Daniel Johnston, the Folk Poet of Devil Town
While the songs of the influential musician, who died at 58, will endure, it’s hard to say that he was properly appreciated in his time.
In 1990, the songwriter Daniel Johnston called into a radio show in New Jersey from his parents’ bedroom in West Virginia to perform one of his songs, “Speeding Motorcycle.” Yo La Tengo, which had recorded its own version of the track, was set up to play with him, but live in the studio. “Daniel, first of all, I think I better introduce you to this band,” the DJ said as the musicians were gearing up to play. “Okay, hi, band,” Johnston replied. “Ready?”
His curtness might have seemed rude from anyone less gentle. Johnston, who died Wednesday at the age of 58, was revered by a generation of alt-rockers for his softness. An outsider artist who sang in a faltering voice about his ghosts and demons, Johnston was admired by Kurt Cobain and others for his troubled and often childlike songs, many of which were shaped by his experiences with mental illness. (Johnston was diagnosed with depression and schizophrenia.) His best-known track might be “Devil Town,” the opener off his album 1990, although it only became famous years after its release, thanks to performances by the likes of Bright Eyes. “All my friends were vampires / Didn’t know they were vampires,” Johnston sings. “Turns out I was a vampire myself / In the devil town.”
Born in Sacramento, Johnston grew up in West Virginia in a Christian fundamentalist household, a setting that informed the eschatological imagery in his work. In the early 1980s, he relocated to Austin, where he recorded his punk-folk lullabies on homemade cassette tapes that he—and others on his behalf—distributed via local record stores. He helped make Austin weird: The city boasts a famous mural of a mutant bullfrog drawn by Johnston for the cover of Hi, How Are You?, an unfinished 1983 cassette. When a Baja Fresh moved into the building and management threatened to tear the mural down in 2004, alarmed locals rose up to save it.
When punk broke into the mainstream in the 1990s, Johnston, as with other artists of the grunge era, saw his boat lifted by the rising tide. Two of his songs, both of which first appeared on cassette, were included on the soundtrack to Larry Clark’s 1995 film, Kids. Like the movie itself, the selection of Johnston’s music was controversial. Both picks are tributes to Casper the Friendly Ghost, a figure who occupies a dark place in the artist’s personal cosmology: A few years earlier, while flying in a two-seater plane with his father, Johnston had a mental-health episode and, believing himself to be Casper, took the keys from the ignition and threw them out of the plane. As a 2005 documentary recounts, both Johnstons survived the crash; a photograph taken immediately afterward shows the father and son in front of a church billboard that reads, “God promises a safe landing, but not a calm voyage.”
Taken as a whole, Johnston’s career shows how neuroatypical artists usually remain on the margins of the music industry, even when the scene reveres them. When Mary Lou Lord, Beck, and other alt-rockers rerecorded his songs, their versions reached far wider audiences. Despite his brush with broader appeal, Johnston never achieved commercial success. Half his recorded catalog was committed to cassette, and the other albums were published by a string of small labels. Johnston reached his artistic zenith in the 2000s, with a tribute album featuring covers by Vic Chesnutt, Tom Waits, Death Cab for Cutie, and others.
But by the time his drawings made it into the 2006 biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Johnston himself had mostly dropped off the map. Atlantic Records, the only major label to represent him, had let him go in 1996 after his debut album, Fun, proved to be a flop. He intermittently produced other recordings until 2012; while he endured hospitalizations all his life, in more recent years, they became frequent. A producer from Austin, Brian Beattie, has edited a final (still unreleased) album, which includes a seven-minute rendition of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” Members of the bands Fugazi, Wilco, and Built to Spill helped Johnston to mount a farewell tour in 2017.
While Johnston’s songs will endure, it’s hard not to think about the work he never finished, including the so-called lost record, If. Neuroatypicality confers an outsider status that many curators and fans appreciate, at times because it suggests authenticity or purity, but it also often leaves artists vulnerable to poverty and poor health. Absent the efforts of popular artists who admired him—and those of the record-store clerks, alt-weekly critics, and countless others who helped him spread his gospel—Johnston’s life might have passed in obscurity.
Johnston, who sang about eternity and redemption (and cartoon ghosts), made something permanent with his songwriting. “True love will find you in the end,” he sings, on one of his best and most covered songs. “This is a promise with a catch / Only if you’re looking can it find you / ’Cause true love is searching too.”