With the recent passing of Daniel Johnston I was reminded of what a big influence he was on my early songwriting. To commemorate this fact I’ve decided to post my album Rivington ‘94 and Tower Days to a variety of streaming platforms.
In the fall 1992 I went to visit a girlfriend in New York City who was living above a record store in Soho called Rocks In Your Head. She worked there part-time while attending school at FIT. Rocks had a mystical cave-like quality. Its smoothed down concrete steps lead down to a basement storefront with painted black walls and a ceiling you could almost touch. The shop was jam-packed with obscure vintage and independent records ranging from punk to dub, avant-garde noise to college rock, jazz, vintage rockabilly to a black hole of sounds that nearly evaded all categorization. It was an indie music lover’s oasis and exactly where a twenty-two-year-old me needed to be.
I remember a wall of CD shelves behind plexiglass just to the left of the register. On the top shelf, I noticed nearly an entire row dedicated to what appeared to be homemade cassette tapes. The labels were black and white and looked hand-drawn. I never saw anything homemade like that in a real record store. What’s that? I asked my girlfriend. That’s Daniel Johnston, she said. I can play you some later if you want. For whatever reason, it would be nearly a year before she did. We were in her new apartment on the Lower East Side. CD versions of Yip Jump Music and 1990 were on regular rotation. I had just moved to New York myself. I had snagged her old apartment on Rivington and Clinton. I grew intrigued by Daniel’s voice, as well as the lo-fi quality of his recordings. He was far from virtuosic. You could hear the background noise of the room he was recording in. He would occasionally leave in a false start or a wrong note. It was not uncommon to hear the creaking of the chair he was sitting in and the relentless smashing click of the tape recorder engaging and releasing the tape heads before and after each song felt like reality slapping you in the face. Daniel made it feel like anybody could make their own album. All you need is an acoustic guitar, a boom box, and some blank tapes. As long as you are true, it will be good.
I was moved by Daniel’s ability to be simultaneously tragic and sweet while addressing his feelings of loneliness and lost love. I soon found myself parting ways with the very girl that had introduced me to Daniel in the first place. My original connection to New York City was being severed like the safety tether on a rock climber. Somewhere in the shuffle, I got ahold of the album More Songs Of Pain. It felt like a new lifeline. I started looking for more lifelines.
After playing electric guitar in various indie/ noise-rock bands throughout college, I was finding it difficult to find my place in New York City. I managed to pick up a shift or two at Rocks In Your Head but my full-time job was working in the singles section at Tower Records for five dollars an hour. Not having a car and living on the top floor of a four-story walk-up building made it a nightmare to haul gear up and down the stairs to a pricy cab ride for gigs. I started experimenting with songwriting on my acoustic guitar. It was portable and I could practice in my apartment for free. I had just discovered the Antihoot open mic at the Sidewalk Cafe, just about eight blocks from my apartment. I had nothing to lose. But luckily I had my jumbo folk Lotus acoustic guitar, my Radio Shack cassette boombox (with a built-in microphone) and a stack of TDK high bias blank tapes. Inspired by countless nights hanging out in the back room at the Sidewalk, mixed with my late-night shifts amongst the well-lit neon displays for pop artists like Ini Komoze and C&C Music Factory in the basement of Tower Records, I would retreat to my mouse infested, Lower East Side apartment and channel my best Daniel Johnston.