In October 2017, Brian Beattie, an excitable Austin music producer who has worked with Bill Callahan, Okkervil River, and the Dead Milkmen, set off in his beige 2005 Toyota Sienna minivan, dubbed the Golden Rocket, on a mission to break an old pal free from the shackles of creative oppression.
Beattie was traveling to Waller, about a two-hour drive east, en route to the home of Daniel Johnston, the iconic outsider musician and visual artist synonymous with the phrase “Hi, how are you,” which stems from his 1983 album of the same name featuring the “alien frog” creature that he drew for the cover art. Johnston’s trajectory from DIY darling championed by Kurt Cobain to major-label failure with debilitating schizophrenia and bipolar disorder was chronicled in Jeff Feuerzeig’s award-winning 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Beattie was working on Johnston’s first album in nearly ten years, an effort Beattie was sure would resurrect Johnston’s career, yet an effort at odds with Johnston’s guardians.
Beattie had ten Johnston songs that he felt made a cohesive album. For a finishing touch, he intended to graft a theatrical interlude — a sort of running skit — onto side two of the record. He saw it as a nod to Johnston’s early days, in the ’80s, when the albums Johnston recorded on cassette tapes in his Austin apartment amounted to glorified experiments.
Many of those records, like Yip/Jump Music and Retired Boxer, had quirky voice-overs and prerecorded sounds, with Johnston gleefully pounding away on a chord organ. In the beginning, Johnston would make individual copies of his albums by recording on a boom box and performing them in their entirety again and again, tape after tape. Beattie hoped he could talk Johnston into reciting dialogue for a character Beattie had created in Johnston’s own likeness and conjure that old magic.
The new album is titled If, as in “If I had my own way,” the first line from the first song on Johnston’s first album, Songs of Pain, from 1981. The full-circle poignancy seemed apparent to the then 56-year-old Johnston. In addition to mental-health issues, he had in recent years contracted hydrocephalus, or excessive fluid on the brain. This causes headaches, loss of coordination, incontinence — even brain damage — and has necessitated surgery. “He’s in an uncertain state, really, right now,” his older brother and manager, Dick Johnston, told me around the time of Beattie’s trip to Waller.
If was culled from original and cover songs recorded during several wide-ranging sessions that Beattie conducted between 1995 and 2003. These began when Beattie was commissioned to record Johnston performing the song “Casper” for Larry Clark’s 1995 movie Kids. The sessions continued when, in 1996, Atlantic Records dropped Johnston after his 1994 debut album, Fun, tanked.
Johnston was living at his parents’ house, and musically adrift, he routinely sought Beattie to record him performing in their garage. Beattie would pack his recording equipment into the Golden Rocket and make same-day trips for sessions that would, if Beattie was lucky, last an hour. Beattie wasn’t compensated upfront, but from these sessions he produced the Johnston albums Rejected Unknown (2001) and Lost and Found (2006), for which he was paid roughly $6,000 and $4,000.
Johnston and Beattie go back to the ’80s, when Beattie was the bassist for Glass Eye, a four-piece whose members, minus Beattie, were players in the Madonna pap-smear scene from Richard Linklater’s 1991 film Slacker. Glass Eye was part of a collection of Austin alternative-rock bands known as the New Sincerity movement, including the Reivers, True Believers, and Wild Seeds. Johnston distributed his tapes to members in the scene, including Glass Eye front woman Kathy McCarty.
Beattie said McCarty told him, “I don’t know if this is the most brilliant thing or the stupidest thing ever.” Beattie has come to see this as an appropriate assessment of a grown man unabashedly baring his loveless, tortured soul with the fervor of a child.
When Beattie and McCarty visited Johnston’s apartment for the first time, Johnston opened a medical journal and flipped to a chapter about manic depression. He said he’d been diagnosed and that if they wanted to hang with him then they needed to know. In 1985, Glass Eye gave Johnston his first ever gig as their opener at Beach Cabaret, a defunct New Sincerity club.
