West Virginia native Daniel Johnston died at 58 at his home in Waller, Texas, on Wednesday.
Over the years, Johnston has attained near folk-hero status in the world of music and art. The boy who grew up in New Cumberland, West Virginia, made his name in Austin as an eccentric songwriter and performer who also sketched pictures of cartoonish but surreal characters that would one day be the focus of art shows. He was doing all of this while working at McDonald’s, or, briefly, Houston’s former amusement park Astroworld.
The where and when of everything in Johnston’s story can get confusing, but he did indeed at one point leave home, unbeknownst to his family, to become a carnie. And his muse (a woman who probably didn’t really know how much Johnston was infatuated with her until much later in life) married the local mortician. There was also the infamous incident after Johnston performed at the South by Southwest Music Festival. On the way home in a personal aircraft with his father piloting, Johnston, in a manic fit and claiming he was “Casper, the friendly ghost,” wrestled the controls away and sent the plane diving down. His father was able to execute a relatively safe crash-landing, with both surviving. The incident landed Johnston in a mental institution against his will for a time.
All of those tales are the obvious stuff of rock legend, but what really garnered Johnston cult-hero status was his music. It was lo-fi and simple, but there was no denying there was something there. Tribute albums and cover versions by well-known artists ranging from Tom Waits to Beck point to the bones of songs that were sturdy, haunting and oddly pop-like in some ways. When Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was seen wearing a T-shirt sporting the alien/frog drawing from Johnston’s album “Hi, How Are You?” the notoriety around this mysterious figure greatly increased.
The documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” was widely acclaimed, and Johnston did come to know something of appreciation and success in his own time.
Johnston’s family was sternly religious, as was hardly the exception in New Cumberland when he was growing up, and Johnston fixated on issues of heaven and hell and the devil, always with the theme of good defeating evil in the end. His severe bipolar disorder, not well understood by his family or, really, the greater medical community when it began to seriously manifest in the 1980s (by which point his family had moved to Texas) limited Johnston’s success and notoriety. There was simply no path for Daniel Johnston to be a songwriter whose songs would be commissioned and paid for by the likes of those who strangely and eventually ended up discovering and performing them.
Most recently, millions have heard Johnston’s distinctly warbly voice and out-of-tune piano with plenty of static in the background as his song “The Story of an Artist” plays over a commercial for a laptop computer. There’s a rich irony there, as Johnston himself rarely laid his tracks down on anything more advanced than a tape deck with the “record” button pushed in. The song sounds like it’s made to feel retro, but it’s the genuine article, recorded in a relative’s garage sometime around 1982.
Though others will always claim him, there’s something about Johnston’s story that is very indicative of the state he hailed from. There was no other way for Daniel Johnston to do what he did and become who he became, than his own. His life was beset by mental health issues, the constraints of his upbringing and a general inability to operate within the normal channels of everyday life. But that was also what fueled his brilliance, his persistence and his prolific output, whether it be tapes recorded in a basement or sketches displayed and sold in art galleries. Daniel Johnston was an artist, and artists, like Mountaineers, are always free.