Back in the day, Kurt Cobain was often seen sporting a t-shirt that featured a googly-eyed creature and the phrase “Hi, How Are You.” Unbeknownst to pretty much everyone was the fact that it was taken from the 1983 album cover of lo-fi folk musician Daniel Johnston, a one-of-a-kind artist who has just died at the age of 58.
Johnston—who in addition to Cobain, influenced the likes of Tom Waits, the Butthole Surfers, Lana Del Rey, and Wilco—was known for his uniquely jangled, sorrowful, gentle sound that was most typified in his songs “True Love Will Find You In the End” and “Some Things Last a Long Time.” An acclaimed songwriter and visual artist, Daniel is among the greatest of all American outsider creatives.
He was also known for his epically bizarre life that was spattered by music, art, occasionally drugs, episodic violence, and a double-barrel blast of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He was just about as complicated a human being as they come.
Raised in the booming 1980’s Austin music scene, Johnston quickly gained a reputation thanks to his relentless hustling of his home-recorded, exclusively lo-fi cassettes, which landed him an appearance on MTV. He was living the dream of every ’80s kid with a guitar until things got weird and wild when he took LSD at a Butthole Surfers show. It was like something straight out of a Nancy Reagan “Just Say No” commercial.
I have been witness to and on the receiving end of my fair share of psychotic episodes, and I can report that it is indeed a challenging circumstance. A schizophrenic who is cranked up to 11 is still your friend, but your friend does not seem to be present in the situation. Or perhaps, it’s more that you see them in there, but you can tell that they’re just along for the ride. The Demon is in charge now, and there is nothing that can prepare you for wrangling that.
Daniel Johnston went through such a period in which his family, his managers, Jad Fair, Sonic Youth, and the Butthole Surfers all found themselves on the wrangling end of the Demon. That sentence alone should be enough to indicate the epic nature of this poor, brilliant soul’s time on this planet. We’re talking about a Jekyll-and-Hyde who’s as massive as Paul Bunyan, with Aoide the Muse of song on one shoulder and Mephistopheles on the other.
He became obsessed with the Devil. He clocked his manager with a lead pipe. Sonic Youth lost him in New York and he ended up homeless, starving, and robbed. He performed several shows of legendary intensity. He crashed a plane and walked away unscathed. And so on.
Music is made by mutants, or at least the best of it is. Sometimes they’re cursed to hear the poetry of angels whispered into their ears, and they simply don’t have any room left for all the noise…
Music is made by mutants, or at least the best of it is. Sometimes they’re cursed to hear the poetry of angels whispered into their ears, and they simply don’t have any room left for all the noise droned at them by this world the rest of us live in. When they’re receiving the poetry, these people can be challenging, but they seem to transmit a message from wherever that other place is they go to, a place most of us can only visit when we’re sleeping, whether we’re having dreams or nightmares. And maybe that message is important.
After a lengthy hiatus, Daniel Johnston began playing music again when he was attacked by dogs from which he was saved by a pair of chivalrous rock and roll kids who later introduced him to the album Pet Sounds. Read that sentence twice.
I was lucky enough to cover one of his shows back in 2011. Fifty years old, clad in a sweat suit and sneakers, the body of a man who sits and eats with regularity, piercing blue eyes, a sad, sweet, haunting voice, Daniel Johnston put on the most vulnerable performance I’ve ever seen.
Schizophrenics tend to live ten to fifteen years less than the average person. Medication, unhealthy living conditions, suicide—it’s a rigorous existence that is hard on the body and the brain. Daniel Johnston died of a heart attack at 58, so he beat the average by twenty years. Numbers like those should give us pause and make us consider how we can better treat severe conditions such as this. Who knows how many more songs there were to be written?
Daniel Johnston’s life was fantastically documented in 2005’s The Devil and Daniel Johnston. It will make you feel a complex spectrum of feelings, from awe to fear, horror to love, joy to sadness.
True love will find you in the end You’ll find out just who was your friend Don’t be sad, I know you will But don’t give up until 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 But how can it recognize you Unless you step out into the light, the light Don’t be sad, I know you will But don’t give up until True love will find you in the end
– “True Love Will Find You in the End”from Retired Boxer (1985)