In the summer of 2017, Beattie finally gave in to Johnston’s pleas to transfer the recordings from those old sessions into a workable editing format in order to make If. Johnston regards If as the third installment of a trilogy with Beattie. The record shows Johnston’s skills as an interpreter of catchy pop music. There are plenty of his signature ditties, like “She’s a Clown,” about a guy under a girl’s thumb, with Johnston on acoustic guitar, and “Without Love,” about how it’s a bummer to be alone, with Johnston on piano. On “Favorite Valentine,” a woozy, churning number, Johnston even plays drums.
If also serves as a document of Johnston’s evolution as a troubled artist. Take the seven-minute cover of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” recorded a couple of days before Thanksgiving in 1996. The singular performance sounds like a nervous breakdown. Johnston had invited Dale Dudgeon, his childhood friend, and Paul Leary of the Austin rock band Butthole Surfers, who produced Fun, to participate in the session. Beattie, who brought drummer Dave Jungen, said Johnston was an emotional wreck at the time and desperately wanted this reunion. A few days later, he was hospitalized.
The bit Beattie wanted Johnston to record would dose If with a measure of primitivism inherent in the sound that first popularized Johnston. “Anytime his music sounds absolutely refined, it’s not quite right,” Beattie said. “Something has to be broken about it for it to make sense.”
The exercise might be all for naught. If might never be released. There is major disconnect between Beattie and Johnston’s management team. This includes Dick, who inherited the duty from their dad, Bill, and Tom Gimbel, who moonlights as Johnston’s co-manager while employed as general manager of Austin City Limits TV.
“Brian’s a great guy and I’m really thrilled that he’s enthusiastic about all of this,” Dick said of If, “but I’m concerned that in its current state it doesn’t have enough robust material.”
Johnston lives alone in a ranch house that his dad built for him in the mid-aughts. He is occasionally visited by his siblings and a caretaker who uses the house next door, once occupied by Johnston’s now-deceased parents, as a base. When Beattie arrived, Johnston’s sister Marjory answered the door.
“Hey, I’m Brian. Did you know I was coming today? Did Dick tell you?”
“No,” Marjory said.
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Brian!” Johnston yelled in the background.
“This isn’t good because I have to leave in 20 minutes,” Marjory said.
“Well, Dick set it up,” Beattie replied. “I’m supposed to do some recording. Am I not going to be able to do that?”
“If Dick comes over here,” she countered, “but we’re not supposed to leave people with Dan without a family member here.”
“Okay, that’s fine. I can try to do it quickly.”
“Twenty minutes? No, no, we need to call Dick. Come on in.”
Beattie walked into the kitchen, where Johnston sat in a wheelchair at a table with a picture tube TV and a mound of candy atop it. He wore sweatpants and a stained T-shirt. There was a wax-figure glow to his face and one arm shook uncontrollably as the other chain-smoked cigarettes.
Watching over him from perches created by removing the doors of the upper kitchen cabinets were dozens of Johnston’s superhero and comic-book figurines — the sources of inspiration for the drawings that earned him a spot in the 2006 Whitney Biennial. On a dry-erase board was written a John Lennon lyric: “Well we all shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun.”
Beattie plugged a boom box into the island and began playing songs from If. He skipped over the first couple, looking for one he had recently remixed. He stopped at “Hot Dog Shop.”
“The last time I was here,” Beattie reminded Johnston, “you said, ‘I want you to make every song sound like a hit song.’”
“Yeah,” Johnston replied.
That had inspired Beattie to do some tweaking. As he played the new version, jaunty with saxophone flourishes, he remarked that he had aped the melody from Johnston’s classic song “Walking the Cow.” “Yeah,” Johnston concurred. That was Johnston’s standard response: “Yeah.” It made it seem like he was just along for the ride, but a trigger went off once Beattie played “Down on the Farm.”
“Maybe that song could be eliminated,” Johnston offered. “It’s not really a favorite of mine. Pick another one.”
