Having already worked with American singer/songwriter and artist Daniel Johnston on a collection in 2012, Supreme’s new partnership with the oft-misunderstood personality may be the first time that younger, fashion-obsessed individuals have heard his name – despite his unbelievable career which spans decades. For our latest #HSTBT, we add further color to the already neon existence of Daniel Johnston.
People often want to connect the dots. “This happens, because this happened,” and so forth. It gives people comfort knowing that cause and effect can be used to explain most of life’s mysteries. In the case of lo-fi crooner and enigmatic visual artist, Daniel Johnston, those who know him best say it would take multiple semesters enrolled in a college-level course in order to begin to draw the many parallels between Johnston’s various mediums. While the creation of art at its very core relies on diving below the surface level, Johnston’s brilliance is also intertwined with mental illness and bipolar disorder. As The New York Times noted in a 2006 profile about Johnston, “Hospitals are familiar places for [him]: the Austin State Hospital in Texas, several times; the Weston State Hospital in West Virginia, for long stretches; even Bellevue, where he ended up in 1988 not long after his arrest for scrawling Jesus fish inside the base of the Statue of Liberty.” For a lot of young people, Johnston’s name has also come to be known for exclusivity thanks to his collaborations with Supreme which dates back to 2012 and was rekindled again recently with another partnership. While Supreme is no stranger to working with people from all walks of life – including Rammellzee, Martha Cooper, Peter Saville, Roy Lichtenstein, R. Crumb, Damien Hirst and more – the brand is always tight-lipped as to why they work with who they do. Call it a “take it, or leave it” ethos.
If you could call anyone an expert on the life of Daniel Johnston, it would be documentary filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig whose 2005 film, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, is a body of work that captures Johnston’s creative genius but never strays away from his inner demons. “The wolves are at the door, boy,” Johnston said in the same The New York Times profile when asked about his burgeoning career as an illustrator. Perhaps it’s that “me against the beast” mentality which makes Johnston and Supreme a perfect match.
“When I was 19, I wanted to be The Beatles. I was disappointed when I found out I couldn’t sing,” Johnston says in his official bio about himself. Born in 1961 in Sacramento, California – the youngest of five children in a Christian fundamentalist household – his earliest refuge was underneath the sweet, audio caress of artists like John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Bob Dylan, David Bromberg, Queen, Neil Young, and the Sex Pistols. Around that time, Johnston self-diagnosed himself with a mental condition. Doctors agreed; Johnston was bipolar and would probably spend his entire life needing the help of others. As Pitchfork noted of that period, “He draws pictures, reads comics, plays the piano, listens to records, makes Super-8 films with his brother. In fact, he won’t do anything else– won’t do his chores, won’t get a job, always only the art.”
When Jeff Feuerzeig recalls this period for Daniel, his vocal rhythms increase and he looks to punctuate every detail so that nothing is misinterpreted. “He’s a hero. This is a guy who ran away from home on a moped and joined a carnival – and worked as a carnie,” Feuerzeig says. “He takes these stories and makes them mythical. He’s a living myth. Bob Dylan lied about all of that. Daniel really did all of this. Like how many people do you know who ran away from home and joined the carnival and got punched out by the strong man, and then [got] saved by the Church of Christ, and then didn’t know how to play guitar, and becomes the best songwriter/folk artist in Austin and scams his way onto MTV? How many people have ever done any of that?! The guy’s unbelievable.”
The notion of being a “living myth” almost evaporated for Johnston like chemtrails in the sky in 1990. While South by Southwest has become one of the biggest music and arts festival in the world, at the time, it was only three years since it had been founded and only averaged about a thousand people in attendance. “Daniel’s dad was a World War II fighter pilot,” Feuerzeig says. “He flew his tiny little plane to Austin, Texas from Virginia for an early, early South by Southwest music festival. This was Daniel’s triumphant return after having been in the mental hospital. So he flies in, and he headlines South by Southwest, and as you see in the movie, he totally kills. Daniel Johnston literally slays Austin – him and his acoustic guitar. They get back on the plane, and my [initial] theory was that he crashed the plane like Buddy Holly – like he was going to go out in glory. That was my theory but I was totally wrong. That’s not what happened. As you see [in the film], Daniel was on a manic high that night. He had gone off his meds despite his mental illness. And he entered into a psychotic state which is very, very scary. And he believe he was Casper the Friendly Ghost. He remembered this Casper the Friendly Ghost comic book where Casper is parachuting on the cover, and that’s what he wanted to do. He wanted to parachute out of a plane, so he pulled the keys out of the ignition and the plane went into a spiral, and his Dad did everything he could do, but it crash landed into a tree. His dad somehow did a great crash landing and they lived.”
