Richard Linklater’s Memories of Daniel Johnston
Editor’s Note: After we posted this original article on September 11, 2019 to celebrate the legacy of Daniel Johnston, Richard Linklater was inspired to share his memories in this thoughtful tribute.
Such sad news about Daniel Johnston’s passing. I’ll always remember Daniel as the creative supernova taking Austin by storm in that crazy summer of ’85. The day I met him is actually on film, in Lee Daniel and my short film Woodshock. Always attracted to a camera, he started following us around at that music festival, badgering us to be filmed. He was handing out tapes of “Hi How Are You?” so that’s what ended up being in the movie. I remember listening to the tape late that same night in the car heading back to Austin. Holy crap—I think everyone of that era can remember when they first heard Daniel and the connection that took place, the amazing discovery they’d just made.
Daniel had an instinct for spotting a future Daniel Johnston fan before they even knew who he was. Cool, sensitive, seeking… they were everywhere in Austin. After some college, some moving around and a carney tour, he knew he’d landed in the right place at just the right time. Because it meant so much to him what you thought of his music, you felt obliged to go find him and tell him how much you liked it. He was easy to find, working at the McDonalds on the drag where, if he thought you seemed interesting, you just might find a “Yip/Jump Music” or a “Retired Boxer” tape along with your fries. So open, honest, funny, and vulnerable, you wanted to offer support in any way you could, and he’d treat everyone who seemed to connect with his music like they were the most important fan in the world to him. There was a hustle to it, but there was also a purity to it—he wasn’t some politician running for office, he was an artist seeking connection, both artistically and personally, and he was finding it everywhere, becoming a full-blown local phenomenon. You’d walk by a car where some people were hanging out and you’d realize they were listening to a Daniel tape. He’d easily finagle his way into shows and onto bills, most famously when MTV came to town later that summer and he went from being not a part of the scheduled lineup to stealing the show. It was amazing to witness.
At that time, he lived in a little apartment practically on campus, near the PCL. It was all music and artwork. There was always a tape in the dubbing process, and I’ll go on the record remembering an actual “master cassette” he was dubbing from. There have been rumors over the years that it was just an ever-degrading dub-from-a-dub process, but no, he wanted it to be the best it could be within his means (he did use the cheapest, 3-for-a-dollar cassettes though). He was always out and about and would regularly drop by where I was living, the “Finger-Hut/film house/Janis Joplin house” (it was called a bunch of different things) on Nueces right behind and sharing a parking lot with Inner Sanctum records and the infamous Mad Dog and Beans hamburger joint. He had worked it out where they would give him a half of a Blue Bell milkshake every day when he came by, but it was really like 3/4 of one for half the price. What would become the Austin Film Society was in its earliest stages at our house, and Daniel liked the idea of film, coming to screenings both in our living room and at the Dobie Theater where we’d show films on the weekends (though nothing we ever showed could compete with King Kong in his book). He would make and leave all kinds of drawings that might end up on a wall or above the editing bench. I remember him asking me how I was able to “live so well,” which must have meant how does one, even with a mattress on the floor and no kitchen sink, happen to have both a junky car AND a working telephone, which he certainly liked to use whenever he was over. He thought he should maybe have a camera on him all the time, and I honestly can’t say if it’s a good or bad thing we all missed the Daniel Johnston reality show by a generation. I did work up a scene with him in the Super 8 feature I was making during this time, and he most definitely would have been in Slacker but wasn’t really around that summer in ’89.
I remember early on walking into a house party with him where we knew only a few people who were going to be there. He completely switched from a guy who could have an intimate conversation into a much more extroverted personality, introducing himself to everyone with a big mischievous grin and an “I’m Daniel Johnston and I’m famous!” “For what?” someone would ask. By the end of the party he was pretty famous—I remember two young ladies walking out kinda chanting “I’m Daniel Johnston and I’m famous.” Somewhere along the way he informed me that God told him he couldn’t get into heaven unless he was famous. Where was this all going to end, I wondered? Well, it didn’t really end, and I don’t think, even with him now gone, it ever will. He’ll probably become an even bigger mythological character, but my hope is that it’ll be for his music and art and not his mental health struggles. We’ve lost a creative genius, one of the great songwriters, and there will never be another like him. I feel blessed that, through sheer timing and location, I can always remember the young Daniel that was a really sweet, friendly guy… a total romantic. We’ll always have the music, and while I was writing this I was listening to his 2001 album, “Rejected Unknown” and Kathy McCarty’s incredible album of his songs, the mesmerizing “Dead Dog’s Eyeball.” So, listen away and forever remember this unique artist that shared everything he had to share.
We are very saddened to hear the news of Daniel Johnston’s passing today. To celebrate his legacy, we wanted to share AFS Founder and Artistic Director Richard Linklater’s first short film from 1985, WOODSHOCK. Before it became “The Live Music Capital of the World,” Austin, Texas was home to an alternative music festival known as Woodshock, the first taking place in 1981. The 1985 Festival included performances by local (and otherwise) musicians Daniel Johnston, Texas Instruments, Dharma Bums, the U-Men, Glass Eye, Cargo Cult (fronted by Biscuit of Big Boys), The Reivers, Poison 13, and the festival’s unofficial mascot, The Hickoids. (–Dangerous Minds). Below is the full video of Linklater’s WOODSHOCK featuring a young Daniel Johnston.