, a note of triumph in her voice.
She held the thumbnail-sized jewel and rolled it between her two fingers; reflections sparkled off of its multi-faceted surface. She then got to her knees and lifted the domed lid of the responder and placed the crystal on the stem post inside. “Ready?” she said.
Mira lowered the lid and they both placed their hands on the smooth surface of the responder. Arcs of light began to radiate from the center spindle and dance on the inner surface of the dome lid. The arcs gathered, coalescing beneath each of their palms.
The images began.
It was suddenly winter. Mira had become Stephanie; Janus: John. Beneath a heavy, white cloud cover they walked along a harbor surrounded by a park-like setting. There were bare trees with wire cages around their trunks, hardwood benches, a concrete walkway, a city skyline¾a mountain of glass and steel cut to precision¾across the harbor. Stephanie had her arm wrapped around John’s waist; John had his around her shoulder. They walked as one against the cold, their breath a white exhalation as they talked.
“Will it ever be the same?” Stephanie asked, her voice imbued with a distant consideration.
“Will what be the same?” John said in return.
“Oh, I don’t know¾you, me¾this beautiful, ugly day. Will it be here tomorrow? Will we be here tomorrow?”
John thought for a moment, the crisp, still air closing back in around them. In the far distance a ferry boat sounded.
As if that was answer enough, John tightened his grip on Stephanie’s shoulder and she leaned her head against his chest, and together they cut a path through the cold winter day ahead…
Mira sat, her eyes still closed, as the images faded. She felt the last of the warmth fade from inside Stephanie’s heart. It was usually like that: brief scenes¾snapshots of a life¾two people in love or in danger of losing love, but together, always together.
A sudden chill ran through her. What if all we’re looking at are memories of past lives? she thought. She remembered one particular image produced by another crystal they had played earlier: the image of a young couple just moments before their world ended, irradiated in a flash of blinding white neon.
“I’m tired,” Janus said.
Mira wrapped her arms around her knees and stared at the empty dome. Janus saw that she was shivering (although the temperature in the room was constant) and inched over beside her to give her some comfort.
“Maybe I’ll have better luck,” he said and reached for the crystals.
“No, I’m tired, too. Let’s leave it for a while, okay?”
“Okay.” Mira looked at him then.
She saw crystals reflected in his eyes, and in that moment she saw herself reflected in every one of them.
“Nothing,” she said. She offered a brief smile.
Janus smiled back. “I know. Me, too.”
He then wrapped his arm around Mira’s shoulder and she leaned her head against his chest, and together they made a place in a world where there once was nothing.