Daniel Johnston, one of the greatest songwriters of his – or any – generation, has died at the age of 58.
There are many memoirs and biographies of Daniel, so I’ll keep this part relatively short, skip it if you know it. Born into a religious family in Sacramento in 1961, Daniel was raised in West Virginia and in his teens, he began to write and record his own songs, influenced especially by The Beatles. By his own reckoning, he had his first bout of mental illness (he was eventually diagnosed with both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia) at junior high; this would go on to shape his career and, especially, the public perception of it. After high school, he started recording cassettes in his parents’ basement while studying art at the nearby East Liverpool, Ohio branch of Kent State University. It was here that he was to meet the girl, Laurie, who unsuspectingly was to become his muse for the rest of his life and who was the subject of his most celebrated work.
In 1983, with four cassettes (and well over a hundred songs) under his belt, Daniel’s mental health worsened with the onset of what was then (and in his case perhaps most accurately) called manic depression, and he dropped out of school and moved to Houston, Texas to live with his brother. He continued to record his music (in the garage, using a cheap chord organ and a seemingly un-tuneable guitar), before moving on again to live with his sister. His mental state continued to deteriorate, but to avoid the possibility of being committed to an institution, Daniel joined a travelling carnival, ending up in Austin, where he settled, and he began giving out his tapes to anyone who showed an interest. By 1985 he was a well-known local figure in the alternative/folk scene and had appeared on MTV (while also working at McDonalds) and, crucially, he began his association with Jeff Tartakov, owner of the small Stress Records label, the closest thing to a professional manager he would ever have.
His stature began to grow; Stress Records began distributing his tapes in a more focussed way and he became friendly with equally eccentric local bands like Glass Eye and The Butthole Surfers. His drug use seems to have re-awakened the religion of his childhood and it manifested itself in his music in disturbing ways. In the late 80s, with help from members of Sonic Youth, he made a chaotic visit to New York to make his first real studio album (1990) with famed indie producer Kramer. The sessions were difficult, Daniel stopped taking his medication and went AWOL in New York for a while, but the album was completed. He worked with Kramer again – importantly, this time in West Virginia – recording the superb Artistic Vice in 1992. But although the recording was less tumultuous than the NY sessions had been, Daniel’s health was declining and during this period he was committed to mental institutions several times. By this time grunge had broken, and even The Butthole Surfers had been signed to a major label. While in the State Hospital in Austin, Daniel, now feted by luminaries including Kurt Cobain, attracted the interest of several of the majors then trawling the alternative rock scene in search of possible cash cows. Signing to Atlantic and unwisely severing ties with his Tartakov, he made one patchy but intermittently brilliant album (Fun, which was, ironically, given a professional and relatively commercial sheen by The Butthole Surfers’ Paul Leary) before being dropped. By this time though, Daniel was about as famous as he was ever to get; well-known and influential figures dropped his name and performed his songs, peers like Yo La Tengo and younger bands like Sparklehorse recorded tributes and collaborations with him. He was never to regain the impetus of his early years, but later albums like Rejected Unknown (2001) and Is And Always Was (2009) were solid and sporadically brilliant additions to his oeuvre. Interest in his tumultuous life led to the excellent, if mental-health-centric documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005), but in the last decade his career slowed down as his health deteriorated. His final studio album, Space Ducks (2012) was part of a typically ambitious multimedia project and, if it lacked the heartfelt intensity of his best work, it seemed to showcase an artist excited by his own ideas and at peace with himself.
Although Daniel Johnston never quite had the commercial breakthrough he (and Atlantic records) were hoping for, in 2019 his songs (though not his own recordings of them) can regularly be heard on TV, advertising Apple (‘The Story of An Artist’) and Dogs Trust (‘True Love Will Find You In The End’), a far cry from the days of handing out tapes to random strangers.
I can pinpoint my own interest in Daniel Johnston to 1990 and to a review in Melody Maker by Everett True (Jerry Thackray; one of the all-time great music writers) of the Daniel Johnston/Yo La Tengo single ‘Speeding Motorcycle’. The review had the oft-seen Pat Blashill picture of Daniel holding the tape of Yip/Jump Music and smiling somewhat unnervingly, and mentioned a notorious, then-recent incident in which, during a schizophrenic episode, he had driven an old woman to jump out of a window; interesting and tragic, but more to the point for me was True’s evaluation of Daniel’s songwriting prowess, comparing his gift for melody with Lennon and McCartney; I was intrigued.
That weekend, I looked for the record in Edinburgh’s always-dependable Avalanche Records; they didn’t have it yet, but they did have the Homestead Records double vinyl edition of Daniel’s 1983 cassette Yip/Jump Music; it had the original version of ‘Speeding Motorcycle’ on it. I bought it and never looked back. In the following weeks I returned and bought the 1990 LP (on Shimmy-disc), the 50 Skidillion Watts album Jad Fair and Daniel Johnston/Daniel Johnston and Jad Fair (1989) and Hi, How Are You (Homestead records). Johnston is often seen as an obscure artist, but if he never quite reached the Beatlemania-like heights that he seems to have expected early in his career, it was still impressive that tapes recorded on a boombox at his home in Texas could end up readily available on vinyl in Scotland, even in the days before his brief career as a major label artist.
