R.I.P. Daniel Johnston

I’m glad I heard the sad news of Daniel Johnston’s passing from my friend Killy Dwyer. As she said just now, this is already a sad day every year. One wouldn’t have thought it possible for it to get any sadder. (Though I just now learned he passed away yesterday, but anyway, it’s a sad time of year).

I already can’t listen to Johnston’s music without crying, as it is! I’d known of him vaguely since the ’90s but the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnson struck me like a thunderbolt. I’ve been meaning to write about him here for years and I keep kicking the can down the road because I feel such a personal connection to his life and his music, and I intend to do some serious writing on the themes his life events suggest. Johnston was bursting at the seams with creativity when he was a kid. He drew, he wrote poems in composition books, he made music, he made movies. For a time after high school he was stuck in his hometown, living in his parents’ house, all of his promise stifled. He spent a lot of time on his own, spinning his wheels, still making his art, working at fast food places, obsessed with a certain girl. His simple, conservative parents didn’t understand him. He managed to briefly attend college, but he began to spiral into madness, possibly sped along by the use of drugs. Ironically, at the same time, his music, which he recorded on cassette tapes, began to attract attention, and he began to develop a local following in Austin, a big music town. Kurt Cobain was a fan and gave his career a boost nationally when he was spotted wearing a tee shirt advertising his home-made album, Hi, How Are You. Johnston has been called an outsider artist, his work is very much like folk art, but that’s not to slight what he does, for I think he had a brilliant way with a pop hook, and was a highly original lyricist. The fact that his instrumentation includes chord organ really sells this primitive quality. My grandmother used to accompany her hymn-singing with a chord organ — it’s like that quality, mixed with a punk, pop, painfully honest sensibility. Indeed I think he was probably a huge influence on the Anti-Folk we wrote here and here .

At a certain point Johnston crashed a plane his dad was flying (both men lived) and he was placed in mental institutions. He gained enormous amounts of weight, and continued to turn out brilliant, original art. He became the brilliant crazy, bathrobe-wearing recluse, an image not unlike those of acid casualties like Brian Wilson and Syd Barrett. I was not shocked to hear he died so young (58), nor by the cause (heart attack). I don’t get the impression Daniel Johnston was a health nut! At any rate, I’ll write much more about his art and music at some point. Today, I’m just sad.