Daniel Johnston – singer, song-writer, artist
Born January 22, 1961; died September 10, 2019
Daniel Johnston, who has died aged 58, was regarded by many as the ultimate outsider artist. In truth, while the Texas-based singer-songwriter’s lyrical candour and lo-fi DIY aesthetic over some seventeen studio albums released across more than thirty years were as far removed from the mainstream music business as they could be, Johnston’s way with a melody was rooted in pop music’s greats. Delivered in his raw and at times anguished voice, Johnston’s songs looked to show-tunes, Burt Bacharach and his beloved Beatles for inspiration.
Over the course of a fertile but erratic and at times self-destructive career that saw him championed and covered by a left-field indie-rock community that revered him, Johnston became a cult figure, whose prolific output ran in tandem with long-term mental health issues. Johnston’s instinctive and restless genius carved out a niche that was guilelessly honest and terminally obsessive in its depiction of his private struggles and quest for true love.
Johnston’s songs revealed a vulnerability as well as a wilful and unwavering faith in the power of his art as a healing force. This was the case both through his music and his comic book inspired felt tip drawings that he created with the same obsessiveness he wrote his songs, and which went on to introduce characters such as Casper the Friendly Ghost, Joe The Boxer and Jeremiah the Frog to the Whitney Museum in New York.
In Scotland, Johnston’s work was recognised by artists who ploughed their own independent furrow, and his songs were covered by Teenage Fanclub, BMX Bandits, The Pastels and Dot Allison. There was a sense of Johnston and his heart-on-sleeve outpourings as a kindred spirit, and these interpretations along with many others introduced Johnston’s work to a wider world, just as Kurt Cobain of Nirvana did in 1993 when he wore a Daniel Johnston t-shirt.
Daniel Dale Johnston was born in Sacramento, California, the youngest of five children to Bill and Mabel, and grew up in what he described as a Christian fundamentalist household, whose church only allowed a cappela singing. Johnston would spend his days drawing comic book heroes and listening to pop music. An epiphany came when he heard his elder brother Dick’s Beatles records, and he started to write and record his own songs on a primitive tape recorder in the basement of his parents’ home.
It was during his final years at Oak Glen High School in New Cumberland, West Virginia that Johnston first started showing signs of being bi-polar. He briefly enrolled at Abilene Christian University in Texas before studying art at the East Liverpool campus of of Kent State University. It was here he met Laurie Allen, who became another obsession, inspiring many of his songs.
While his adoration of Allen remained unrequited, many of his missives ended up on Songs of Pain, a cassette he recorded several times over on account of having no copying machine, and which he handed out to friends. More cassettes followed, with Johnston working stints at McDonald’s and on a travelling carnival. While living with his brother Dick in Texas, Johnston recorded Yip/Jump Music and Hi, How Are You, and in 1985 ended up being featured on The Cutting Edge, an MTV show about the local music scene.
While on the one hand Johnston was courted by the musical underground, on the other his illness became increasingly apparent. In 1988 he attacked Sonic Youth’s drummer Steve Shelley. Two years later, his father was forced to crash land a private plane he and Johnston were travelling in after Johnston removed the keys. Briefly courted by major record labels, he refused to sign to Elektra on the grounds that Metallica, who were on the label’s roster, were, as he saw it, devil worshippers.
Johnston was institutionalised numerous times, but latterly lived in a house built next to his parents in Waller, a small Texan town fifty miles from Houston that became an oversize den for the terminal adolescent Johnston remained even as his profile increased. In 2004, The Late, Great Daniel Johnston was a two album set that featured covers of Johnston’s songs by the likes of Tom Waits, Wilco and Sparklehorse on one, with Johnston’s own takes on them on the other. In 2005, Jeff Feuerzeig’s film, The Devil and Daniel Johnston charted Johnston’s life with a poignancy that matched his songs.
Fascination with Johnston continued. In 2006, a musical play, Speeding Motorcycle, was based on his songs. In 2013, James Yorkston and Adrian Crowley released My Yoke is Heavy: The Songs of Daniel Johnston on Chemikal Underground Records. In 2015, a short film, Hi, How Are You, Daniel Johnston?, saw director Gabriel Sunday play ‘1983 Daniel Johnston, while Johnston himself played ‘2015 Daniel Johnston’ in a work that attempted to get into the singer’s head. The film was bankrolled and co-executive produced by rapper Mac Miller and singer Lana Del Rey, with the latter recording a cover of Johnston’s song, Some Things Last a Long Time, for the soundtrack.
What turned out to be Johnston’s last album, Space Ducks, was released in 2012. The record was a soundtrack to his comic book of the same name about a group of humanoid astronaut ducks who go to war with demons. While both his mental and physical health ebbed and flowed in the years since, in 2017, prompted by his brother, Johnston set out on the five dates of what he declared was his final tour. In 2018, Austin honoured Johnston by declaring January 22 to be Hi, How Are You Day.
In a New York Times interview in the run up to the tour, Johnston’s brother Dick estimated there was around 1,500 tapes of unreleased material by his younger sibling. With Johnston’s output undimmed, he was still holding out for the big hit that would turn him into a bona fide pop star, as big, perhaps, as The Beatles. With a back catalogue much larger than his idols, Johnston’s work may yet make it to the top.
Johnston is survived by his brother, Dick, and his sisters, Margy, Sally and Cindy.
The Herald, September 17th 2019