Remembering Daniel Johnston

This outsider musician made music sound new again to everyone who listened.

Singer and songwriter Daniel Johnston was found dead at his home on the morning of September 11. He was 58. He sang about good and evil, sex, and true love. He courted and obtained a large, loyal cult following, as well as the respect of his musical peers. Johnston was an outsider artist, visually and musically. Diagnosed variously with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, he stood on the outside of mainstream expression looking in, and this exclusion granted him insight. “Everything you cling to will rot,” he sings on “Big Business Monkey,” “and everything you do will be forgot.”

Daniel Johnston embodied contradiction. His songs had an innocence that belied years of assiduous craftsmanship. His lyrics floated out in childlike rhymes, but addressed adult themes of love and loss and mental illness. He was considered pure — to the extent that he could not be corrupted by outside influences — but there was a patronizing quality to such considerations, allowing for  destructiveness as much as gentleness. As ambitious as he was incapable of handling recognition, Johnston constructed his legend by dismantling his career. 

“Quite often, Daniel was a pain in the ass,” friend and Austin Chronicle editor and cofounder Louis Black wrote in 2005. “Manipulative and innocence, Dr. Jekyll & Casper the Friendly Ghost, he looked like a near-child, sounded like an innocent, seemed a little slow, but a part of him always judged the odds around him better than any Vegas veteran.”

Born in Sacramento in 1961, Johnston was raised in West Virginia. His family was deeply religious. He learned to write songs in his parents’ basement by studying a book of Beatles music. Struck by a quote by Ringo Starr in which he claimed that the Beatles rewrote other people’s songs for their own purposes, Johnston did the same thing: He took his heroes’ songs apart and reassembled them in a different shape. 


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Johnston’s first record, Songs of Pain, was recorded on cassette. In between songs his mother can be heard saying things like, “You’ll never amount to anything!” His next album was titled Don’t Be Scared. 

After a brief attempt at college, Johnston followed his brother to Texas, winding up in Austin after stints in Houston and San Marcos. He made more albums, recording his shaky voice and chord organ on a boombox in his brother’s garage, and he gave the cassettes away to anyone who would listen. Initially unable to duplicate the tapes, he simply recorded a new version of an album every time someone asked for a copy.  

“Imagine what it was like,” Black wrote about first hearing Johnston around 1985. “Everything you know is wrong. Music reinvents itself in the middle of your ears. You sit there, not stunned but not normal. You play the tape again.”

One of Johnston’s cassettes made its way to Austin musician Brian Beattie, who, like other local songwriters, found the music strangely compelling. “I guess everyone who’s heard it for the first time, you’re kind of like trying to confront or understand that nervous feeling you get, that voyeuristic feeling from listening to how intimate [it is],” Beattie told the Austin Chronicle in 1999. Local bands, including the Butthole Surfers, began covering Johnston’s material.

Mark Kramer, founder of New York indie label Shimmy Disc, recorded Johnston in 1989. At first enjoying the experience, Johnston became increasingly agitated, singing about graveyards and the devil. He was unable to complete the album, so some live tracks were included to round it out. Supposed to be called 1989, the production took so long that the album was released as 1990. This record contains what is arguably Johnston’s most famous song, the plaintive “True Love Will Find You In The End.”  

“This is a promise with a catch,” Johnston sings. “Only if you’re looking can it find you.”

’Cause true love is searching too

But how can it recognize you

Unless you step out into the light the light

Don’t be sad, I know you will

But don’t give up until

True love will find you in the end

Johnston’s mental illness sometimes manifested itself quite publicly. The stories of his breakdowns — often brought about by positive reviews — are legion. By the early 1990s, Johnston had self-released several crudely recorded albums, appeared on MTV’s The Cutting Edge, attacked his manager with a pipe, suffered a psychotic break as a result of taking LSD at a concert, pulled the key out of the ignition of his father’s plane mid-flight, chased a terrified woman out of a window because he thought she had the devil in her, spent months in various mental institutions, and gained masses of fans for his vulnerable, awkward, undeniably catchy, and disarmingly direct songs. 

When Kurt Cobain wore a Johnston T-shirt during a string of photo shoots, things really took off. Cobain had been given the shirt, featuring the enigmatic Johnston-drawn cover of his Hi, How Are You album, and wore it during a performance at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards and numerous photo sessions at the height of Nirvana’s fame. Cobain also included Johnston’s Yip/Jump Music on lists as one of his favorite albums. 

 

This led to an almost instantaneous major label bidding war on Johnston: Elektra offered him a carte-blanche deal, but Johnson rejected the label as satanic. (Metallica was on their roster.) He fired his long-suffering manager and signed with Atlantic while residing in a state psychiatric hospital.

Fun, perhaps the most polished of Johnston’s work, was released in 1994. It stands alongside Skip Spence’s Oar and The Madcap Laughs by Syd Barrett as a brilliant, disjointed communication from a stricken and singular voice.  

Johnston was quickly disillusioned by major label patronage. “I had $35,000,” he remembered. “I was going, ‘Yeah! I’m rich!’ The next day they came out, made a video, and a couple of weeks later I get a $30,000 bill. Isn’t that a ripoff?” Fun sank without a trace. Atlantic dropped Johnston in 1996.  

The 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston further lionized the tormented artist. Listing Beck, Tom Waits, Wilco, and Pearl Jam among the luminaries who had covered his songs, the movie compared Johnston to the brilliant, struggling Beach Boy Brian Wilson, among others, and deftly portrayed him through animations of his drawings, new footage, and childhood home movies.

It’s always been troubling, at least to me, that Johnston’s turbulent life was consumed as avidly as his art. American culture has always been drawn to creators touched by fire; it confers a shamanistic quality, which helps explain the mysteries of artistic ability and inspiration. The side effect, of course, is that doing so puts that person at a safe remove, which is beneficial to those who love a so-called good train wreck or wish to profit unimpeded. But Daniel Johnston’s talent was his ability to communicate with unaffected emotional directness, which, when you listen to him, not only makes it harder to separate the artist from his art, but also from you yourself.

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Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Sam Schuyler