The Legend of Daniel Johnston

In 2005, a documentary about a man named Daniel Johnston came out called ‘The Devil and Daniel Johnston.’ Johnston was a singer and songwriter who suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He became famous in the ‘80s from passing out his tapes while he worked at McDonald’s. This is the crazy story about the ups and downs of Daniel’s career and the people he met throughout the way. There are plenty of sad, exciting, and happy stories to hear; all very interesting.

Daniel Johnston, Kurt Cobain

Daniel Johnston, Kurt Cobain / Sony Classic/Kobal/Shutterstock

Towards the end of Daniel’s life, he was relatively well known, touring all over the world. He had become famous, but anyone who saw him performing for the first time ever usually didn’t know how to react. While a lot of people didn’t understand his music, Matt Groening seemed to. After one of his concerts, Matt Groening appeared backstage and went on to praise Daniel’s work. Daniel told Groening about how he would love to make some music for his TV show, The Simpsons, and Groening agreed with him. After Groening left Daniel’s dressing room, you see Daniel jumping with excitement. This is just one example of the impression that Daniel and his disease left on the people he met throughout this journey.

Growing Up

Born January 22th, 1961, Daniel Johnston grew up in West Virginia. The Johnston family moved to Austin, Texas, a bit later on in Daniel’s life. His mother, Mabel Johnston, says that she noticed that he was different from the start. She says that he was a smart baby and would squeal at her as if he was communicating. He was the youngest of five children, so he was pampered by them.

A photograph of Daniel Johnston as a young boy playing the piano.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

His parents didn’t notice any special talents at that point, or that there was anything wrong with him. In school, he was put in the highest-level classes. His teacher wasn’t happy with this as she claimed that he didn’t follow directions. Although high-level classes are for smarter people and don’t always have anything to do with who pays attention. In Junior High, his mother claims that he lost all his confidence.

And that was the beginning of his illness…

Making Home Videos With His Brother

Daniel and his brother made a home video together, and Daniel played his mother and himself. The film portrayed him as more of a lazy teenager who doesn’t have the strength to get up and do things. Mabel says that her son always wanted to be a comic, and it shows through this video.

A screenshot of Daniel sitting at the kitchen table with his brother pouring popcorn kernels and green Jell-O into a bowl for him to eat.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

Daniel also plays his mother in the video, who nags him to wake up for school. She believes this is how he sees her. The comedy comes out even more so when a cat gets thrown, and he feeds himself a bowl of green Jell-O and popcorn kernels. Johnston would continue to make home videos throughout his entire career, which is where most of the old footage for this documentary comes from.

The Basement Became His Bedroom

Daniel loved comic books then. He wasn’t buying them to read; he was buying them for the artwork. He claimed it was his inspiration for his art. He took the downstairs garage and utility room into his bedroom and his studio. You can see comic books lining the whole room. He had his artwork hanging all over, a piano on one side of the room, and an old couch on the other.

A shot of Daniel’s apartment in the early 2000s with comic books and his artwork everywhere, and Daniel is playing the piano.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

He loved this room so much that in his last apartment, he recreated the basement from his childhood. In this new apartment, he also has his comic books and artwork lying all over the place. Even the piano looks like the same one that he had growing up.

“Dan Johnston’s Crazy”

Daniel Johnston’s family grew up religious. The family always attended church and lived by what they believed in. Daniel wasn’t too connected to it, and even though his mother would drag him along with her to church, he went along just to check out the girls his age. He only cared about making art and becoming the next John Lennon, and he felt his parents were in the way of that.

Photograph of Daniel’s whole family in their front yard dressed up for Church.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

This became an issue, according to his mother, who claims he wouldn’t help with any chores and just wanted to sit around drawing. In an old tape recording of his, she says, “And when you started drawing those eyeballs all over, other people can laugh, and they can say, “Dan Johnston’s crazy.” But I can’t laugh. I don’t want my son to be a laughingstock.” His mom claims that he was the laughingstock all through high-school because he was so desperate for attention.

