Daniel Johnston, the outsider folk artist who became foundational (and totemic) in the music scene of his adopted home of Austin, Texas in the '80s and early '90s, turns 57 years old today. Austin and its "weird" scene was an incubator for Johnston and in turn he served as a heart for the city's own sleeve. To mark his contributions, the city has declared Jan. 22 "Hi, How Are You?" Day, a name taken from his 1983 album and a mural, featuring the frog-like character Jeremiah the Innocent, that Johnston painted on the corner of 21st St. and Guadalupe in the city.
More than simply marking Austin and Johnston's symbiosis, "Hi, How Are You?" Day is also piggybacking on his well-documented struggles with mental illness. The marking on Jan. 22 was suggested by Courtney Blanton and Tom Gimbel, co-founders of the Hi, How Are You? Foundation in partnership with the SIMS Foundation, a non-profit that provides mental health support to artists in the city.
"'Hi, How Are You?' is more than one of Austin's most iconic murals," Austin Mayor Steve Adler says in a statement provided to NPR Music. "It's a reminder to reach out to our friends and neighbors to see if they're OK, and for those experiencing mental health issues it's a reminder that you've got a whole community that can handle an honest answer because we want to help you get the help you need."
"Simply asking 'Hi, how are you?' can make a significant difference in someone's life," says one contributor to a video introducing the project.
Johnston's music career was and remains an unlikely one — defined and propelled by the rough hew of his recordings and their diary-entry confessionals, sung-spoken in his beseeching high-register. His home-recorded cassettes, passed around Austin, seemed to arrive at the perfect time; a moment when gloss and excess were being replaced by agitation and earnestness in the mainstream, when "weirdos" were claiming the spotlight on behalf of a disaffected — as it was characterized — generation.
Considering his persistent struggles — including one incident in which he threw, mid-flight, the keys out of an airplane his father was piloting — Johnston has been relatively lucky, all things — and crushing bouts of depression — considered. A major label recording deal, as NPR Music recently reported, failed to last but still provides financially for him. Other "outsider" artists, like Wesley Willis or Freak Smith and myriad others, fared worse — or much worse.
Supporting those struggling with mental illness can be fraught within the health system of the U.S. — but help can, sometimes, be as simple as a four-word question.