Daniel Johnston, 1961-2019

(Photo: At the Daniel Johnston mural in Austin, TX on September 29, 2019.)

 

This past September 11th, Daniel Johnston passed away at the age of 58 at his home in Waller, Texas. He spent a lifetime creating music and art that was entirely his own. In a world clamoring for authenticity, Daniel's work is a glimmering beacon of refuge and beautiful release. He's had a powerful influence on me as a songwriter, and I'd like to try and explain why.

As shown in the 2006 documentary film, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Daniel struggled for most of his adult life with various forms of mental illness. Sometimes in our culture, we tend to romanticize suffering and illness when it comes to the artist. No-one provides more of a reality check on that myth than Daniel Johnston. He created, he sang, he made his art...despite his illness. And you can hear that struggle in his music. He lets you into his world, fully and unconditionally. With a raw honesty, a heartfelt need for connection.


Encountering his homemade tape albums is like stepping into someone's private universe. Boundless imagination. One great song after another, often sung in a fragile, earnest voice. Banging away on a cheap guitar or an old chord organ. Songs about unrequited love for his real-life muse Laurie. Or about the loneliness and alienation he feels as someone trying to make art in an ugly world. The ghosts and demons in his head. Songs about growing old. Dreams of fame, dreams of acceptance. There's a kind of child-like intimacy combined with a timeless wisdom in his lyrics. It's undeniable. I've never heard anything like it.

His songs have been covered by artists such as Beck, Lana Del Rey, Wilco, and Tom Waits. Kurt Cobain famously wore a t-shirt featuring his art. Despite his brushes with fame, he seems to have never really risen to a level of wider acceptance. But maybe that's how it should be. Maybe his work remains as a kind of buried treasure, lurking there just beneath the surface. For those who need it. For the rest of us with our own broken dreams, trying to make a path out of our own sorrow and heartache. Trying to find beauty in the chaos and noise of this brief, humbling life. Those of us who want to choose music over darkness, every chance we get.

Thank you, Daniel. You will be missed.