Born in Sacramento, Johnston grew up in West Virginia in a Christian fundamentalist household, a setting that informed the eschatological imagery in his work. In the early 1980s, he relocated to Austin, where he recorded his punk-folk lullabies on homemade cassette tapes that he—and others on his behalf—distributed via local record stores. He helped make Austin weird: The city boasts a famous mural of a mutant bullfrog drawn by Johnston for the cover of Hi, How Are You?, an unfinished 1983 cassette. When a Baja Fresh moved into the building and management threatened to tear the mural down in 2004, alarmed locals rose up to save it.
When punk broke into the mainstream in the 1990s, Johnston, as with other artists of the grunge era, saw his boat lifted by the rising tide. Two of his songs, both of which first appeared on cassette, were included on the soundtrack to Larry Clark’s 1995 film, Kids. Like the movie itself, the selection of Johnston’s music was controversial. Both picks are tributes to Casper the Friendly Ghost, a figure who occupies a dark place in the artist’s personal cosmology: A few years earlier, while flying in a two-seater plane with his father, Johnston had a mental-health episode and, believing himself to be Casper, took the keys from the ignition and threw them out of the plane. As a 2005 documentary recounts, both Johnstons survived the crash; a photograph taken immediately afterward shows the father and son in front of a church billboard that reads, “God promises a safe landing, but not a calm voyage.”
Taken as a whole, Johnston’s career shows how neuroatypical artists usually remain on the margins of the music industry, even when the scene reveres them. When Mary Lou Lord, Beck, and other alt-rockers rerecorded his songs, their versions reached far wider audiences. Despite his brush with broader appeal, Johnston never achieved commercial success. Half his recorded catalog was committed to cassette, and the other albums were published by a string of small labels. Johnston reached his artistic zenith in the 2000s, with a tribute album featuring covers by Vic Chesnutt, Tom Waits, Death Cab for Cutie, and others.
But by the time his drawings made it into the 2006 biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Johnston himself had mostly dropped off the map. Atlantic Records, the only major label to represent him, had let him go in 1996 after his debut album, Fun, proved to be a flop. He intermittently produced other recordings until 2012; while he endured hospitalizations all his life, in more recent years, they became frequent. A producer from Austin, Brian Beattie, has edited a final (still unreleased) album, which includes a seven-minute rendition of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” Members of the bands Fugazi, Wilco, and Built to Spill helped Johnston to mount a farewell tour in 2017.