When the American musician Daniel Johnston died on Tuesday at the age of 58, Rolling Stone magazine described him as an “outsider folk artist”. Watch his early ramshackle, unselfconscious performances on YouTube and it’s easy to think of him that way – his guitar-playing propulsive but imprecise, his singing voice a high warble that seemed to emanate always from the top of his head, the tip of his tongue. He was a guy who had something to say and so said it. Everything was direct, all primary colours, all full of the certainty that this business of living and feeling was worth it, even when he sang of pain and rejection. It was unschooled (unless you count Lennon/McCartney as his tutors) and immediate.
As a career musician, however, he wasn’t an “outsider” at all. The youngest of five children, Johnston established himself as a singer-songwriter in Austin, Texas, where he quickly became a fixture of the local music scene. He spent the mid-1980s playing small festivals and was profiled by MTV, before releasing records on the New York label Homestead (which had previously put out albums by Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr and Nick Cave). Alternative rock went mainstream in the early 1990s and its brightest star, Kurt Cobain, was photographed wearing a Johnston T-shirt. Before long, Johnston was recording his album Fun for Atlantic Records, the home of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin. Funny place for an outsider.
Johnston always somehow reminded me of Andy Kaufman’s character Foreign Man, which is dumb because they were little alike. Perhaps what they had in common was an unshakeable belief in the value of their contribution – duff jokes in Foreign Man’s case and scrappily played songs in Johnston’s. It’s a heroic self-confidence, because it’s the kind that pushes back against the scepticism of others, not out of narcissism but out of a compulsion to share wonder, to spread the wealth. In Johnston’s 1982 song “Story of an Artist”, he sings about those who “would try for fame and glory”. He tried but only, I imagine, as a means to disseminate the joy of his music.
And it’s his music, and his equally affecting artwork, that Johnston should be remembered for. That’s why I’ve resisted till now touching upon what the word “outsider” really means when we speak of him. It’s a euphemism, a somewhat awkward way of acknowledging his schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Since Jeff Feuerzeig’s powerful 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, the singer’s mental health issues have been central to his myth, to the point that the knowledge of them threatens to overshadow his accomplishments. What I mean is that “True Love Will Find You in the End” is a great song – not just “great for a crazy guy”. I think Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy said it best a couple of years ago in an interview with the New York Times: “Daniel has managed to create in spite of his mental illness, not because of it. He’s been honest in his portrayal of what he’s been struggling with without overtly drawing attention to it.”
So, RIP Daniel Johnston, weird Disneyland version of Neil Young; creator of Yip/Jump Music, one of the most influential and thrilling albums of the 1980s; and the dude who did the drawing on the T-shirt I happened to be wearing today. You were brilliant.