Meeting David Thornberry

Daniel Johnston started drawing in high school, eventually becoming the talk of the school. That’s when he met David Thornberry. Thornberry says that he started hearing about this new artist in school who was also in the band, and he just had to meet him. He introduced himself to Johnston, and the two became close friends.

Photograph of Daniel Johnston and David Thornberry standing in a door frame with no glass.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

Thornberry says that Daniel’s artwork just got better and better the more he drew, without even having to learn. He started out drawing eyeballs on everything, which he would refer to as dead dog eyeballs. He added them to yearbook photos and drew them on the walls in the hallways. Daniel also loved to sketch Captain America and Casper the friendly ghost, and throughout his time, he kept drawing these two comic book characters.

His College Years

Johnston went off to Abilene Christian College in Abilene, Texas. They say he wasn’t going to class, and he was getting confused. They sent him to the doctor and described having a feeling in his toes and his fingers. At the time, no one could figure out what was going on with him.

A postcard with the Abilene Christian College administration building.

Source: eBay

His father got worried that he was walking around disoriented and brought him home. The second they got home, Daniel snapped out of it and went back to being himself. His parents thought everything was OK again, so they sent him to Kent State University, a local college in East Liverpool. He got along better there and started making friends. While walking around campus, he would record strange conversations and background noises. He would then take short clips of these recordings and incorporated them into his music.

Meeting Laurie Allen

Johnston met Laurie Allen at Kent State University. They got along well, and he started following her around with his video camera filming everything. Johnston didn’t know this, but Laurie already had a boyfriend at the time. She was dating Pete Arner, who went to a mortician school in Florida. Johnston was heartbroken, and his first cassette called ‘Songs of Pain’ came from this situation.

A shot of Laurie Allen from college with Daniel Johnston reacting to watching his old film of her in 2005.

Source: Sony Classic / Kobal /

Arner eventually came back to town and married Laurie, and he opened his own funeral home. One of Daniel’s friends’ grandparents passed away, and they had the funeral at Arner’s funeral home. Daniel walked in, and Laurie was hanging up coats at the coat check. Johnston says that he walked up to her and said, “Hi, how are you?” and shook her hand. This is how he came up with his next cassette called ‘Hi, How Are You?’

Hi, How Are You?

While he didn’t talk about it too often, Daniel’s songs about love are all about Laurie. This whole time he still had her on his mind. It wasn’t that big of a deal on paper, but in his mind, he lost the love of his life, and it affected his music until the day he died. One of the few times he mentioned it on his own cassette tape recordings, he said the following:

The cover of Daniel’s tape ‘Hi, How Are You: The Unfinished Album’ from September ’83 with his animal with two long eyeballs on it.

Source: eBay

“I was alone in my life with little to live for. Trying my hand at art, thinking that maybe I can save myself. But in my desperation, all my hope would fly away until there was nothing left of me. Nothing left to say. And in this nightmare, there was a dream of a girl so beautiful beyond compare. The girl of my dreams, so wonderful, so beautiful, and I had her boots. This was so long ago in my idealistic dreams, so many songs, Laurie.”

His Depressive State

Let’s talk about when Daniel went into a depressive state, and he wrote the song Lost my Mind. Daniel’s parents were worried about him being depressed in college, so they sent him to Houston to live with his brother, Dick Johnston. Dick wanted to help him get his life back on track. He told his parents that Daniel is welcome to come down and stay with him for a bit, and that Dick can even get him a job at Astroworld.

A shot of the chord organ and recording equipment with his Casper the Friendly Ghost glass set up on Daniel’s brothers work out bench.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

Daniel was worried that he wouldn’t have his piano with him there. So, he went and picked up an old chord Organ and made himself a workspace on top of Dick’s workout equipment in the garage. Dick could hear him recording from inside of the house, but he didn’t know that Daniel was so into his music out there making his masterpiece. This is where Daniel recorded his cassettes called ‘Hi, How Are You and Yip/Jump Music.’

