“Listen up and I’ll tell a story / About an artist growing old.”
So starts the song “The Story of an Artist” by Daniel Johnston, the beloved, eccentric, Austin-based musician who was found dead yesterday morning at the age of 58. Johnston was widely considered a genius and a savant, both a massively influential songwriter and a cult figure that steered mainstream alternative music while remaining decidedly outside of it. The roots of his talent are complex to characterize, since they’re entwined with his well-known struggles with mental illness. But there seemed to be a collective consensus that he represented something precious and rare, and that the naîve but soulful beauty of his work was special, singular, and vivid.
“And everyone in friends and family / Sayin' ‘hey, get a job / Why do you only do that only / Why are you so odd?’”
Some would consider 58 a relatively young age at which to pass. But Daniel Johnston was always old, in some way. While his lyrics conveyed a childlike view of the world in many aspects, in interviews, he was wry and self-aware. (Speaking about his fixation on Laurie Allen, a married woman with whom he was either obsessed or in love, depending on your definition of those terms, he told one interviewer that Allen “inspired a thousand songs, and then I knew I was an artist.”) There was no one more fitting to tell the story of an artist than Johnston, who seemed to possess no other desire than to create. It’s in his reflective, often melancholy, sometimes hopeful songs—typically backed with extremely simplistic piano or guitar arrangements, and sung through his charmingly nasal, sweetly warbling voice—that listeners have, for decades, found solace in his singular point of view, and even more notably, his insistence on generating music and images and performing them without concern for the many quote-unquote “imperfections” that showed through. Even the most well-produced recordings of his career have a sprinkle of entropy in their rhythm, weird pauses before or after notes, no use for a metronome or a tuner. His illustrations, too, are imprecise and bizarre—many feature aliens, boxers, mythical creatures, and all means of anthropomorphized blobs—but compelling. To several generations now, they’ve become essential artifacts.
Despite his seeming agelessness—not that he didn’t age, but that he always seemed to be devoid of any particular age—Johnston was born in 1961, and began making music in his teens. He emerged as the outsider art icon that we consider him today in the late 80s and early 90s; during a stint working at a local McDonald’s for a couple of years, he allegedly distributed his tapes by slipping them into the bagged meals of record-store-looking types and cute girls, according to Jeff Feurzeig, director of the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Local fandom and infamy in Austin quickly spread to music nerds and arty types beyond, and cemented him as a figure that continued to generate more and more curiosity and praise for both his songwriting talent and fascinating eccentricity.
“And they sit in front of their TV / Sayin' ‘hey, isn't this a lot of fun?’ / And they laugh at the artist / Sayin' 'he don't know how to have fun"
Indie rock and grunge gods, record-bin spelunkers, skaters, filmmakers, weirdos, and art brut enthusiasts alike all seemed to agree that Johnston was exceptional. For the last decade and a half, a still-growing fan base has learned of Johnston a number of other ways, too—all of which prove that, by the 90s, his underground influence preceded him: One was by hearing other, more mainstream artists cover his songs. Beck has covered “True Love Will Find You in the End,” one of his most popular songs, and certainly one of the most hauntingly beautiful. Built to Spill have an excellent cover of “Some Things Last a Long Time” on their 1996 compilation album, The Normal Years; Lana Del Rey also covered “Some Things…” in 2015. The list goes on. Others viewed The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which won the Documentary Directing Award at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. Still more fans found his music by reverse-investigating the shirt that Kurt Cobain famously wore to the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. Daniel Johnston was never Kurt Cobain, but he was the guy Kurt Cobain was listening to. Sometimes his songs sound like they were written by a five-year-old. Sometimes they sound like the best Beatles song that never was.
It’s impossible to discuss Johnston without touching on his bipolar disorder, which both imbued him with great emotional distress (two of his albums are called Songs of Pain and More Songs of Pain) and with manic episodes that made him both behave erratically and create incredibly prolifically. Johnston wrote thousands of songs and thousands more paintings and drawings while in the throes of what he calls “nervous breakdowns”; was obsessed with the devil to the point of near-possession; and was hospitalized in a mental institution after becoming convinced he was Casper the Friendly Ghost, tossing the keys out of the window while on a private plane ride with his father, and nearly killing them both, as they were forced to crash-land into some trees. (He continued writing songs while institutionalized, including a particularly memorable ode to Mountain Dew.) But to some of his fans, this was all less disconcerting than it was relatable. In a public access interview released after The Devil and Daniel Johnston, he says that, after the documentary came out, he received four or five letters a week saying, “Hi Daniel, I love your music. I, too, am mentally ill.”
It’s also impossible to dismiss the impact of his unapologetically lo-fi sound on future artists beyond the grunge generation. The hissing, static-veiled quality of his home recordings (many were done on a $59 boombox) would come to influence the sounds of early-aughts twee acts like The Microphones and Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, which then came to manifest genres like chillwave (think the played-from-outside-your-window reverberation of early Washed Out) and even bedroom rap (the DIY, “yep, i’m sad” sensibilities of Lil Peep and XXXTentacion).
“Listen up and I'll tell a story / About an artist growing old / Some would try for fame and glory / Others like to watch the world”
In this era of pop music, the major labels that be—and the concerningly small roster of songwriters who seem to churn out the top-10 hits year after year—have certainly perfected the formula of what makes a tune catchy or anthemic. But Johnston’s work is proof that one doesn’t need a fancy recording studio, Auto-Tune, or anyone else at all to write a deeply meaningful song. If anything, the minimalism of his music captures raw feelings more effectively than a Max Martin smash ever could.
Earnestness just doesn’t seem to sell in the modern era; when it does, it doesn’t feel like it can last. Johnston’s most famous champion, Kurt Cobain, is long dead. This year’s Grammy for best rock performance went to Chris Cornell, who is dead. In 2018, the same award went to Leonard Cohen, who was also dead. Things aren’t really looking up for ‘alternative’ music as we know it—that is, a genre focused on individualistic songwriting, powerful emotion, and live instruments. But our collective mourning of Johnston indicates that perhaps there is hope for earnestness.
On that beautiful song “True Love Will Find You in the End,” Johnston asks how true love can recognize you “unless you step out into the light.” Perhaps the romance he dreamed of wasn’t what Johnston found, but millions of fans found and truly loved him, anyway.
A 1994 article about Johnston in Rolling Stone characterized him as “one of the most significant songwriters in modern music,” but also noted his “fragile stability.” That was 25 years ago. Perhaps we were fortunate to see another quarter of a century of this orchid of a person—one who hopefully, but not certainly, understood that what he put into the world was treasured.
“I forgot to grow up, I guess,” Johnston said in 1994. “I’m a simple kind of guy, just like a child, drawing pictures and making up songs, playing around all the time.”
May we all be so lucky in our own lives.
Follow Hilary Pollack on Twitter.