As far as mythic stories of the tortured singer-songwriter go, few are more fascinating than that of folk legend Daniel Johnston, who died of a heart attack on Wednesday at age 58. He was born on Jan. 22, 1961 in Sacramento, CA and grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home in the panhandle of West Virginia. There, he discovered his fascination with comic books, the devil and The Beatles—when he was 19, he decided he wanted to be John Lennon. “I was disappointed when I found out I couldn’t sing,” he joked in a 1989 interview (“Daniel Johnston Was a Hero for the Wounded,” Vulture, 09.12.2019).
Of course, this didn’t stop Johnston. He began writing songs in college to impress a fellow student named Laurie, who happened to be engaged. Nonetheless, Johnston wrote dozens of love songs in her honor, and she remained his muse throughout his career. He started compiling tapes with bleak titles such as “Songs of Pain” and “Don’t Be Scared.” These early recordings were strikingly lo-fi and achingly honest, balancing sunny, childlike pop songs with unfiltered musings on love and longing so agonizing that they’re often uncomfortable to listen to.
Johnston then moved to San Marcos, where he delivered pizzas, recorded his now-famous tape “Hi, How Are You” and had a nervous breakdown. After his mother suggested institutionalizing him, he fled town with a carnival, quitting once it landed in Austin, TX. There, he got a job at McDonald’s, passing out his tapes to anyone he met at work. “Hi, how are you?” he’d ask. “I’m Daniel Johnston, and I’m gonna be famous” (“He Was Daniel Johnston, And He Was Gonna Be Famous,” Texas Monthly, 02.01.2005).
Johnston never quite achieved the Beatlemania-esque fame he aspired to, but he was undoubtedly his own kind of icon. His influence is palpable throughout alternative music, from the abrasive folk punk of AJJ to the unpolished beauty of Neutral Milk Hotel to the brazen despair of Elliott Smith. He also has his fair share of A-list admirers: Lana Del Rey, Death Cab for Cutie, Bright Eyes and Pearl Jam are a few of legions of acclaimed artists who have covered Johnston’s songs.
But when reflecting on Johnston’s work and legacy, we far too often discuss his impact on other, more famous musicians, rather than recognizing him as a brilliant artist in his own right. Yes, the fact that Kurt Cobain was frequently photographed in a “Hi, How Are You” t-shirt throughout the last months of his life is a gripping anecdote, and one worth noting. But Johnston’s music is good not solely because it inspired that of others, but because of Johnston’s venerable songwriting, his unforgettable melodies, his craft.
Johnston battled severe schizophrenia and bipolar disorder throughout his life. Like many neuroatypical musicians, his art is often labelled as “raw,” a characterization that conveys the unpolished sincerity of his work yet erases the skill it took to produce it. His music is disparagingly branded as “quirky” and “naive.” And sure, his music is far from perfect—his quavering vocals are often jarringly off-key, and his instrumentation is disjointed and distinctly homemade. But these imperfections do not diminish Johnston’s songwriting, nor do they point at him being an incompetant musician. If anything, the songs’ flaws highlight their earnestness, and Johnston’s singular ability to portray the feeling of being haunted through music.
I used to have a similarly distorted perception of Johnston, dismissing him as a nearly unlistenable artist whom my favorite bands liked to cover. I assumed they re-recorded his songs because Johnston’s versions were somehow incomplete—that Johnston’s lyrics and ideas were impressive, but that superior musicians had to “clean up” his songs into something more easily accessible.
I still enjoy many other artists’ attempts to cover Johnston’s work, but I now realize how much is lost in that process. Wilco and Beck’s clean-cut renditions of “True Love Will Find You In The End” are partly responsible for the track being Johnston’s best-known song. They’re both wonderful covers, but once I adjusted to the stark differences between their polished versions and the original, I was struck by how much more heartfelt the song is with Johnston’s nasally voice and awkward instrumentation. There’s one line in the song that makes me play it on repeat. On the idea of true love, he asks, “How can it recognize you/If you don’t step out into the light?” It’s a lyric that’s so sweet and simple yet somehow mystifying, evoking an eerily nostalgic feeling that only Johnston can communicate.
In 2017, Johnston mused to the New York Times, “Hopefully I could have a big hit someday, a real hit.” He came close—in 1994, he signed to Atlantic Records and released his only major label album, “Fun,” only to lose the deal two years later due to his erratic behavior. The idea of the “tortured artist” has long been glamorized in our culture, but in Johnston’s case, his mental illness seemed to be the only thing holding him back from mainstream success.
On a beloved early song of Johnston’s, he sings, “Listen up and I’ll tell a story/About an artist growing old/Some would try for fame and glory/Others aren’t so bold.” Johnston was that bold, and though he never quite escaped the “outsider music” label or attained that one breakthrough hit, his music will continue to touch each person who discovers his wonderfully weird world of cartoon characters, devil towns and pure, true love.