Daniel Johnston was an ambitious songwriter and artist. When the filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig began working with him for the famous 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, he was surprised that the musician had faithfully archived his own life, resulting in a wealth of material: Super 8 home movies, cassette recordings and drawings.
“He had this master plan that he was going to do something with all of this,” Johnston’s former manager Jeff Tartakov has said.
The artist, who has died of a heart attack, aged just 58, was vulnerable. His bipolar disorder and lifelong mental health battles saw to that. But that doesn’t mean that he lacked agency. Indeed in the 1980s he became a local hero in his home town of Austin when he handed out homemade tapes of his lo-fi music, which he also dropped off at the offices of The Austin Chronicle, the newspaper that broke the news of his death.
Johnston’s friend Brian Beattie told the paper yesterday: “He was first a legend in his own mind, then he became a real legend. That was the only time I saw that happen where someone was like, ‘I’m gonna get famous’ and he just kind of made himself. He was the least likely person on Earth to get popular – and he did.”
When Kurt Cobain wore a T-shirt depicting the artwork for one of Johnston’s tapes, ‘Hi, How are you’, that legend took off. Johnston became aligned with the ‘90s countercultural movement – epitomised by alternative bands such as Nirvana and Sonic Youth and filmmakers such as Harmony Korine, who included Johnston’s austere song ‘Casper The Friendly Ghost’ on the unflinching Kids – which signified that the weirdos had infiltrated the mainstream. He was their patron saint.
Johnston signed to Atlantic records, working with Butthole Surfers‘ Paul Leary to produce ‘Fun’, the 1994 record that beefed up his minimalist sound, the result a collection of clattering garage punk. The Devil and Daniel Johnston provided Johnston with another renaissance; a late noughties blogosphere hungry for alternative sounds ate up the glossily produced (by his standards) 2009 album ‘Is And Always Was’, overseen by Jason Falkner.
Ill-health prevented Daniel Johnston from working in recent years, but his influence on popular culture has been immeasurable. As a musician, he inspired not only the likes of Cobain, but also more recent confessional songwriters such as Bright Eyes and a new generation of musicians who are upfront about mental health – NME new gen favourite Beabadoobee has spoken about his influence on her work. The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, too, loved his work as a cartoonist.
- Read more: “He was an outsider and I related to that”: Beabadobee on how cult hero Daniel Johnston inspired a new generation of songwriters
As is the case with any complex, ambitious songwriter, Daniel Johnston’s work was eclectic and diverse – though certain themes re-emerged: depression, the power of romantic love, a girl called Laurie whom he met in art school (they were reunited at the 2005 premiere of The Devil and Daniel Johnston). So it can be daunting to parse his sprawling back-catalogue, which consists of 17 albums.
Here, though, are 13 great songs from this wonderful, gifted musician.
‘Devil Town’ (1990)
Clocking in at one minute and four seconds, this a cappella track captures everything that was unique about Daniel Johnson. “I was living in a devil town,” he sings, continuing, “All friends were vampires / Didn’t know they were vampires / Turns out I was a vampire myself”. It’s haunting, strange and sad. The track was reimagined as a jazz number on the 2010 compilation ‘Beam Me Up’, but nothing can beat the otherworldly original.
‘Some Things Last A Long Time’ (1990)
Taken from the same album, this delicate number features piano but remains almost as slight and fragile as ‘Devil Town’. It’s mostly two chiming notes played repeatedly, Johnston insisting that “some things last a lifetime” – which could be his mantra when you consider his ongoing health battles and lifelong creativity; he was reportedly working on an album before he died. Check out this amazing cover from Lana Del Rey.
‘High Horse’ (2009)
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s this jaunty, Billy Joel-inspired pop song on which, over bouncing piano, Johnston beams, “Say ‘Hello’ at my funeral / I’ll be right there on time”. Although those lyrics are bittersweet – and particularly moving now – it was noted at the time that ‘Is And Always Was’, the album on which it appeared, was more upbeat than much of his work. It was his last proper album, and a fine way to remember him.
