David Lewis celebrates his friend Daniel Johnston

Joel Oliphint
David Lewis at Elizabeth's Records

In 1985, David Lewis was living in West Texas when he saw an episode of “The Cutting Edge” on MTV. The show focused on the music scene in Austin, where Lewis hoped to move. Several bands were featured, butone artist stole the show: Daniel Johnston. 

“He was just in a parking lot saying, ‘Here's my tape. These are my songs.’ Out of the whole thing, he seemed the most real,” said Lewis on a recent afternoon behind the counter of his Clintonville shop, Elizabeth’s Records.

Lewis made his way to Austin in 1986 and ended up meeting Johnston through a friend. The two hit it off. “There's actually an interview that I did with him for a fanzine that was eventually published. I listened to that [recently], and it's really cool because you can hear Daniel the way he was when I first met him, which was, you know, just a normal person," Lewis said. "But within the first year that I knew him, he had what they called ‘the freakout in the creek.’”

Johnston struggled with mental illness in the ensuing years, but his heartfelt, homespun music and iconic illustrations continued to resonate, and not just with fans of outsider art. Kurt Cobain famouslywore a T-shirt sporting Johnston’s Hi, How are You album artwork, and big-name artists covered his songs. Johnston’s art gained an even wider audience (and near-mythic status) with the 2005 documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston.”

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Lewis kept up with Johnston here and there through his manager (“We were always friends, to the degree that people are friends with Daniel,” he said), and Johnston’s music was an ever-present inspiration. “He confirmed my intuition that you could be a musician or an artist based on what you had in you,” Lewis said. “He made me realize that the songs I was writing about lost love and the deep-inside stuff — you can bring that into your songs without seeming like Morris Albert doing ‘Feelings.’”

In September, while manning the store, Lewis found out that Johnston had died, and he couldn’t hold back the tears. “There's nothing worse than crying in public and having people come in and wonder why this old dude is sad, you know? And I'm just sitting here bawling,” he said. Lewis wanted to do something to celebrate Johnston’s life and music, so when Dirty Dungarees booker and Elizabeth’s Records part-timer Jen Powers came into the shop, he asked her for help, and she andMatthew Rolin started putting a tribute show together.

On Friday, Nov. 22, at Dirty Dungarees, Lewis will host “My Friend Daniel,” a tribute to Daniel Johnston featuring performances from Brat Curse, Ron House, Kyle Sowash, Matthew Rolin, J.R. Fisher, Jay Harmon, Joe Camerlengo and others, including Lewis, who will also share stories and display some of Johnston’s flyer art. He’s encouraging show-goers to donate to Fresh A.I.R. Gallery, which hosts exhibitions by artists affected by mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders.

“Most people think of [Johnston] as having mental issues or depression or schizophrenia. It's always, ‘Daniel Johnson, schizophrenic,’ or whatever. I never ever thought of him that way,” Lewis said. “Great art would have come out of him regardless of whether he had a mental breakdown or not.”

At the show, Lewis plans to play excerpts of the interview he taped for that early fanzine feature, which includes an a capella version of a song Johnston titled, “He’s Got McDonald’s on the Brain.”

“I listened to that tape, and it's two guys that are 24, with all this ahead of us,” said Lewis, who wanted to personalize the tribute show as much as he could. “That's why it's called 'My Friend Daniel.' It's not putting light on me. It's just saying that he was a special person in my life, and he was more than the songs. He was a human. He was a person. He was a friend.”

Dirty Dungarees

7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 22

2586 N. High St., Old North


My Friend Daniel! Tribute to Daniel Johnston!