Inside the world of Daniel Johnston
What do you say about a 58 year old man who died?
Daniel Johnston’s world was not your world. It was not my world. It was his world, undeniably and irrevocably his world. He knew about your world, he knew about my world. But my world and your world, he could only look at with wonder and curiosity and regret and frustration and sadness, for his world and our worlds could never align.
Only the God he believed in and the God I believe in and the God a lot of people believe in knows the answer to that. It’s just one of those things.
I first encountered Daniel’s music…I honestly can’t tell you. I don’t remember. Was it on a Shimmy Disc cassette sampler? They had a lot of them. Was it on a mixtape from one of the dozen or so people I pen-palled with in the late 80s? Was it outside of a club in Santa Cruz at a Melvins show when, upon learning I was from Texas, this guy named Kurdt something or other asked if I knew who Daniel Johnston was? Was it on a Half Japanese record? Was it in Rollerderby? Or Alternative Press? Or Re-Flex? Or Forced Exposure? Or Big Takeover? Or the WFMU Catalog of Curiosities? All of these answers seem plausible and in the haziness of memory, they vary in wrongness and rightness.
I can, however, tell you the first record I knowingly owned of his—Hi How Are You. Then came Artistic Vice. Then came It’s Spooky. Then Songs of Pain. Then More Songs Of Pain. Then then then then then then then……………..
Doesn’t matter. Daniel Johnston, Texas legend, is dead, aged 58.
If you knew Daniel’s music and you didn’t like it, you’re probably rolling your eyes right now. That’s okay. You aren’t a lesser person for it—it just didn’t have any impact on you. And you know what? Life is like that.
If you knew Daniel’s music and you did like it….you understand exactly the sentiments above. But you didn’t just like it, either. His music crawled into your ear and attached itself to your soul and it has never and will never ever ever let go. You didn’t just have a great listen; you had an experience that updated and upgraded your soul and your heart.
You were made a better person for having heard it.
But let’s be real about Daniel. Me and you, right now.
Daniel was not a pleasant package. He was morbidly obese. He was weird. He was awkward. He smoked way too much. He had a very creepy stare. He often stank. He spent more time in and out of hospitals than he did on the stage. His physical presence was intimidating. He could end a beautiful song about loving and longing with the declaration that “if I can’t be a lover, then I’ll be a pest.”
But oh! Oh, how he pulled a Cyrano de Bergerac on anyone who heard his music! Much like Daniel, you could make the mistake of writing off his cassette albums by appearance alone. A white cassette with a fragile plastic shell (which invariably broke within five minutes of leaving the record store—if it wasn’t broken already) and photocopied cover art that often was off-center and covered with a sticky brown film from the liquid cement used to paste it on? You would be forgiven for laughing at anyone who told you that some of the greatest and most beautiful songs EVER could be found on them.
More than some, though.
How about nearly all?
Like most “cult acts” discovered by the mainstream, his vast catalog has been distilled into one or two songs that are good, but by no means are definitive. After today, I expect coffee shops with open mic nights to start posting “No covers of ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’” a la Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” In the coming days and weeks, you’re going to be hearing a lot of hot takes on one or two key Daniel songs—fabulous as they are, there are many more wonderful Daniel Johnston to be had other than “Go” or “Walking The Cow” or “Some Things Last A Long Time” or “Hey Joe.” Go check out “Worried Shoes.” Or “No More Pushing Joe Around.” Or “My Life Is Starting Over.” Or “Where The Soul Never Dies.” Or “I Met Roky Erickson.” Or his cover of “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Or “Ain’t No Woman Gonna Make A George Jones Outta Me.” That is the good stuff; that is the essence of Big Boy Danny’s music.
What makes Daniel Johnston’s music so special to me? Is it because yours truly has always been weird, overweight, socially awkward and totally self-aware of it middle aged Texas man? It’s quite possible. Is it because his songs offer encouragement to a man named “Joe” and my name is Joseph? Is it because Could be, kid. Could be.
Like so many people around the world right now, I never met Daniel. I never saw him perform. But in his music, in his art—he was kind enough and brave enough to let us into his world. The world of Daniel Johnston. The world that is not my world. The world that is not your world. As our editor stated on a Facebook post of mine, “his songs were smash hits for everyone who listened to him.” He’s absolutely right. That’s why he’s the editor.
But damn it, Daniel Johnston is dead.
* * * * * * * * * *
Daniel Johnston died the day before.
“There’s a Heaven and there’s a star for you…”
AUDIO: Daniel Johnston “True Love Will Find You In The End”