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Remembering Daniel Johnston, a Songwriter Like No Other

BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 19: Daniel Johnston performs on stage at Bikini on April 19, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Jordi Vidal/Redferns via Getty Images)

For fans of Daniel Johnston, his death yesterday at age 58 might not have been shocking. The singer, songwriter, and visual artist contended with serious physical and mental health issues for decades, even longer than he’d been making music. Those struggles were as much a part of his story as his obsession with unrequited love, his self-invented universe of storybook characters, and his unadulterated worship of the Beatles.

Still, for anyone who’s even dabbled in Johnston’s work, the idea of songs no longer emanating from his busy mind is tough to accept. From the early ’80s, when he first began recording on a boombox in his parents’ West Virginia basement, his productivity was virtually non-stop. He gave away copies of his homemade cassettes as if they were business cards, sometimes stuffing them into hamburger sacks at the McDonald’s in Austin, Texas, where he worked, having relocated to the state in 1983. When the rest of the world began to discover his music around the turn of the next decade, there was already a massive amount of it for them to pore over.

Even in recent years, Johnston never stopped working, though his publicly-available output slowed considerably. “He pumped out stacks of art, drawing every day, writing every day,” says Jeff Feuerzeig, director of the 2006 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston. “This is a guy who lived and breathed art.” By 2017 he had amassed an archive of around 1500 unreleased tapes; as he said at the time, “I can’t stop writing. If I did stop, there could be nothing.”

Of course, anyone with a tape recorder can create a ton of music. What’s truly staggering about Johnston’s oeuvre is how much of it directly hit the hearts and minds of people who encountered it. Scan through the tapes he made in the ’80s or the studio albums he made from the ’90s on, and you’ll frequently land on a turn of phrase that knocks you over, through both wry cleverness and blunt honesty. It’s hard to think of an artist more equipped to start a career with an album called Songs of Pain—and even harder to think of one who could make that title come off as both brutal and hilarious.

Johnston’s simple melodies and emotionally-open voice gave his music the primal appeal of nursery rhymes, which is why it’s sometimes misguidedly described as “childlike”. But the emotions he traversed were as complex and adult as they come. And his early tapes were also gripping as conceptual sound pieces. Johnston mixed raw snippets from daily life— arguments with his parents, distorted sounds of talking toys and television shows—with equally raw songs, long before the concepts of “lo-fi” and reality-based art became so prevalent.

Yet the profundity of Johnston’s music didn’t depend on how it was recorded. By the end of the ’80s, his name spread quickly through indie rock circles, aided by the tireless efforts of his manager and label head, Jeff Tartakov. “It became obvious that he was spending every dollar he made at McDonald’s on the cassettes he was giving away,” says Tartakov. “So in early ‘86, I offered to take over the cassette dubbing, after convincing him that he should at the very least be breaking even.”

A few years later, after some of his tapes were reissued on vinyl by Gerard Cosloy’s Homestead Records, Johnston traveled to New York to record with producer Kramer, who’d helmed records by indie mainstays like Low and Galaxie 500. The result, 1990, was clearer, cleaner, and even more moving than his homemade tapes, producing the definitive versions of two of his most famous tunes, “Some Things Last A Long Time” and “True Love Will Find You in the End.”

Those tracks endure because Johnston never wavered in confronting things head on. His lyrics could read like diary entries, though once he sang them they became more literary and magical. Even the characters he created—the innocent Jeremiah the Frog, the demon-fighting Joe the Boxer, the many monsters and superheroes borrowed from comic books—were barely a step away from the emotions and struggles they symbolized. “I like to make things up / It’s the healthiest thing I do,” he confessed in the song “Peek A Bo.” But later in that tune he also admitted, “You can listen to these songs / Have a good time and walk away / But for me it’s not that easy / I have to live these songs forever.”

Such painfully candid songwriting—rare in any form of music—is perhaps why Johnston has often been branded an “outsider” artist. And sure, his early methods of recording and distributing his music were literally outside of conventional channels. But the reach of Johnston’s influence on accepted “insiders,” and the fact that he eventually recorded for a major label (his 1994 album Fun came out on Atlantic), makes such a tag seem absurd. “Outsider artists don’t go to art school,” Feuerzeig points out. “Daniel studied the history of art. He was a fine artist, not an outsider.”

Even more importantly, the subjects Johnston grappled with—love, death, self, good and evil—were no niche concerns. One proof of his songs’ universailty comes in the vast amount of artists who covered his compositions, and not just the big names like Sonic Youth, Beck, and Wilco. “What’s really interesting is all the people who aren’t famous that cover him in cafes and dorm rooms today, all around the world,” says Feuerzeig. “The way Woody Guthrie’s work is part of the culture—Daniel’s songs are like that. He’s a songwriter’s songwriter.”

Still, the demons Daniel Johnston fought were very much his own. His real-life battles are legendary, from refusing to sign to Elektra because he claimed Metallica were Satanists to crashing his father’s plane during an episode of delusion in which he believed his old man was Casper the Friendly Ghost. He turned such bouts into art that avoided easy resolutions. His continual search to find good among evil made his music magnetic, and his life inspiringly noble. In The Definitive Daniel Johnston Handbook, Kramer recalls telling Johnston that John Cage had posited that in this world, good and evil are perfectly balanced. “Well, that sort of proves he’s crazy, don’t you think,” replied Johnston. “I mean, why on earth would anyone want to live in a world with ANY evil in it at all?”