Fortunately Daniel Johnston is not dead. Though the title of a new tribute record to the cult favorite singer-songwriter is Discovered, Covered: The Late Great Daniel Johnston, it's more a tip to another Texas-based singer-songwriter, Townes Van Zandt, who released his own Late, Great record three decades before passing.
The iconoclastic Johnston has long been a favorite on the alternative rock scene. His homemade cassettes established Johnston with cult legend status in the Eighties. His colorful artwork also drew fans, most notably Kurt Cobain, who would don a T-shirt featuring the "Hi, How Are You?" frog that Johnston designed twenty years ago. So it's no great surprise that Covered, Uncovered boasts an all-star alt-rock lineup including Beck, Tom Waits, Clem Snide, the Violent Femmes Gordon Gano and Bright Eyes. The album will be released on August 24th by Gammon Records as a two-CD set, one a collection of covers, the other featuring Johnston's original versions of the songs.
"When [Gammon] first talked about doing this album, they were naming big names," Johnston told Rolling Stone, "and they asked who I'd like on the album. I was like, 'Um, how about Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney . . .' I was just going crazy. But it's real flattering that these people want to record my songs."
Covered, Uncovered also includes a handful of collaborations. Teenage Fanclub and Half Japanese's Jad Fair team up on "My Life Is Starting Over Again." "There was a real freshness to the first tapes that I received from him," said Fair, who has recorded in the past with Johnston. "I've always had such admiration for Daniel's work. I think he's just a genius."
"Devil Song" pairs Bright Eyes with Yeah Yeah Yeah's guitarist Nick Zinner. And Sparklehorse mainman Mark Linkous, who produced Johnston's 2003 album Fear Yourself, was joined by the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne for "Go." "I just love that song," Linkous says. "I worked on it for a while, and then I got Wayne to sing the second verse. I kept Daniel's arrangement, but it's basically just strings and a drum machine. It's one of the few songs where Daniel recorded playing just guitar. And of course, it's got his bizarre tuning and his bizarre timing."
A previous Johnston tribute was planned in the Nineties by several of his friends and musical acquaintances from Austin, but financing fell through. "It was all my favorite bands from back then," he said. "We just didn't have the money to do it. But this is the real legit thing."
There is no word yet about a follow-up to Fear Yourself, but the prolific Johnston said he has plenty of songs for a new album, and he's hoping to work again with Linkous.
Covered, Uncovered: The Late Great Daniel Johnston track list:
"My Life Is Starting Over Again," Teenage Fanclub with Jad Fair
"Impossible Love," Gordon Gano
"Blue Clouds," Mercury Rev
"Story of an Artist," M. Ward
"Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievance," Clem Snide
"The Sun Shines Down on Me," Guster
"Go," Sparklehorse with the Flaming Lips
"King Kong," Tom Waits
"Sorry Entertainer," Calvin Johnson
"True Love Will Find You in the End," Beck
"Devil Town," Bright Eyes with Nick Zinner
"Good Morning You," the Rabbit
"Like a Monkey in a Zoo," Vic Chesnutt
"Love Not Dead," Thistle
"Dead Lovers Twisted Heart," Starlight Mints
"Living Life," the Eels
"Walking the Cow," TV on the Radio
"Dream Scream," Death Cab for Cutie