“You got it,” Beattie said. “There are plenty.”
The last song was “You’ve Got a Friend.” Johnston’s original version was ten minutes, but Beattie ran out of tape two-thirds of the way through and lost out in the time it took to insert a second tape. Beattie was left with two fragments that he stitched together. The song was playing when Marjory returned to declare that it was fine for Beattie to linger after she left.
“Daniel can’t have any alcohol or drugs,” she instructed Beattie. “And he can’t give you any of his art.” Pause. “Daniel does Carole King — I like it!”
Marjory reminded her brother about his pills. Johnston hopped up from his wheelchair, as if it were a prop, and retrieved a jug of pink juice from the freezer. He filled a plastic highball and washed down his medicine.
Johnston has all but disappeared since the Fun album, and that is largely because of his management. Bill and Dick have done a commendable job, but it’s taxing work managing both Johnston’s creative sparks and his volcanic health. “I love Daniel — we get along just fine — but I wonder sometimes what else I would be doing if I didn’t have all of this on my plate,” Dick said.
In the ’80s, Johnston released ten albums. These came out on Stress Records, a label started by Jeff Tartakov, Johnston’s previous co-manager. Tartakov, who worked in concert with the Johnstons, struck Johnston’s first major-label deal with Elektra, but Johnston rejected the offer because he thought Metallica, also on Elektra, was in cahoots with the Devil. Johnston reasoned that Tartakov was in on it, too, and impetuously fired him.
Around that time, Johnston walked into Amazing Records in Austin, to drop off a tape. After he left, Tom Gimbel, a 20-something who worked there, caught up with him outside. Gimbel gave Johnston his business card and two weeks later Johnston called Gimbel and asked him to be his manager. Gimbel said he tried to get Johnston to reconcile with Tartakov. He also told Johnston that he was not an experienced manager. That didn’t matter.
Gimbel has been at the helm, alongside Dick, since Fun. In those 25 years, Johnston has released only four original albums. Poor health is a contributing factor, but still, according to Dick, there are 1,500 tapes in Johnston’s archive, suggesting a trove of undiscovered material, and Beattie said Johnston is always making new music.
Of these four albums, two were by produced by Beattie. A third, Fear Yourself (2003), was produced by Mark Linkous of the band Sparklehorse almost as a spontaneous reaction to Linkous and Johnston realizing that they were related, according to Beattie. (Linkous died in 2010.)
These endeavors were self-sustaining, but the fourth album, Is and Always Was (2009), produced by Beck collaborator Jason Falkner, was a pet project of Gimbel’s. This was a concerted effort by management to streamline Johnston’s music. On the record’s Wikipedia page, it says, “The album is noted for its upbeat sound in comparison to previous albums.”
That sensibility runs counter to Beattie’s artistic vision for Johnston, where sonic warts and hiccups are glorified. These differences of opinion have created tension between Beattie and Gimbel, and are at the root of If.
“Brian’s kind of acting unilaterally here,” Gimbel said, “taking songs that were recorded during the Rejected Unknown and Lost and Found sessions, but weren’t deemed ready for release at that time, or maybe they weren’t considered to be the strongest, so they didn’t make those particular final track listings.”
Because Johnston is powerless to advance his agenda, Beattie serves as his advocate, and Gimbel’s ambivalence about If hasn’t deterred him. In fact, Beattie thinks Johnston is primed for a resurgence. The key to that, in Beattie’s mind, is releasing If on a traditional label, with proper marketing and promotion. With the right care, he thinks Johnston could be a star again.
But Dick prefers releasing Johnston’s music exclusively on his own label, Eternal Yip Eye. Back when Beattie was working on Rejected Unknown and Lost and Found, there was a unified interest in using an outside label. But Gammon, the New York label for those two albums, went out of business around the time of the latter release, and both efforts fared poorly. Still, Dick, ever conflicted over his duties, took the unusual step of allowing Beattie to shop If around to labels.