From the first hearing, Johnston’s music was like nothing else. It was powerful partly because of those Beatles-esque melodies, but also because the songs were so personal and so specific. For a stereotypically depressive adolescent who spent most of his waking hours brooding over unrequited crushes, it felt instantly familiar and welcoming. Where other artists that I loved at the time largely presented dramatised, generalised or even abstract versions of themselves and their experiences, Johnson’s lyrics felt life-sized, detailed yet enigmatic, like the scene of a disaster made unbearably poignant by the detritus of everyday existence. Here was an iconography, a mythology even, of very specific, mundane places (the department store, the funeral home, the museum), people (the girl – Laurie – who was the focal point of most of his songs, but also the librarian and, more sinisterly, the mortician) as well as characters he identified with (Casper the Friendly Ghost, King Kong, the Creature from the Black Lagoon). Though fragmented, there were clearly narratives thereof unrequited love and mental breakdown – with, at their heart, the painfully cordial relationship with the woman of his dreams who, one would guess from the songs had little idea of the central role she played in his life:
“I remember how we looked at the embryo in the jar together
And I remember how we stood talking in the store to each other
It was love
But what is it now?
And I remember you at the funeral shaking hands and hanging coats
And I remember you standing pregnant at the art room
It was weird
But what is it now?
(‘I Remember Painfully’ from Yip/Jump Music)
When, a few years later, I finally heard his first tape, Songs of Pain (recorded in 1980 in his parents’ basement in West Virginia) it was a revelation. What became clear was that, although Yip/Jump Music and Hi, How Are You had seemed like the primal, out-of-the-blue howlings of a lost soul, they were actually a kind of collage made from the shards of a previously accomplished talent, swept up and rearranged into mysterious shapes by an artist who happened to have reached his creative peak while his life descended into chaos. Those potently recurring themes and images so baldly visible later on weren’t present, as one might have expected, in a half-formed, tentative way. Instead, this was like being given a codebook that unlocked his later work. It had always seemed from his intense delivery that even apparently trivial words and phrases were imbued with deep personal meaning; and they were. Take Hi, How Are You; a cheerful, innocuous title; except that in Songs of Pain’s opening track ‘Grievances’ (a song – and tune – that Johnston would return to again and again) over the years, Daniel sings:
“I saw you at the funeral, you were standing there like a temple
I said ‘hi, how are you, hello’
And I pulled up a casket and crawled in”
The 1980 version of Daniel was not hammering away, sometimes haphazardly, on a cheap chord organ as he was in Texas; he was playing the piano in a proficient way, his tunes were well structured and logical. Despite his love of The Beatles, the early work often sounded almost more like show tunes than classic pop songs. His lyrics were certainly eccentric, but they were clever too; knowing, funny and self-aware, where the 1983 work was desolate and anguished. The childlike quality of Daniel’s voice, that has so often led to his work being labelled ‘naïve’ is, in his early work, misleading – songs like ‘Phantom Of My Own Opera’ from More Songs Of Pain (1983), recorded just before he left for Texas, show that Johnston was very aware of the sometimes-comical aspects of his own predicament. When he dramatised himself – and he did it a lot – it was, to begin with, more often with an element of self-mockery than simple self-pity.
In the first decade of his career, Daniel Johnston was amazingly prolific, but during that period especially, the obsessive raking over of every detail of a doomed non-relationship is what fuelled the majority of his work; and it created a collection of songs which is incredibly poignant, funny, self-referential and, above all, heartbreakingly sad. Thanks to its iconic cover, and with a little help from Kurt Cobain, Hi How Are You (subtitled The Unfinished Album) has become Daniel’s most iconic release, but great though it is, it’s a fragmented, tortured album even by his own standards (all of his 80s cassettes are pretty patchy, but to be fair he was recording three or four a year and most of them have at least 15 songs). In fact, he had reached some kind of peak in 1982 with Don’t Be Scared and The What Of Whom, where his songs brought together the articulate cleverness of his earliest work with the honesty, depth of feeling and songwriting genius of his maturity. From ‘Peek A Boo’ (on Don’t Be Scared) –
“Junior high I lost my mind
I don’t know why, it’s a terrible thing
Since that day it’s been a struggle
Trying to make sense out of scrambled eggs
Please hear my cry for help, and save me from myself
I painted a bar and I never got paid
In a town where everyone was unemployed
I was locked in on Easter day
All I had to eat was a piece of bread
When I got home my mother said
‘You’re a lazy bum and that’s how come
You suffer like that and you’ll starve
All your life. All your life.
Spoken just like it was a curse
But it didn’t really sound so bad
I like to make things up
It’s the healthiest thing that I do
But I’m tired
From being kidnapped
By a dark wolf that would
Do me in
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.”
And that is the secret to Daniel Johnston’s art; he lived his songs and made us feel them.
Also in 1982, he wrote ‘The Story Of An Artist’ –
“everyone in friends and family
Sayin’ ‘hey go get a job
Why do you only do that only
Why are you so odd?’
And ‘we don’t really like what you do
We don’t think anyone ever will'”
They were wrong. RIP