Daniel Johnston died at 58, on September 11, 2019, in Waller, Texas, of a heart attack.
Typing that sentence, it’s hard to believe he’s gone. When one of your idols passes, you’re stuck with such a sense of grief that you can’t believe it’s real. It becomes a surreal event, and the disbelief is really a coping mechanism. You’re not clueless; you know it happened. You just wish it hadn’t.
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Like many, I first discovered Johnston via a documentary called The Devil and Daniel Johnston. It portrays the life story of the cult singer-songwriter, all the glory (or lack thereof), the good moments (of which there are many) as well as the bad (which any cursory reading will show there were many of those as well.
His biographers have described his work as straddling the line between genius and downright terrible. There aren’t many songs that could be said to be merely average. With Johnston, you get either mind-blowing or awful.
I’d have to say I agree. When listening to him, for every two or three songs that left me speechless, there was always that one in the mix that just didn’t feel fully-realized. Could it have been worked on, or was this the end goal he was looking to achieve? The artistic process isn’t cut-or-dry, and you can’t always explain just why they went the route they did. With Johnston, the ins-and-outs are even more muddied. A lot of me believes that to be deliberate.
What drew me to his work was how painfully honest it was. The man suffered from both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Take a moment to imagine how hard suffering through that would be, and you’ll soon see how this could translate into some heartfelt songwriting. But in albums like Yip/Jump Music and Hi How Are You (described by the artist himself as his “unfinished album”), he chronicled this life of pain better than anyone I can think of.
And it isn’t like the poetry many of us write in our adolescence, which those of us who wrote it invariably comes to view as moody, pathetic, and just plain horrendous. The gripping sadness is tempered by a sense of joy and hope. It’s music that celebrates life rather than wallowing in its own anguish.
Despite the simple chord progressions, performed on a minimal arrangement of either chord organ or guitar, it’s anything but simple music (later, after finding some level of fame, he often had a full rock band backing his songs of pain, also the name of his first album). The emotional depth and layers of his lyrics beg a second and third reading.
Take a song like “Worried Shoes,” from 1983’s Yip/Jump Music. On the surface, it’s simply about walking around in shoes. But look at the lyrics. Here we have a narrator, plagued by such intense anxiety that he has to run away from situations. Or on “Urge,” one of his great love songs (typically written about unrequited love for a girl named Laurie). An exuberant pounding of piano chords, with lyrics that betray the anthemic melody.
Johnston first came into the public eye while living in Austin, Texas (where he had migrated to while working for a travelling carnival). In 1985, an MTV show called The Cutting Edge featured him. But he wasn’t supposed to be there and had effectively pushed his way onto it. Artistic ego is a complicated thing, and in this case, we’re lucky Johnston possessed it. Every event in life shapes history, and this was a history-making moment (even if, at the time, it seemed so sudden and minor).
Additionally, while in Austin, Johnston was passing out homemade tapes recorded on a boombox while working at a McDonalds. He was arguably their most well-known employee, and cleaning tables was another blissful moment in history. You could make a claim that if they kept him in the back, making hamburgers, he would have had less opportunity to pass them out to customers. Early on, before he discovered how to make a copy, he recorded each tape fresh from scratch, every fractured performance unique.
Then came the years following, where he built up his cult following opening for bands in the Austin area. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana wore a t-shirt adorned with his famous drawing of a bullfrog (named Jeremiah, naturally, after the Three Dog Night song) on the MTV Music Awards in 1992, furthering recognition of the outsider artist. Other musicians, such as Sonic Youth, Tom Waits, Yo La Tengo, and Beck, have worked with or paid tribute to him.
All of this acclaim and discussion led to a bidding war to sign him, with Atlantic Records winning out, due to Elektra Records having Metallica on their list of artists. Raised religious, Johnston believed the metal band to be Satanic, and much of his work features strong religious themes.
In 1994, while working on his only major-label album, Fun, Johnston was quoted in a Rolling Stone piece, on the often-asked question of how many were exploiting him for a laugh: “If people were making fun of me, if they have a good time making fun of me, then that’s just as good, really. I’m entertaining them. Maybe I’m more of a comedian than they know.”
How beautiful all of this music and art was. How beautiful it was that someone so troubled would share it with us. It’s a true blessing, and the songs will outlive him and all of us. Let’s appreciate that and be thankful we have his legacy.