“All of Daniel’s other albums are now under his own label,” Dick said, “and we do our own distribution and promotion and stuff, so it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.” Pause. “It might make sense to give it to a label and just accept an advance. That’s why I said go ahead and talk to them.”
Some major indie labels have expressed interest, but when Beattie enlists Dick to make a deal, momentum stalls. Even though Beattie shares the copyright to If with Johnston, he wants a happy ending for everyone. Were Beattie to concede to release If on Eternal Yip Eye, this would probably be a done deal. But Beattie sees that as a Gammon redux — an album released DOA.
“I refuse to let that be the destiny of this record,” Beattie said, “or at least I refuse to stand by helplessly while that becomes the destiny of this record.”
With Marjory gone, Beattie began pitching Johnston on the theatrical interlude. Johnston appeared to pay attention, but at some point he interrupted Beattie.
“Yeah, that CD that you brought was just great the other day,” Johnston told Beattie. “I listened to it and we loved it. Everybody loved it.”
Johnston was referring to a copy of If. Delighted, Beattie clarified that the songs on that CD were merely older versions of what he had just played for Johnston.
“I really do enjoy the music,” Johnston continued. “It’s really good. It’s some of the best stuff you and I have done.”
Johnston eventually agreed to the dialogue. As Beattie set up his recording operation, Johnston’s medication infiltrated his body. He repeatedly nodded off and jolted himself upright. He rubbed his eyes and slugged more juice. He soldiered on through the episode despite sounding like he had four plums stuffed in his mouth.
“With our album coming out,” Johnston later said, “I think we could be a hit.”
Johnston reminisced about the two previous albums he and Beattie had done.
“Everything was all right back then,” Johnston said. “There wasn’t any trouble. And we were carefree, and there was nothing that mattered. Nowadays, everything’s a nightmare.”
“I know what you’re talking about,” Beattie said.
“You get that feeling?” Johnston continued.
“Yes,” Beattie responded, “it’s true.”
“Everybody needs a Sugar Daddy, I think,” Johnston joked. He meant the candy, a piece of which he picked up from the table.
Beattie had been there an hour. Johnston was worried about having an unsupervised guest for too long. It was time to leave. As Beattie gathered his belongings, Johnston peeled the wrapper off of the Sugar Daddy and considered where in the house he might have left the cover art he had created for If.
In the year-and-a-half since Beattie’s trip to Waller, little progress has been made with If. At SXSW 2018, Beattie set up on South Congress Avenue, in Austin, and played songs from the album to passersby as a way to drum up excitement. An employee of a taste-making Nashville label with a penchant for pressing records showed interest in the rights to the vinyl issue of If.
Beattie said he was willing to release If on Eternal Yip Eye if he could have this one concession. But that negotiation was met unfavorably by Johnston’s management. I emailed Gimbel, whom Dick defers to on business matters, about the album’s status. He offered an off-the-record response that was not positive.
Beattie, who claims he has enough material for another album or two, remains in contact with Johnston. He says Johnston frequently asks him why If hasn’t been released. Beattie doesn’t have an answer.
There’s a chance If will fade away. Perhaps that’s not the worst. A “lost” album has its benefits. It creates mystique and makes for future discovery. Still, it would be a shame to not capitalize on Johnstons mounting Renaissance.
A 2017 tour was met with considerable fanfare. In each city Johnston played, he was backed by a different act, including Jeff Tweedy, the Preservation Hall All-Stars, and members of Fugazi. Also, last June, an Apple spot featuring Johnston’s 1982 song “The Story of an Artist” topped Billboard & Clio’s Top TV Commercials chart, earning Johnston his first-ever No. 1 on any Billboard chart.
This past January, the second annual Hi, How Are You Day took place. This Austin affair raises awareness about mental health and included live performances by the Flaming Lips, Yo La Tengo, and Doug Martsch of Built to Spill. People were hoping for Johnston to appear, but he was apparently in the hospital again.