Inspiration at Your Doorstep: What It’s Like to Live in the Presence of Daniel Johnston’s Art
Daniel Johnston’s art crept its way into our daily lives whether we knew it or not. As the “Hi, How Are You” mural is accessible to everyone, so are the lyrics of Johnston’s music reassuring us that it’s okay to stand on our own.
Written by Glenn Rodgers
Cult following is something that’s hard to define, but somehow, you still know what it is. Kurt Cobain is objectively one of the best examples, but what about the people that the artists themselves follow in a cult-like manner? The images from the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards featuring Flea in “clout goggles” and Cobain in a "Hi, How Are You" shirt are the stuff of legend to many. But, Daniel Johnston was more than just the man behind the shirt — he was an inspiration to countless musicians.
Johnston is the artist behind the “Hi, How Are You” mural on 21st street, mere steps from The University of Texas at Austin’s campus. People interact with his art more than they’re aware of, and his recent death falls very close to home for those constantly surrounded by his work. The mural is instantly recognizable to UT students and has become a landmark equatable to the campus’s trademark tower. But, Johnston was also a musician, which is how the cover of his 1983 album Hi, How Are You found its way onto Kurt’s shirt, a gift from a reporter after Cobain mentioned his respect for Johnston’s work in an interview. Even though Johnston was in a psychiatric ward at the time, Cobain’s recognition of Johnston’s work brought an onset of new record offers and artist collaborations to his doorsteps.
Johnston ended up recording music with the likes of Sonic Youth and The Buttholle Surfers. But he was also covered by so many more artists, including Tom Waits, Death Cab for Cutie, The Flaming Lips, and Lana Del Rey, demonstrating his already-rich legacy. Though he never obtained massive commercial success for himself, the art he left behind is worth much more. For his final tour in 2017, Johnston was backed by members of multiple bands including Wilco and Fugazi, with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy citing Johnston as a defining influence in his songwriting. The inspiration that he provided these names only adds to the idea that people interact with his art more than they’re aware.
In his songs, Johnston approached hard subjects like loneliness and self-doubt with childlike simplicity. His lyrics require a certain thoughtfulness, but aren’t hard to understand. Similar to how he would hand out his cassettes to anyone he talked to when he first arrived to Austin, his lyrics don’t find difficulty reaching people. His song “The Story of The Artist” reassures us that it’s ok to stand alone, painting a picture of an aging man whose friends and family believe he’s past the point of pursuing creativity, singing, “We don't really like what you do / We don't think anyone ever will.” Johnston responds to others doubt by questioning what makes creativity and enjoyment wrong, asking what gives others the right to define your efforts. And his most popular, “True Love Will Find You In The End,” assures listeners that everything will be alright in the long run. He sings to the listener, “Don’t give up until true love will find you in the end.” Johnston also sings, “But how can it recognize you / Unless you step out into the light, the light.” His lyrics remind us that life requires us to make improvements to be better versions of ourselves. Johnston’s DIY nature in these songs only further proves the genuity of his ideas.
Johnston was a cult icon for artists. Much like the effect of his art, this status is something that lurks in the background of our daily lives. Its effect is much more than a unique mural that seemingly slips past us. It becomes something we know in our hearts — it’s how we can so easily visualize his mural at the mere mention of it. In the wake of Johnston's death, it’s important to know what he stood for. Johnston suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. In 2018, Austin celebrated its first “Hi, How Are You Day” as a fundraiser for mental illness and to bring light to how it affects many people in their day-to-day lives. Similar to how his art sometimes goes unnoticed to us, so can the effects of mental illnesses.
All in all, Johnston mystified and inspired artists by not shying away from hard topics. His music has always belonged to outsiders and found its home there. Maybe Johnston wasn’t meant for pop radio, but he was meant to be a part of our lives. By inspiring other artists, his music will live on past his diverse discography. And, with it being so close to home, the “Hi, How Are You” mural will always be a familiar face reaching out to Austin’s residents. Austin values being different, which is why it was a perfect home for the man behind the frog on 21st.