The Next Step

Dick wasn’t happy with Daniel staying up all hours of the night and gave him an eviction notice to be out by September 1st. This is when their sister Margie stepped in and invited him to stay with her. He slept on a mattress without a bed base in the middle of a room. This is when he first heard the song ‘Desperate Dan’ by Johnny Dankworth and his orchestra.

A shot of Daniel’s set up at his sister Margie’s house with the mattress on the floor, comic books, and empty bags of chips lying around.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

Daniel really identified with this song, and this changed a lot. His sister Margie says that she came home one night, and he wasn’t there. She really got worried when he didn’t come home in the morning. He bought a motorcycle and disappeared, according to his mother. This motorcycle-inspired one of his songs, which he wrote about being taken for a ride by different girls.
Where did Daniel go when he disappeared?

The Carnival

Daniel Johnston got hired by a Carnival and worked at the corn dog stand. This is where Daniel met Trisha, a girl who worked with the carnival from when she was a child. The two hung out at the corn dog stand, and she would make up songs as she sang them. This whole time, Daniel’s parents didn’t know where he was. It was three months before he called his mother.

A corn dog stand set up in the middle of a carnival, with a motorcycle sitting outside.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

The carnival eventually came to Austin, Texas. When he was in the port-a-potty one day, someone was banging on the door, upset with how long he took. When he got out, he saw it was a larger carnival worker. This guy punched Daniel, so he just gets up and leaves to look for a Church of Christ.

The First Tape

After Daniel got hit, he walked for a bit and walked into the first Church that he saw. They cleaned him up and even brought him to a doctor to get checked out. They helped get him set up with an apartment. This was when Daniel met the Glass Eye and their lead singer, Kathy McCarty.

The band Glass Eye performing with Kathy playing the guitar on the right.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

He saw a poster hanging up for their performance that night and went with one of his tapes to give to the band. The next time that they played, he asked Kathy if she saw it. She felt terrible that he was so excited, so instead of saying she didn’t listen to it, she told him it was great, and he can open for them. When she went home that night, she heard the tape and was blown away at its genius.

Yip/Jump Music

Daniel Johnston brought his tape to a lot of people to listen to. He brought it to an editor once, who was blown away by it and even compared this situation to Bob Dylan coming and giving you all of his original music at once. He gave so many tapes out that people were starting to talk about him. Who is Daniel Johnston, and this really weird music?

A younger Daniel Johnston holding up his Yip/Jump Music tape with Casper the Friendly Ghost drawn on it.

Source: Tumblr

Daniel was inspired by the Beatles, and his tape Hi, How Are You? was compared to Meet the Beatles. They said that his music described who he was and what went through his mind. You would start listening to it, not sure what is really going on, but slowly you start to understand what is so brilliant about his music.

The Recording

Daniel’s music was not mass-produced. He would record everything on tape cassettes, and sometimes he wasn’t able to duplicate them. Daniel would sit there and sing all of his songs again just to be able to give a tape to someone else. He would also put make a cover for each of the tapes. Everyone who heard his music went crazy over it making it worth it to keep recording.

Photograph of Daniel’s tapes, The Lost Recordings, Hi How Are You, Lost Recordings II, Live At SXSW


When he first started getting into music, he would play and record his songs with the piano. Now that Daniel was getting ready for his first live performance in Austin, he wanted to stop using the piano. He switched in his usual for the guitar. Now, he wasn’t any good at it then, but he insisted on it.

His First Performance

Daniel was very nervous about his first performance, but you would never have guessed it was his first time because of the audience. His first performance was with Glass Eye, thanks to Kathy McCarty giving him the opportunity. Instead of no one paying attention, everyone in the audience was silent and concentrating on Daniel. At this point, him being new to the guitar didn’t phase anyone at all.

