A Headspace Bared For All To See: Remembering Daniel Johnston
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE 405 (NOW DEFUNCT)
In many of us, there is a little, tentacle-eyed creature called the "Innocent Frog.” This frog encourages us to be bold with our naivete and in the face of fear, but also pushes us to seek beauty in the modest and mundane. This frog is the creative conduit of a soul most vulnerable yet courageous— this soul is of none other than Daniel Johnston.
In light of Johnston’s death, who passed away too soon at 58 years of age on September 11, we’ve heard and seen how the visual artist/singer-songwriter has impacted the lives who’ve experienced or even lived his art. Most reflections have touched on the idea of him being this brilliant storyteller whose emotions were worn courageously on his sleeve. As someone who also has been touched by his music, the above sentiments are most true.
Though Johnston’s music initially met my ears as a 12-year-old after watching the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, it met my heart just five years ago. Like many who were introduced to his very peculiar sound, I was an anxious, depressed kid ready to enter college, but afraid of what people thought of me. Johnston’s music was a solace, a modicum of what it meant to be yourself, under siege by a world that so tiringly pushes for normalcy and labels.
To say Daniel Johnston was himself is an understatement. He embodied peculiarity both as an artist and person, however, Johnston the artist was not to be separated from Johnston the person. They say music is a balm for a weary soul, for Johnston that was most certainly the case. Though his lyrics can resonate with any individual battling through their own demons—their own mental illness—the pained words that dwelled beneath the boyish quality of his voice is a voyeuristic experience, to say the least. Those familiar with Johnston’s story, are well aware of the stories of him dabbling in the basement, pounding vigorously on piano keys as he endured episodes of manic depression. Eerie—yes—but it resulted in art so raw that it’s still difficult to not writhe in pain and sadness alongside Johnston as he utters lines like, “Despair came knocking at my door/ And I let her in for a while/ She sat on the couch and began smoking/ She said nothing.”
These lines, lifted from the song titled 'Despair Came Knockin’,' are a mere example of the artist’s ability to balance cutting directness with profound metaphors in a way that was so effortless. In fact, he’d routinely render themes about sadness, loneliness, mediocrity, and even his tumultuous mind, with a nonchalant approach that made these feelings and thoughts seem routine for him. Johnston normalized his complex array of emotions so much that his words stirred up discomfort within listeners, causing them to consider long and hard whether or not they should laugh or mourn alongside the lovesick singer. But this is not to say his words didn’t allow listeners to coexist in both sadness and joy. He’d often use his sadness as a springboard for listeners to look upward and past what may be difficult in the present.
Arguably his most well-known track (having been covered by the likes of Beck and Wilco), 'True Love Will Find You In The End' sees Johnston use his own feelings of isolation and offers it up in an incredibly vulnerable sacrifice, encouraging those who resonate to be vulnerable themselves, “because true love will find you in the end,” sings Johnston.
It’s easy to go through any of Johnston’s lyrics and speak about the many emotional nuances that show face—whether that be nihilistic self-deprecation or hope-driven warnings against living life in vain—but the fact of the matter of Johnston's legacy is that it remains largely predicated on a holistic sound that will never be replicated again.
Though few can spin words together as brutally raw, self-aware, and resounding as Johnston, it’s his lo-fi, self-made aesthetic that made him truly unique and so influential for artists today. Considering the amount of technological innovation and stacks of money that swirl around the music industry, it’s quite incredible what Johnston managed to accomplish with a few bucks in his pocket and novelty keyboard to boot. Simply put, Johnston was able to make great songs regardless of the instruments and recording equipment at hand. This level of adaptability allowed Johnston to establish the foundation for the bedroom pop trend that would arrive nearly thirty years after his peak in popularity. Yet, to this day, Johnston’s DIY approach remains much more unique and clever than what is out there now.
This brings me to Johnston’s seminal, self-made mixtape Hi, How Are You, which Johnston recorded when he was just twenty-two years old. Crackling with tape-player imperfections and vocals that always seemed to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Hi, How Are You truly is a cultural artifact as it still packs a devastating punch, despite sounding so cheaply made. Though the barrage of frantic hands hitting feverishly against his little keyboard on tracks like 'Walking The Cow' or 'Big Business Monkey' suggests otherwise, Johnston carefully crafted Hi, How Are You through an intentional guise that'd soon become an aesthetic of his own, amidst an age that champions minimalism and imperfections. That being said, this clamorous collection of tracks, in particular, remains charmingly imperfect and so emotionally earnest, yet it is still difficult to believe that Johnston lived and felt every word he ever sang across his 17-record-career. But he did—he really did.
With all of the descriptors that have been made synonymous with Johnston’s legacy and musical style—like pure, cute, and childish—it’s easy to forget that this was an artist who experienced pain on a level that was everything but childish. Though he was practically forced to live a sheltered life, Johnston was a person who did not need to go out into the real world to battle with everyday trials and tribulations. Even in his own dreams and private thoughts—Johnston was faced with the belief that he was simply not enough—not enough for love, not enough to make it as a musician, and not enough to be a competent human being with competent feelings. But, as most now know, Johnston was more than enough. He was a highly-influential talent deserving of all the praise (which still eludes him) and was as much of a human being as both you and I, having felt deep, human emotion on an entirely different level that cannot be explained.
Thank you, Daniel Johnston. Thank you for instilling within us, the courageous "Innocent Frog," which urged us to be brave with our imaginations and hearts. Thank you for showing us how to appreciate the beauty in the small things of life; thank you that in spite of the gap that separated you from true happiness, you let it be known that we were all deserving of love. Now Daniel Johnston, lie rest assured that you, yourself were loved and adored.