‘Without You’ (2009)
Actually, while we’re here, let’s enjoy another ‘Is And Always Was’ cut. Daniel Johnston wrote beautifully about love, and he also wrote fabulously, archly comic songs. ‘Without You’ is a carefree break-up song: “Without you – I’ll be doin’ fine!” he sings, later concluding, “Without you – I’ll be a magic spell!” Try and listen to it without smiling.
‘Funeral Girl’ (1999)
Johnston was dropped from Atlantic when his 1994 album ‘Fun’ didn’t sell: his 1999 collection ‘Rejected Unknown’ was named after this fact. Standout ‘Funeral Girl’ also indicates that he was a more self-aware songwriter than some may realise. The track opens as an austere piano-led ditty that could have been lifted from one of his early home cassettes, before blossoming into a comical honky-tonk ode, replete with parping brass, to a woman who knocks about at funerals.
‘Love Wheel’ (1994)
You can’t trust people, and certainly not the ones who didn’t buy Daniel Johnston’s 1994 album ‘Fun’. This belter gets it off to a shit-kicking start, the jangling percussion off-set with crunching guitar and Johnston’s uninhibited vocal: “Show me your loving / Like the heaven above will do.” It’s joyful and melancholy – and you can dance to it.
‘Life In Vain’ (1994)
It’s immediately followed on the ‘Fun’ tracklist by ‘Life In Vain’, a swooning ballad so beatific that it’s weird to think that a) it came from someone widely considered an ‘outsider artist’ and b) it wasn’t a hit. The sweeping strings (surely – surely! – an inspiration for Green Day’s ‘Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)’, which came three years later), the loose guitar playing, the yearning question “Where am I going to?”: this is one of Johnston’s most accessible songs.
‘Casper The Friendly Ghost’ (1983)
Time, then, to explore some of Johnston’s least accessible work. It’s one of the great contradictions of his contradictory career that this became one of his best-known songs, thanks to its appearance on the Kids soundtrack. A real early home recording, it’s Johnston banging away, pressing on keyboard keys and weaving a tale of a ghost who “was smiling through his own personal hell” in life but found happiness in death because “everybody respects the dead”.
In Kids, this deceptively naive-sounding song was used as the soundtrack to a brutal attack in a skate park, a testament to the darkness that haunted much of Johnston’s music.
‘Funeral Home’ (1980)
Even at its most rudimentary, Daniel Johnston’s music had an indelible quality. This scratchy, homemade is mostly him singing the same lines over and over again, mostly unassisted, until some friends join in: “Funeral home / Going to that funeral home / Got me a coffin, shiny and black / I’m going to the funeral and I’m never coming back.” Yet the tune is so insistent, so strange and so perfect, that it will stay with you all day.
‘Wicked World’ (1980)
This one’s from Johnston’s debut record, ‘Songs Of Pain’, recorded in his parents’ basement in Virginia, before he moved to Austin. The album is challenging (it’s just Johnston, a keyboard and a tape recorder), but his hallmark sounds are there. While ‘Grievances’, which opens the album, is often considered the ‘quintessential’ Johnston, ‘Wicked Word’ is more tuneful and sweet.
‘Mountain Top’ (2003)
Fast-forward to 2003 and Johnston teamed up with Sparklehorse frontman Mark Linkous, who, like Paul Leary and Jason Falkner, channelled the musician’s uncompromising sound into something more accessible. This pulsing track combines strings, breakneck drums and sparkly sound effects, coming off like like a parallel universe drive time classic – if you were behind the wheel of a spaceship, perhaps.
‘My Life Is Starting Over Again’ (1989)
Man, Daniel Johnston was great at opening albums. This groovy rockabilly number addresses Johnston’s own career, another indication of his self-awareness. An emerging cult hero, he’d played South By South West festival in his hometown. Here he boasts: “My fame is spreading across the land / My life is starting over again”. And this iconoclastic figure’s fame and enduring influence will live on.
‘True Love Will Find You In The End’ (1990)
Want proof? This sparse, delicate love song has become Daniel Johnston’s signature tune, having been covered by countless artists, including The Flaming Lips and Beck. Over gentle guitar, Johnston sings the lines that ring with the beautiful simplicity of so much of his work: “True love will find you in the end / This is a promise with a catch / Only if you’re looking can it find you / ‘Cause true love is searching, too.“