Photograph of Daniel Johnston performing the first time with Glass Eye.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

That was his first performance, and he went on to keep performing all around Austin. Sometimes his sets didn’t really make sense. He would start performing, and people would look around, trying to figure out how to react. They weren’t sure if he was a joke or if his music was really that raw and real. However, once they really started listening to him, they just became captivated.

Working at McDonald’s

Daniel got a job working at McDonald’s. While he worked there, everyone would come in to say hi to him and talk about his music. This is where he worked through the ‘80s while passing out his tapes. When he started the job, they realized he couldn’t cook or do other things like that, and he ended up being a busboy.

Photographs of Daniel at McDonald’s in his uniform.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

He worked there for a long time and was very popular, always bringing a crowd in. Usually, this would bother a fast food joint, but they like Daniel, and for the time being, they let him talk to his visitors. However, this is the point in his life where you could really see something was not okay with him.

His Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder

This was when he started talking about Satan and manic-depressive psychosis. He taped himself talking about it, and you can hear how quickly he is talking. He said, “In extreme cases of manic excitement, the patient may be so active and excitable as to talk incoherently and to be disoriented.” While he was saying this, you can hear that he is jabbering, and he was laughing almost excitedly.

A screenshot of a mixture of Daniel’s artwork, including his signature eyeball at the top left corner.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

He actually let out a laugh when he continued with, “There is a danger of physical exhaustion. Hallucinations support the grandiose delusions. Well, there you have it. I’m a manic depressive with grand illusions.” One thing that you notice watching his documentary is that he was more into his performances when he was in a manic state. This didn’t always mean that it made the performances better, but in his mind, it did.

The Cutting Edge

MTV created a show called The Cutting Edge in 1983-87. Peter Zaremba was brought on to host it, and they started it out at a BBQ with a bunch of different bands. He wasn’t scheduled, but Daniel took it upon himself to just show up with his tapes. He gave a shout out to his friend David Thornberry and held up his tape called ‘Hi, how are you?’.

A shot of Daniel performing on MTV’s The Cutting Edge with his name scrolling on the bottom of the screen.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

He gave a great performance, and when he finished, the crowd went wild. Daniel ended up being the most memorable part of The Cutting Edge, even though he wasn’t supposed to be on it in the first place. At this point, Daniel was a big star, and McDonald’s even expanded his hours. They didn’t care that he wasn’t working; they were just excited with the crowd he brought in. It also got to the point that record labels and magazines were calling McDonald’s for Daniel as this was the only way to get in touch with him.

Meeting Kathy McCarty

Daniel and Kathy became really good friends and eventually started dating. Daniel was more religious, so the relationship only stayed at a certain place. After only a few weeks, she began to see that something was wrong with him. He introduced her to his parents as his fiancé, and that was the point where Kathy made it clear they were just friends.

Photograph of a young Daniel Johnston with his mother and Kathy McCarty standing in front of a light blue car.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

For a few months, she kept reminding him that they were broken up. Daniel recorded himself talking about the breakup, and it seems like he took her mentioning that she wanted to get married someday as her accepting a marriage proposal. That summer, Daniel started smoking marijuana with his manager of the time. This was just the start of what was coming next.

Kathy went on to create a cover CD of Daniel’s songs and eventually marry his best friend, David Thornberry.

Awards, Acid, and Daniel Johnston

In 1986, Daniel won a bunch of awards in the Austin Music Awards, including Best Songwriter and Best Folk Artist. He wasn’t the best guitar player, so this didn’t go over so well with everyone. However, it was quickly forgotten.

Black and white photograph of Daniel Johnston from the Austin Chronicles with his name as No. 1 for Best Folk Artist and Best Songwriter.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

Daniel went to a Butthole Surfers concert and had a bad experience. Someone gave him LSD at the concert. People were going around, saying that something is wrong with Daniel. The lead singer of Butthole Surfers was interviewed about this incident and even asked if he was the one who gave Daniel acid. He denied giving it to him, and also went on to say he wouldn’t have been the right person to have that experience with.

