What Daniel Johnston taught us about self-discovery

Homestead Records

I don’t think I could summate my relationship with Daniel Johnston’s impossible discography better than someone else once did in reference to another person entirely. After a few glasses of wine, a good friend of mine said of her husband, “The best part about him is, I know for a fact that I would’ve absolutely hated him if I met him any other way or at any other time.”

Life in Vain was the first Johnston record I ever heard, at some dumb party in some loud place I didn’t want to be. I might’ve met Jeremiah The Innocent in passing but other than that I was unfamiliar with Johnston’s body of work. Yet somehow at that dumb party, I seemed to feel the way Johnston must’ve when he recorded the track-in a mental institution down in Austin Texas a year before I was born.  Meaningful connections, whether they be with a person or an expression or an experience, are earned by an authentic sense of discovery.

On balance, Johnston is an artist that gets recommended with one of two prefaces: Novelty faux-music maniac or galaxy-transcending folk prophet. Every one of his albums becomes unbearable with either of those frames in mind because Johnston was neither. He was a prismatic guy that put his demons to work.

Walking the weight

Make no mistake, all of the things you’d think to regurgitate after the passing of a more conventional rockstar apply here, except the tropes have been drawn and quartered; scattered across an exhaustive body of work where they’re all bloodied up and only sort of recognizable.  Instead of writing songs about girls, Johnston compulsively wrote songs about one girl. A girl named Laurie that made him want to jump inside of a coffin. His psychotic epics feel a lot different than say David Bromberg’s or Sonic Youth’s. Where Bromberg’s Sammy’s Song illustrates the fog of madness with poetic language and Sonic Youth’s  Schizophrenia captures the headspace with dissonance and a hypnotic post-punk aesthetic, Johnston’s Mind Movies articulates the same from a place of genuine fear and masochism.

“Some people really liked me, and other people were making fun of me. They thought I was a freak show,” Johnston told Rolling Stone magazine back in 1994. “I was just all wrapped up in the middle of it like a total psychopath. Not like a killer or anything. More like a way-out teddy bear. … And if people were making fun of me, if they have a good time making fun of me, then that’s just as good, really. I’m entertaining them. Maybe I’m more of a comedian than they know.”

Cleaning tables at a McDonald’s in Austin, Johnston would surprise everyone he deemed interesting with a cassette tape, hidden in an order of fries; ballads of panic and dejection that he recorded in his apartment over the course of several years.

Many of these tapes were produced in the middle of nervous breakdowns, but not in spite of them. His insistence on not thinking too much before putting it on the paper meant that like his audience, Johnston was discovering his music in a very raw animate way. Everyone heard Don’t Be Scared exactly when they needed to. An exercise the late singer called, walking the weight of the world.

The uncomfortable silver lining, or bloody rainbow if you like, about Johnston’s untimely death is that it wasn’t the kind of untimely death that could headline a biopic. Acclaim plus madness plus rock stardom didn’t equal suicide? Johnston died of a heart attack at 58 in his Waller Texas home. It sucks that he’s dead, but it’s great that he didn’t want to be. For fans of his work, it means his legacy gets to persist without the quicksand of stigmas. And for his friends and loved ones, it means his memory gets to keep all its limbs; every anecdote left intact because we all know how pleasantly uneventful the ending is.

One day Louis Black, co-founder of the Austin Chronicle, is alone in his office writing when he hears a shuffling at his door. Curious, Black investigates, finding Johnston,  a “skinny little kid that looked fairly demented,” with a cassette in his hand. “I just wanted to give you my tape,” Johnston says. Black tells him that he’ll pass it along to one of the music guys and if they dig it, maybe they’ll write up a review,  but Johnston insists, “I wasn’t really giving you that to review, I just wanted you to listen to it.”

“So Daniel goes away and I put it on the tape-player and it blew my mind. It was one of those where I just got it right away,” Black recalled in the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston. 

In a time wherein every discipline has been gutted by algorithms and virtual importuning that ensures everyone is doing and watching and listening to what they ought to at all times, the self-professed unprofitable servant reminded us to think more kindly of static and to listen when distractions call.

RIP Daniel Johnston. You killed the monster.