Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Matt Oliver
Many people believe that they've boiled everything down to the essentials. They have their indulgences, the times when they entertain unnecessary ideas and get extravagant with their wants, maybe even confusing them with needs, as sometimes happens with us as a species. We try not to, but ultimately find ways to fret the small things, get tangled in insignificant details and wind up worrying about so many of the things that are either pointless or out of our control. We get carried away with all the needless time drains or the sure to disappoint people who didn't love you first. Daniel Johnston has boiled his life down to what are his essentials and his unstoppable fascination with such a concise list of wonders is incredible to behold. He's got no room in his life for anything other than rock and roll, cheeseburgers, cigarettes, Mountain Dew and the lingering bite of an unrequited love that we all know in our heart of hearts will never pan out. As sweet of a man as the bedeviled genius in him is, Johnston is doomed to remain happily (we think) troubled and still valiantly reaching for the girl of his pure-intentioned dreams that will never get to his fingertips. He will never get her. He will never touch what he so innocently wants to touch. There will always be a substantial distance between his hunger and the object of his affection and still, over all these years, the hope hasn't left him. It's heartbreaking and sad, but it's been the one thing in his life that's guided him most unflaggingly. His dreams of one day being as loved as he loves is always going to get his full attention and it will always get the best of him. On his newest record, "Is And Always Was," his first in many, many years, the Texan seems to have simply continued to do what we've always found such amazement in - a man with serious, but controlled, mental difficulties continuing to find new and imaginative ways to try and cope with the unwinnable hand that he was dealt. The 1983 release "Yip/Jump Music" contains the song "Speeding Motorcycle," which features a handful of lyrics that cast Johnston - over 27 years later - as the same, albeit, older man as he sings, "Many girls will take you for a ride/Hurt you deep inside/But you won't slow down…/Cause we don't need reasons and we don't need logic/We've got feelings and we're dang proud of it." He was there then and he remains there, in that headspace all these years later, though there seems to be less desperation in what he's hoping to come of his feelings. He might be okay with the impossibility now - cuddling with the theory of true love as his experiment gone wrong, but not because it doesn't exist, just because he's realized that sometimes there are no conclusions. There can be snags and there is inconclusive evidence - a tie. But the yearning for Johnston is better than the real thing and it is his religion, singing on "Freedom," - one of his most poignant and revealing, not to mention best songs of his career, "The show must go on/The end is never really over/May the force be with you/Don't you ever surrender/Love will never let you down/As long as it's around/Choking for a touchdown/Always remember the good times." Here at Big Orange Studio - where we were on this day, rehearsing for his set at the Austin City Limits festival, Johnston played this song with his backing band Hymns and it sounds like a cool, tropical breeze, where the air's been cleared and these are happy times. He suggests that he's a "whim" trapped in boredom, but it feels passionate and everything that he hoped it to be - positive and uplifting. And he reminds us that, "Satan's just an actor/He tried to con us all into believing in nothing," something that he's had to convince himself of over the years, understanding that he believes in a little more than that, but still sticks to the essentials. He can handle those. Barely.