This all led to the following…

The Mental Breakdown

Daniel was taking a lot of drugs in December of 1986, which led to a violent incident with his manager Randall Kemper. They say that he was acting delusional at the time and just wasn’t himself. Daniel spoke about it in a recording, saying that he saw a metal pipe there and just whacked his manager over the head three times, sending him to the hospital.

The hospital form with Randall Kemper’s patient information filled out from when he was hit on the head.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

No one was sure how to deal with him in this situation. His siblings had Christmas at one of their houses as their parents weren’t around that year. They invited Daniel to be around all their children. When he showed up, it was apparent there was something wrong, and they said he didn’t seem like himself. He hung a black number 9 and a Beatles album on the Christmas Tree. His brother Dick tried to confront him. Daniel got angry and broke his rib.

Family Christmas

When Daniel and Dick fought, he accused his siblings of teaching their children about Satan. Everyone was very freaked out by the situation and stayed up all night as they were scared that Daniel would do something. The next day, he tried to go up to their attic to be with the kids, but no one felt comfortable with it.

A screenshot of the actual Christmas tree that Daniel helped decorate with a black number 9 and the Beatles album hung up.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

Since he seemed to have super strength all of a sudden, they called the police on him. The police came to help, so Margie’s husband helped him get his stuff, and they brought him to the bus station. Margie’s husband made sure that Daniel got on the bus so they wouldn’t have to worry about themselves or him. Dick and Margie just sat there afterward and just cried because they had no idea who he was anymore.

For this next part of the story, Daniel didn’t even really understand what was going on.

Running Water

Louis Black, an editor for the Austin Chronicle, was sitting in bed with a fever when he gets a call from someone asking him to come down to the University of Texas campus to get Daniel. They led him through an empty campus on Christmas of 1986, so not many people were around. He gets up to a body of water and sees Daniel standing knee-deep splashing water around him. He started singing to himself ‘running water…’.

The actual body of water on the University of Texas campus, which Daniel was preaching in with green trees and bushing surrounding.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

It actually ended up being one of his more popular songs, but the situation it came from isn’t ideal. They said his eyes were white, and he was preaching about Baptism. The police showed up at this point and took him away. Daniel talks about this later, saying that he thought the military was taking over, and there was nowhere to go. He talks about candy being used as a mind-controlling drug.


At this point, the only thing that anyone could think of doing was committing him to a mental institution. So, that’s where the police took him. A man named Jeff Tartakov went to see him at the hospital. To get in to see Daniel, he told them that he was his manager. Informally, this guy was working as his publicist. He figured that his last manager didn’t want to see him after being beaten over the head, and it worked.

Daniel is holding up a black number 9 and the letter E for Evil.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

He didn’t understand why Daniel was really in the hospital, so he got him released. People explained to Tartakov why Daniel was in the hospital, and he started to see a bit of what was wrong. Daniel started to become obsessed with the devil and evil, and that became all he could talk about. Daniel was not in a good place, and Tartakov called his father.

The Lost Year

Daniel’s father came straight over to Austin and picked him up. Daniel announced to everyone that this was him retiring. He was put on medication, and he became what his father described as at times ‘a vegetable’. As his dad talks about this, you can see tears forming in his eyes. Daniel was on the wrong medication. They brought him over to the psychiatrist, and he checked out OK.

All of Daniel Johnston’s medication that he tried lined up on the counter with a fruit bowl in the background.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

They then brought him to the University of Pittsburgh, where seven people interviewed him for a full day. They changed his medication so many times, but all of them had the same effect. Daniel claims he was unable to write songs at all, and he even stayed I bed for the full year. He refers to this as his Lost Year. All this time, Jeff Tartakov was working on his career.

The Statue of Liberty

Thanks to Tartakov, Daniel went to New York to hang out with Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth. Jad Fair put together an opportunity for Daniel to meet Kramer and even record with Moe Tucker from The Velvet Underground. This also allowed him to actually meet Jad Fair.