Following the incident, Johnston spent the rest of that year in a mental hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Over the course of his career, Johnston has released and re-released 30 music projects – all of which have his own original artwork emblazoned on the cover. One specific cover, for his 1983 album, Hi, How Are You? (which also serves as the URL for his official website) propelled him to even greater notoriety thanks to Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain. The image itself is a recurring work in Johnston’s arsenal called “Jeremiah the Frog of Innocence” which is emblazoned on a wall on the corner of 21st and Guadalupe in Austin, Texas and remains one of the biggest tourist attractions the city has to offer.
“Cobain absolutely turned the whole generation onto Daniel because he absolutely loved Daniel and his work and art,” Feuerzeig says of the performance that brought Johnston’s art to a while new level. On the day of the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. Nirvana was scheduled to perform thanks to the success of their 1991 album, Nevermind, which unseeded Michael Jackson from the top of the Billboard charts and which was selling at a rate of 300,000 copies a week. The performance itself – both before, during and after – is why many believe Nirvana to be the last, great rock band. Producers for the show wanted the band to play either “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “Lithium.” Nirvana preferred to play newer songs like “Rape Me,” or “tourette’s.” Ultimately, an agreement was reached – with the band willing to play one of their “hits.”
In true rock star fashion, the band played the first few chords of “Rape Me” before settling into “Lithium.” Following the performance, bassist Krist Noveselic flung his instrument in the air and nearly killed himself when it landed on his forehead, Cobain assaulted the amps, and drummer, Dave Grohl took the microphone to taunt Guns N’ Roses frontman, Axl Rose, who had challenged Cobain to a fight backstage. At the center of it all was “Jeremiah the Frog of Innocence” on Kurt Cobain’s chest.
“That was one of the biggest moments that turned on millions of people around the world. Cobain had great taste, and he went out of his way to wear that shirt,” Feuerzeig recalls. “It was his way of promoting someone he loved and adored, and it worked.”
“People are literally starving for this raw, pure art and expression which does not exist in the mass, popular culture. So when we’re deprived of that, Daniel Johnston is like pure oxygen if you’re being bombarded with the Kanye West’s and Jay Z’s and the emptiness of what that all is.”
When Johnston was asked to recall Cobain’s tribute, he said, “Yeah, he was more than once photographed, too. Not just on the show. It was pretty wild, man. He was top-star that year, ya know. On the MTV awards show, he wore it, which was pretty cool.” As Feuerzeig remembers the moment, “Daniel was in the mental hospital [in Austin] when the MTV Video Music Awards show aired. At that point and time in the mental hospital, he heard about it and I think he didn’t even know who Nirvana was at that moment. He learned after.”
In his second collection with Supreme, Johnston’s imagery is drawn from a similar place where creativity, subversiveness and humor all intersect. [His mental illness] had a lot of bearings on his work,” Feuerzeig says. He would turn his pain and suffering into music and art. He did the exact same thing with his drawings. So all of those drawings have stories in them.”
As Feuerzeig thumbed through the images, he couldn’t help but laugh at the picture of the ducks. “Those ducks – which are fantastic – came out of a drawing called, ‘Polka Dot Underwear Man.’ And above Polka Dot Underwear Man’s head are these ducks flying South for the winter. But what they really are – that’s Daniel ‘choking his chicken.’ He would sneak that drawing into his art because he couldn’t draw the masturbation ‘choking the chicken’ and sex into his drawings so he camouflaged it so his dad wouldn’t destroy the art. So to see those ducks now on the Supreme sweatshirts and hoodies and gas station jacket, that gave me a real smile.”
While fans of Supreme will seemingly buy anything the brand puts out, the work with Daniel Johnston further solidifies the idea that with all they hype they have, they’re willing to use that spotlight to create awareness for people who may view someone like Kanye West as this generation’s “artistic genius”; just don’t consider Jeff Feuerzeig to be one of those people. “Someone like Kanye West… no one is going to be talking about them in 10 or 20 years,” he says. “No one is going to be listening to those records. It’s not going to happen. But Daniel Johnston is going to continue. He lives to make art. That’s why I’m assuming Supreme is putting out a second series of his work. He’s the real deal and the world is starved for that. We don’t get that anymore. That’s not who they market. Look at Daniel now; he’s obese, diabetic. He looks like he could die any day now. Is that what our pop stars are supposed to look like? It’s so cool that Supreme is going to subvert the fashion world and point an arrow in a different direction.”