I think I saw it in an article, perhaps a sidebar or maybe even TV listing somewhere; it was the title that grabbed me: The Devil and Daniel Johnston. It took me months to get around to watching this 2006 documentary directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, back in the days of renting DVDs through the post, and I was moved. (See the trailer here) I didn’t know who Johnston was, and warming to this endearing and gifted character on screen I became engrossed in his journey. A fountain of creativity in ways which I was jealous Johnston drew, played and sang his way into my heart.
Watching his story unfold; from recording his songs in his parents’ basement, passing out hand decorated cassettes on the street, to a television appearance in the mid-eighties and record deal. He achieved the high honour of the approval of Kurt Cobain who called him: “The greatest songwriter of our time”. The grunge megastar wore a T-shirt emblazoned with Johnston’s doodled frog and title of his 1983 album: “Hi, How Are You?” to an event which popularised the design.
During the film, Johnston’s high pitched voice seemed slightly familiar, but I wasn’t sure where from until I (eventually) recalled there was a scene in the nineties classic film “Empire Records” that used one of his tracks (Rock ‘n Roll/EGA) during a scene. It depicts a character getting stoned and watching the shock rock band Gwar on a television and fantasising about being on stage with them, with very surreal (and unfortunate) results.
I binged on anything Johnston related on YouTube after seeing the documentary, and discovered a wealth of curious, funny and heartbreakingly honest tracks along with videos of his artwork in stills and animation. Much of his material was recorded by Johnston himself on a home tape recorder so the quality is distinctly lo-fi; the sound of him starting and stopping the recording reminded me of the tapes I made as a child recording songs off the radio.
One particular song resonated with me immediately: “I Had Lost My Mind”. A seemingly simple track, I related to it immediately as I was at the time still learning to recognise and cope with my own mental health difficulties. (Watch the video here) I found this short track and its quite funny yet sad storyline a humble and accurate description of what it feels like to be ‘other’. Johnston himself had been diagnosed with schizophrenia as well as bipolar and had spent extended periods in institutions during his life. Returning to this song over time helped me determine that fragility is not the same as weakness and encouraged me to positively channel my own troubled energy into creativity.
It was another film that brought him back to my musical foreground years later: a scene in Drew Barrymore’s excellent “Whip It” shows the mural painted by Johnston himself in 1993 of the same frog that appeared on his album. It was commissioned by the Sound Exchange record store in Austin, Texas and remains to this day. Inspired to get hold of my own copy of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, I rewatched it and rediscovered many more songs in a different capacity. This time I was latching onto the likes of “Story of an Artist” and “Some Things Last A Long Time”.
It made me sad that Johnston never received the acclaim he deserved; most people I knew hadn’t heard of him. It feels like his music was a valuable gem mined by a certain audience, a treasure waiting for those who explored the strange outsider cracks of 90’s indy music. The advent of streaming services more recently has meant if I was having a particular kind of day, I could stream his catalogue of material, which felt like I had delight and therapy on a digital tap.
I was saddened to read of his death late on Wednesday night. It was one of those nights where I struggled to fall asleep and was doing the wrong thing of scrolling on my phone. Another musician had mentioned Johnston’s passing on his social media and I wanted to check for myself. It wasn’t a shock, Johnston’s physical health was not great and he’d recently suffered a fall, but 58 seemed too young an age for his bright light to be dimmed.
It will never be extinguished though. Fans like me may not exist in droves, but the love and admiration felt for him among us is fierce, enduring and passionate. He may not have shone the brightest in commercial success terms, but he has touched many people in a sincere and personal way and this will be his legacy. I hope he has now found respite from his self-described demons.