Daniel Johnston and Sonic Youth member in front of the statue of liberty.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

One day Steve took Daniel to the Statue of Liberty to do some sightseeing, and he got arrested. Apparently, he drew graffiti in the stairwell of hundreds of Christian fish. They gave him a chance to pay $75 and clean it up or go before a federal judge. There is a recording of an officer telling this to Daniel and just being in shock over what he did. The officer didn’t seem to understand why it happened.

Sonic Youth

Daniel had a performance and performed a song called ‘funeral home’ about dying and never coming back. He got everyone to sing along with him. Daniel got very emotional and was preaching religion, the longer the show went on. He also started crying at one point. This concert was very awkward, and Steve got very worried.

The outside of the Holland Motor Lodge hotel in Jersey City, where the boys found Daniel.


Steve threatened to call his parents, and this set Daniel off. He got upset that his parents would commit him to the mental hospital. Daniel ran off, and no one could find him anywhere. The members of Sonic Youth drove around without Steve and eventually found him in a New Jersey motel parking lot. They were anxious about him and tried to get him to get on a bus home to his parents.

New York

This made him think that the devil is after him, and he refused to go home. All he wanted to do was stay in New York. He stayed in the Bowery House and a men’s shelter where he was assaulted and even lost his possessions. He was homeless and hungry but enjoying life. Everyone else was anxious about him, and his friends ended up bringing him to the bus station and bought him a ticket.

A photograph of the entrance to where Daniel stayed in New York with a Coca Cola machine and a front desk with bars across it.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

Everyone thought they saw him get on the bus, but they saw him wandering around New York just a few days later. He spent a bit of time in Bellevue Hospital but was released due to a clerical error. That night he someone was brought on to open for the band Firehose at CBGBs.

The Mental Hospital

After this gig, everyone was anxious about Daniel and just wanted to bring him home. All he wanted was to become famous, and it seems he ended up accomplishing that. So, he went back to Texas and was admitted back into the Mental Hospital. He didn’t end up staying there for long, of course. He got out and stayed with his parents for a bit.

The Certificate of Discharge from Bellevue Hospital for Daniel Johnston with his medical bracelet.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

His parents and his siblings were anxious about him. They all believed he was released too early, and he was continuing to preach. Daniel begged them to let him get back into music, promising that he would call them every day. Soon enough, he traveled to Maryland to record with Jed, who he met earlier in New York.

My Dinner with Daniel

People said that Jad Fair and Daniel Johnston were putting two giant stars together. They recorded some music together in Maryland. Jed and his brother mentioned that at that time, Daniel always wore white because he thought it was the Christian thing to do. The three of them had dinner together after recording, and one of them had the idea to tape their dinner like the famous movie at the time called ‘My Dinner with Andre.’

A screenshot from when Daniel, Jed, and his brother and his brother's friend were sitting for dinner titled “My Dinner with Daniel.”

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

They filmed ‘My Dinner with Daniel,’ and they just spoke the whole time. He went on about the girl he met when he was younger, and he directed where the camera should be looking. It went from someone else’s idea to Daniel’s film. He cried while performing for Jad and his brother, which they say was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

The Elderly Woman

After dinner, they took Daniel to the bus stop to go home. He had a one-way ticket back, but he accidentally got off the bus too early. It turns out that he went off his meds so that he can perform better. When he got off the bus, it was around six in the morning. He walked around delusional and thought that everyone was Satan.

Daniel Johnston’s mugshots from the Sheriff's department in Hancock, West Virginia.

Source: Sony Classic / Kobal /

He was making a lot of noise walking around, and an elderly woman leaned out the window to tell him to keep it down. He got upset and walked up to her front door and started pounding. He scared her enough that she jumped out of a second-story window, breaking both of her ankles. They arrested Daniel for burglary, and he pleads insanity. This is how he ended up back in the mental hospital. When he was in the hospital, he claimed he was trying to cast out her demons, and they threw her out the window.

