‘Speeding Motorcycle,’ Daniel Johnston & Yo La Tengo

Daniel Johnston's cover art for his vinyl single release of "Speeding Motorcycle," featuring backing by Yo La Tengo.

Daniel Johnston’s cover art for his vinyl single release of “Speeding Motorcycle,” featuring backing by Yo La Tengo.

On Feb. 4, 1990, Daniel Johnston recorded his song “Speeding Motorcycle” with the Hoboken band Yo La Tengo, and phoned in his vocal performance. That’s not meant as an insult. It’s the literal truth.

You see, Johnston, a singer-songwriter who has struggled with mental illness throughout his life, was in West Virginia at the time, and Yo La Tengo was in the East Orange studios of WFMU-FM (now located in Jersey City). Yo La Tengo had just recorded its own version of “Speeding Motorcycle” for its Fakebook album, and WFMU DJ Nick Hill arranged for the collaboration. (For Hill’s account of the event, click here.) So Johnston sang over the phone, Yo La Tengo played in the studio, and the results were pretty magical.

Johnston also took listeners’ calls during the course of the broadcast, including one from Jeff Feuerzieg, who later made the critically acclaimed 2005 documentary, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston.”

Yo La Tengo released the song as a CD single B-side; as a track of its 1996 rarities anthology Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo, and as a vinyl single featuring cover art by Johnston.

New Jersey celebrated its 350th birthday in 2014. And in the 350 Jersey Songs series, we marked the occasion by posting 350 songs — one a day, from September 2014 to September 2015 — that have something to do with the state, its musical history, or both. To see the entire list, click here.


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