One of the first things you’ll be told when reading anything about Daniel Johnston, the prolific lo-fi musician who died yesterday (September 11) is how beloved he was by other musicians. Kurt Cobain and Sonic Youth are the names that usually crop up first but, as you can see from the sheer amount of heartfelt tributes paid to him in the wake of his death, his reach stretched much, much further.
A much lesser reported examples comes in the form of David Bowie, whose deep cut ‘Wood Jackson’ is believed to have been written about Johnston. The track – a shuffling, melancholy song, filled with floating organ and yawning guitar melodies – was released as a b-side on various formats of both the ‘Slow Burn’ and ‘Everyone Says ‘Hi’’ singles, as well as a bonus track on 2002 album ‘Heathen’. Bowie himself didn’t explicitly confirm the song was about Johnston but its lyrics and his known admiration of the American musician (Johnston was one of the acts booked to play when Bowie curated the 2002 Meltdown Festival) make a pretty convincing case for that being so.
In an interview with Mojo in 2002, Bowie discussed Johnston, calling him a “one-man Brian Wilson/Beach Boys”. “He comes out of Austin, Texas, also another lad who had a lot of problems with thinking,” he said. “He was in different institutions and hospitals all his life and would make funny little cassettes of all his songs, on an out-of-tune piano or guitar: beautiful, poignant, sad little pieces. And he’d take them into the local comic shop and swap the cassettes for comics.”
“Jackson made twenty tapes a day/To give away,” ‘Wood Jackson’ opens, perhaps a nod to Johnston’s tape-swapping habits, how he would hand them out to other people he met (like customers at the McDonald’s he worked at), and his prolificness (he released 13 albums between 1981 and 1994 alongside many more EPs, singles, and oddities). Later, Bowie sings of an artist whose “heart’s upon his sleeve and his blade/Wood Jackson took the beating every day, given out, passed away”. Johnston’s music was full of the most sincere, emotionally crushing lyricism, pulled from his experiences of life and battles with mental health. He alluded to what he endured to make his art and its incredibly honest nature himself in ‘A Lonely Song’ when he sang: “I bet you never knew/What I went through/What I had to do/Just to bring you a lonely song.”
Throughout his life – and probably in his death – Johnston was given labels like “outsider” and “quirky”. Is that what Bowie was referring to when he sang, “The tunes they’d call creative when they’re running out of names […] But the names that hurt poor Jackson stopped the haters in his way”? Some have criticised those tags given to Johnston for exploiting the musician’s struggles with mental illness, but they didn’t seem to affect him like the character in Bowie’s song. “If people were making fun of me, if they have a good time making fun of me, then that’s just as good, really,” he told Rolling Stone in 1994. “I’m entertaining them. Maybe I’m more of a comedian than they know.”
We’ll likely never know for definite whether ‘Wood Jackson’ really is about Johnston but, as the world mourns the loss of a truly unique and special artist, it provides another beautiful tune to remember him by,