Mountain Dew

Daniel spent a lot of time in the hospital this time. He sent his manager all the different ideas that he had while he was in there. Daniel actually wanted to be the spokesperson for Mountain Dew soda and recorded himself singing about it. His manager said that he sent it to the company, but he never heard back. It makes sense, as at the end of the tape, he said, “Out with the demons. Demons drink the Mountain Dew.”

Daniel Johnston in his room, playing the keyboard with an old bottle of Mountain Dew on the table behind him.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

He spent a few months there, and then everyone heard that he was doing better, even that he put on some weight. He was eventually released in 1990. Throughout all this time, his manager was still sending out his tapes for people to hear. This got him an invitation to the 1990 Austin Music Awards shows to perform his song ‘South by Southwest.’

The Austin Music Awards

Daniel flew to Austin with his dad, Bill. He did in-store appearances where hundreds of people showed up. 3000 people showed up to hear Daniel play. He walked off the stage too early, and when he walked back out, everyone went crazy. Daniel’s dad got to see how people reacted to him, how they sang along, and yelled, ‘I love you’ while he was performing. His dad describes how he got standing ovations when no one else did.

Daniel Johnston is standing with James McMurtry and others at the 1990 Austin Music Awards.


Right after his performance, they left since Daniel wasn’t feeling so well. What Bill didn’t realize was that Daniel had stopped retaking his pills to put more emotion into his performance. When you watch the documentary ‘The Devil and Daniel Johnston’, you see Bill crying when he talks about this incident, and what happens next.

Casper the Friendly Ghost

Bill flew him and Daniel back home on his plane. Daniel was reading one of the Casper the Friendly Ghost comic books with Casper on the front wearing a parachute. He wasn’t all there for this ride, so he told his dad he wanted to bail out. Bill told him they didn’t have any parachutes. Daniel was so far off his medication that he grabbed the keys out of the plane’s ignition and threw them out the window.

Daniels father, Bill, and his brother Dick standing next to the wrecked plane in between the trees.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

Bill explained that Daniel was stronger than him, and he was able to take over the controls of the plane. Daniel flew it straight up and then straight down, and he let go just in time for Bill to take over the controls. Bill was able to crash land in between two big trees, and thankfully they got out safe.

The Sign

Their family came down to pick them up. Bill and Daniel were safe, but the plane didn’t stand a chance of being fixed. Daniel thought he did something good, and, in that situation, he was expecting his family to be proud of him for the plane spiraling out of control. They brought Daniel to the emergency room to be checked out and then down to a mental hospital.

Bill standing in front of the Church of Christ sign with ‘God promises a safe landing but not a calm voyage’ written on it.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

After what happened this time, they left him there for five months. When they were on the way to bring him to the hospital, they passed by a Church of Christ. The family couldn’t get over what was written on the sign outside. “God promises a safe landing but not a calm voyage.”

Kurt Cobain and Daniel Johnston

Daniel wasn’t out for too long before they sent him right back to the hospital. While he was there, he really started to get famous. His songs were being covered by famous bands. Then, Kurt Cobain wore his t-shirt to the 1992 MTV music awards. Daniel’s manager had given the t-shirt to write a few months before, who then gave it to Kurt Cobain.

Nirvana photoshoot with Kurt Cobain standing in the middle with Daniel Johnston’s Hi, How Are You t-shirt.

Source: Twitter

Cobain didn’t only wear it there, but he wore it out almost everywhere he went. He also wore it in just about every photoshoot he did during that time. At the most popular time in Daniel’s career, when everyone was wondering who this t-shirt belonged to, he was sitting in the mental hospital. This didn’t stop everyone from fighting over him.

The Contract

The Elektra Records came to meet with him and his manager at the hospital to sign him to their label. The contract was actually written up with specifications to help Daniel. It mentioned that he wasn’t required to go on tour and can never be dropped for failure to promote his albums as they understand his condition. They also had something in there about providing him with a doctor.

