Daniel Johnston: Sorry Entertainer

Daniel Johnston should be a classic rock success story: poor, living in his mother’s basement and recording songs on a $59 Sayano Boom Box, he gets discovered and promoted by Kurt Cobain, featured on MTV, and acquires a cult following from hipsters and established musicians alike.

Twenty years later, however, Johnston is still poor, still recording on the boom box, and still-yes, living in the basement. Hence, The Late Great Daniel Johnston, Discovered and Covered, a two-disk set that serves as a best-of compilation and a heartfelt tribute album recorded by some of the most prominent names in indie-rock, including Tom Waits, Bright Eyes, and Mercury Rev. The album also functions as a fund-raising project, and the liner notes explain, “A portion of the proceeds from the sale and exploitation of this album will be donated to Daniel Johnston,” in hopes that Johnston will be able to live on his own with the help of a psychiatric nurse.

That’s another part of the story: Johnston, by medical standards, is severely mentally ill. Institutionalized in the early 90’s for attempting to push a man out of a window, he admits to obsessive thoughts and severe anxiety that has prevented him from being commercially successful. This project aims to change that. The two disks share the same track list yet the first disk, newly-produced “The Covers,” has a vastly different feel from “The Originals,” a selection of Johnston’s original recordings pulled from over 25 albums. On the first album, the songs share a similar level of production and have immaculate sound quality, while the second disk varies to the point of distraction. This lack of continuity on “The Originals,” is the only failing of the album, which is otherwise punch-drunk joyous and unselfconsciously emotional.

Standouts include “Don’t let the sun go down on your grievance” a wistfully optimistic list of instructions on how to find eternal happiness, kitschy yet genuine in a style that is uniquely Johnston. “Living life” shows similar positivity, featuring a raging piano rhythm that can’t quite control due to an overwhelming exuberance. Johnson’s slightly maniacal side is best shown with “Sorry Entertainer,” played on a toy guitar using the same three chords repeated over and over. Finally, in a literally autobiographical turn, Johnston plays “Story of an Artist,” poignant and demonstrative of the sadness that accompanies genius.

Aside from disappointing tracks The Rabbit, Clem Snide, and Vic Chesnut, all others live up to Johnston’s standards and in a few instances, exceed expectations. “Walking the Cow” done by T.V. on the Radio perfectly captures the silly feeling with immaculate production and tight instrumentation not found in the original. “True Love Will Find You in the End,” performed by Beck, is comfortably adapted by the artist and even sounds like a song off his latest album Sea Change. The great thing about “The Covers,” is the songs function as ideal introductions to each artist while proving the versatility of Johnston himself. If you haven’t heard of Mercury Rev or Starlight Mints, the songs “Blue Clouds” and “Dead Lovers Twisted Heart” respectively are superb examples of the particular talent of each band.

This album is worth buying instead of downloading due to an interesting set of liner notes where each artist explains why they picked the song they play and give a brief commentary on Johnston as an artist. For the best examples of Johnston’s lo-fi sentimentality, check out Yip/Jump Music (1989) which contains his most prominent songs including “Speeding Motorcycle,” covered elsewhere by Yo La Tengo and Mary Lou Lord, and “Casper, the Friendly Ghost,” which appeared on the Kids soundtrack (1995). With The Late and Great… Johnston is finally given the credit he deserves as the modern-day king of outsider music who has subvertly influenced a generation of awkward crooners who may still be living in the basement.