No, really. I thought Daniel Johnston was dead. Somewhere I got the idea that he died after Rejected Unknown came out in 2000. So when I first heard about the tribute album The LateGreat Daniel Johnston, my notions were confirmed. I felt satisfied that Daniel Johnston would finally be getting the tribute he deserved. But after reading that Johnston would be playing this year’s SXSW, I learned — to my surprise and delight — that Johnston is still very much alive (although I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who thought he had passed on: Discovered Covered makes reference to the “late” Johnston as the cover portrays him, trademark baseball cap in hand, mournfully viewing his own grave).
Johnston, who began his career out on the streets of Austin more than twenty years ago painstakingly recording (and illustrating) copy after copy of the cassette tapes he released on his Stress label, has emerged as a cultural icon and one of the most authentic voices in music, period. Hospitalized numerous times for mental illness — he allegedly once tried to push a man out of a window — his distinct, child-like voice and his prolific output has inspired everyone from Kurt Cobain to David Bowie, and, as the liner notes reveal, even prompted Mark Oliver Everett of the Eels to say, “It’s true. Any one of us would sell our mothers to write a song as good as one of Daniel’s.”
But despite overdue accolades, the Discovered Covered double album is worth the wait. The covers are lovingly and at times masterfully crafted, each with a corresponding original recording on the second disc. Among the extensive liner notes, including an interview with Johnston, artists praise his profound, almost ubiquitous influence. Mark Linkous says, “Daniel Johnston is a purist and (the) most unpretentious artist of our generation.” Sparklehorse teams up with the Flaming Lips to deliver one of Discovered‘s many shining tracks, a gorgeous rendering of “Go.” Linkous’s lush production of spacey blips and subliminal vocals stands in stark contrast to the original, which features just Johnston’s unrefined voice and a jangling guitar. But it somehow preserves Johnston’s sincere simplicity: “So here we are on this planet/ Just taking everything for granted/ If you think you’ve caught on to something/ Don’t let it go/ Go, go, go, go, you restless souls, you’re gonna find it.”
Johnston’s emotional pain and his ever-present sadness is modeled everywhere on Discovered. The loneliness and isolation expressed throughout so much of his work is stunningly captured in Vic Chestnutt’s version of “Like a Monkey in the Zoo.” Recorded from Chestnutt’s attic home studio, the acoustics like a jail cell’s, he sounds misunderstood and wrongly confined: “The days go so slow/ And I don’t have no friends/ Except for all of these people who want me to do tricks for them/ Like a monkey in the zoo.” M. Ward’s simple, soft-voiced “Story of an Artist” is similarly arranged, Johnston’s anthem to his experience of being an artist living with a mental illness: “And we don’t really like what you do/ We don’t think anyone ever will/ We think you have a problem/ And this problem’s made you ill.”
The covers are so affectionate, so scrupulously made that alone they stand as a formidable tribute, but Johnston’s originals on the second disc provide for an interesting comparative study. His capacity for sincerity, his fervent, uninhibited spirit and his level of devotion remains unmatched. From Clem Snide’s syllable-infused version of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievience,” to Beck’s heartbreaking rendition of “True Love Will Find You in the End,” to TV on the Radio’s great “Walking the Cow,” Johnston’s authenticity lies just beyond the periphery of their understanding.
Indeed, Johnston is the star on Discovered Covered. Big names help to bring his work to the public eye (as they have for many years, championed and covered variously by the likes of Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth), Johnston is the heartfelt, hot-blooded artist every good musician aspires to be. For someone who has so often longed to be understood and whom so many have tried to understand, Johnston is perhaps one step closer toward that which he sings of in “Go”: “To understand and be understood/ Is to be free.”