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Saturday, June 22, 2024
The Observer

Hi, how are you Daniel Johnston?

Cristina Interiano | The Observer
Cristina Interiano | The Observer

Daniel Johnston is a name that will forever be remembered but only by a select few — a small, devoted following who considers him the most influential songwriter, artist and outsider to have ever walked this earth.

Johnston passed away at his home in Waller, Texas, on Sept. 11 at the age 58.

If you’re unfamiliar with Daniel Johnston, you’re not alone. Unlike Eddie Money’s death last week, Johnston’s death was greatly over shadowed. Johnston was well-known to the indie and underground rock scene, but his unconventional and raspy sound was one that was not commonly well received. However, Johnston made a huge impact on music despite going unrecognized (with the exception of Kurt Cobain and his t-shirt at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards).

Johnston was one of the greatest songwriters ever to grace the underground. He was the king of old-school melodies, haunting lyrics and child-like vocals. He began releasing his music in 1980 when he was living in Austin, Texas, and working at the local McDonald’s. He recorded his debut album “Songs of Pain” on a simple tape recorder and distributed his cassettes to McDonald’s customers, people on the street and anyone who would accept a tape graced with his hand-drawn cover.

Listening to “Songs of Pain” is emotional and intensely beautiful. Every song on the album is packed with sincerity and truth. The simplicity of the lyrics, the recording process and the lack of instrumental depth don’t matter because the album is a cry for truth. Music, like any type of art, doesn’t have rules that need to be followed and guidelines to adhere to. Johnston would welcome any fame but never at the expense of sincerity.

No two of his songs sound alike.

Throughout his life, Johnston battled with severe depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. But he also had a childlike charm. He worshipped Casper the Friendly Ghost and Captain America and — as a lover of the Beatles — he believed John Lennon had already returned to earth in another dimension. With his youthful imagination, he excelled at illustration. His drawings of crazy aliens, strange animals and cartoon-like images were all done with with magic marker — his signature style. Every album he released was decorated with one of his drawings, adding to the innocence of his music.

Johnston’s first commercial album “Hi, How Are You?” pulled him right to the edge of the limelight. With the backing of his previous albums, he eventually caught MTV’s attention and became a part of the college rock circuit, which included Sonic Youth and Butthole Surfers. Jeff Feuerzeig’s 2006 film “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” brought his artistry and imagination to the big screen. In 2017, he went on his farewell tour with members of Wilco, Fugazi and Built to Spill.

It’s sad to see another brilliant musician go, but, in the minds of a faithful few, his legacy will live on.

Five essential songs from Daniel Johnston:

“Joy With Pleasure” from “Songs of Pain” (1980)

“The Sun Shines Down on Me” from “Don’t Be Scared” (1982)

“Speeding Motorcycle” from “Yip/Jump Music” (1983)

“Walking the Cow” from “Hi, How Are You?” (1983)

"True Love Will Find You in the End" from "Retired Boxer" (1985)