Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
There is in every madman a misunderstood genius whose idea, shining in his head, frightened people, and for whom delirium was the only solution to the strangulation that life had prepared for him. – Antonin Artaud
You can’t talk about Daniel Johnston’s art without talking about Daniel Johnston, and about the demons and angels he brings to the table. His mental illness, his obsessions, his rudimentary playing and recording abilities – all become assets, and all contribute to the creation of his drawings and his music, which serve as both his refuge from the world and his passageway into it. Johnston has walked along (and fallen off) the edge for an exhaustingly long time; it’s his art, as much as anything else, that’s kept him tethered to life and allowed him to express what he sees in the benign and malignant hellions he faces every day.
Consider “Walking the Cow,” from 1983’s Hi, How Are You. “What it represented was walking your responsibility,” Johnston explained in an interview. “It’s like a burden to me, like walking the cow was bearing your cross.” It’s a metaphor both whimsical and poignant, and in Johnston’s wavering voice and insistent chord-organ playing, it conveys confusion about and resignation to the singer’s lot in life as well as any poet could. It’s also won the attention of many musicians, whose covers smooth out the disturbed features of the song while adjusting Johnston’s deeply personal touch to match their own visions.
fIREHOSE – Walking the Cow (Daniel Johnston cover)
Mike Watt’s first post-Minutemen project covered “Walking the Cow” on their major-label debut, 1991’s Flyin’ the Flannel. By slowing the song down, they get across the measured rhythm of a cow’s easy lope, and it’s those relaxed tempos that give the words all the time they need to be contemplated.
The Reivers – Walking the Cow (Daniel Johnston cover)
One of the great forgotten bands of the eighties, The Reivers released four albums of jangle-rock that garnered critical hosannas and college radio play but precious few sales. A literate band named after William Faulkner’s last novel and based in Austin, where Johnston was living and distributing his homemade tapes to those he met, their 1985 cover of “Walking the Cow” was one of the earliest of his songs to find an audience outside of Texas.
Kathy McCarty – Walking the Cow (Daniel Johnston cover)
Another Austin artist who met Johnston in the 1980s when he opened for her band Glass Eye, Kathy McCarty briefly dated him before realizing just how much madness lay down that road. But she never lost her devotion to his music, and in 1992 she released Dead Dog’s Eyeball, a labor of love consisting of 19 Johnston songs that have richer, fuller treatments than he could have ever given them. Her “Walking the Cow” keeps the original’s fast pace, adds strings and backing vocals, and turns it into something that haters of lo-fi can no longer reject out of hand.
Nucular Aminals – Walking the Cow (Daniel Johnston cover)
Nucular Aminals (both misspellings deliberate), based in the Pacific Northwest, have a homemade-poppy aesthetic that makes covers like this ideal for them. With an acoustic guitar as the dominant instrument, this would sound like a rehearsal if it wasn’t for the care put into the arrangements of the music and the gentle harmonies.
The Harvey Girls – Walking the Cow (Daniel Johnston cover)
The husband-and-wife team The Harvey Girls also hail from Top-Left, USA, where they add experimental electronica to their lo-fi sound. Result, according to member Hiran Lucke: “If you’re the type of person who overthinks while shaking your ass, then you’d love us.” Their version of “Walking the Cow” has a free-floating, outer-space feel to it; the line “I really don’t know why I came here” now sounds like it could be sung by David Bowie’s Major Tom.