The contract that Elektra was trying to write up Daniel to meet all of his needs.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

It took a while to get him out of the hospital. While they were trying to help him so he can be released, Atlantic Records now contacted him, trying to sign him to their label. While in a mental hospital, these record companies had a bidding war over him. Once he was let out, he became paranoid about both deals, going as far as saying Elektra was satanic. He even thought that Metallica was going to beat him and kill him.

The Record Deal

He didn’t sign any of the contracts and dropped his manager at the time, Jeff, cold turkey. He found out because a guy named Tom Gimbel called him up to let him know that he is Daniel’s new manager. Gimbel helped him sign with Atlantic Records in February of 1994, where he released his first and only professionally recorded album.

The cover of Daniel’s album ‘FUN’ with a drawing of Casper the Friendly Ghost, a tree, and clouds.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

The album was called FUN, and it came out on September 20th, 1994. Unfortunately, it only sold 5,800 copies leading to Atlantic Records dropping him in 1996. Daniel moved back to Waller, Texas, to live with his parents. His parents would take care of him at this time, bringing him to the mall to shop and to Church with them. This was around the time that he met his latest band.

Jeff Tartakov

Jeff was Daniel’s manager for most of his career. While things didn’t end well for them, Daniel later called him to apologize for how everything went down. Daniel felt really bad about how he treated Jeff. Daniel admitted that Jeff was unjustly fired and that he wasn’t mentally stable at the time.

An article from the Newspaper written about Jeff with his photo featured in the center.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

Back in the ‘80s, Jeff started his own record label called Stress Records. He dedicated all of his time to getting Daniel’s music out there from trying to get him signed. Today this label is dedicated solely to promoting Daniel’s music. Even in 2005, Jeff was still copying Daniel’s tapes and sending them out to people. Daniel created a legend for himself, and Jeff played a huge part in this.

Nightmare House

Living in Waller, he met a new band that had just moved there from Ohio. They saw this guy being attacked by dogs and thought it might be Daniel Johnston. They weren’t really sure it was him, but they stopped anyway to help him out. One of the band members, Bridget, got out of the car and kicked the dog until it stopped attacking and ran off.

Daniel and the Nightmares are practicing in their house.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

They realized who he was when Daniel asked them if they knew how to play the guitar. The band called Nightmare House took meeting Daniel as a sign and right away started jamming together. They called themselves Daniel Johnston and the Nightmares. The main guitarist of the band introduced Daniel to the Beach Boys, and he right away bought all of their albums.

The Artist

From a young age, Daniel always drew. It was mostly sketches of Captain America, Casper the Friendly Ghost, ducks, and his creatures with multiple eyes. Daniel described his ducks as his army. He claims that he uses them in his battles against Satan. In 2001, he got invited to an art gallery to put up some of his drawings and perform. Daniel came early and set up his art, which was sketches on flimsy pieces of paper.

Daniel in 2001 waiting for people to arrive at his concert at the art gallery with all of his drawings hung up behind him.

Source: Screenshot / Sony Classic

He put it up with double-sided tape all around where he would be performing. The performance was set to start at 9 PM, and an unidentified collector purchased all of his pieces except for four. Daniel’s sister talks about how her friend, who works in the mental health field, said that she could see how much he has been through, how tortured he is. She said, “I know Daniels is going to heaven; he’s already been to hell.”

The Death of Daniel Johnston

The last album that Daniel wrote was called Space Ducks in 2012. He made it as a soundtrack to a comic book that he had written himself. The comic book was about astronaut ducks who go to war with demons. Within this album, you can still hear songs about heartache. The thought of Laurie stuck with him all this time.

Daniel Johnston is playing the keyboard with a can of orange soda and his guitar sitting there.

Source: J Mcconnico / Sony Classic /Kobal /

While he mostly stayed at his parents’ house for this time, he went on a farewell tour in 2017 with members of the bands Fugazi, Wilco, and Built to Spill. In September 2019, news traveled to Daniel’s death. He was recently in the hospital for a kidney problem. The day after he released, he was found dead in his home. No one has confirmed it, but it is rumored that he died from a heart attack.