R.I.P. Daniel Johnston: 12 Essential Tracks From the Outsider Music Legend

Daniel Johnston
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Daniel Johnston in The Devil and Daniel Johnston in 2005.

Daniel Johnston wrote a handful of songs worthy of the Beatles, the Beach Boys or Bob Dylan -- and many of them were covered by major alternative acts such as Tom Waits, Beck and Wilco. But to some listeners, he’s unfairly seen as a naïve, childlike savant, writing primitive songs on his toy piano in the depths of mental illness.

This understanding of Johnston’s work is, at best, oversimplified -- at worst, patronizing. It’s true that he suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, sang in an unconventional, raspy tenor and recorded with a portable Dictaphone recorder. The 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston revealed stories alternately tragic and blackly funny, from crash-landing his father’s plane in the midst of a psychotic episode to triggering a major label bidding war while interred at Austin State Hospital.

This week, we mourn the loss of Johnston as a songwriter who overcame adversity and left behind gems ranging from joyful to hilarious to impossibly sad. Johnston passed away Tuesday (Sept. 11) at his home in Waller, Texas. He was 58.

Born in Sacramento, California and raised in West Virginia and Texas, Johnston found his songwriting bearings in the 1980s, when he moved out of his fundamentalist Christian family home in Waller to live with his brother, Dick, in Houston. There, he began to distribute home-recorded cassettes, like 1981’s Songs of Pain and 1983’s Yip/Jump Music and Hi How Are You.

Those roughshod-but-beautiful tapes hit a nerve in the indie rock scene, and an ascendant Kurt Cobain appeared at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards in a Hi How Are You T-shirt, given to him by biographer Everett True. Suddenly, Johnston was thrust from his posters- and comics-strewn bedroom into the alternative rock zeitgeist. He was even briefly signed to Atlantic Records for 1994’s Fun before his career derailed due to his mental struggles.

In 2005, Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston gained him new fans, and he occasionally recorded new music, like 2009’s terrific Is And Always Was. But mostly, Johnston spent his final decades at his parents’ home in Waller, drawing and writing songs.

With his passing, we’re examining Johnston’s musical and songwriting talents rather than focusing on his struggles. He was always a limited guitarist, but on piano, his chord choices could be inventive and elegant, sometimes bordering on Beatlesque music hall. He wrote from a dense personal cosmology populated by God and Satan as well as King Kong, Captain America and Casper the Friendly Ghost -- and Joe, a tenacious boxer missing part of his head that possibly mirrored Johnston’s fight against his own demons.

At their core, his greatest songs -- like “The Sun Shines Down on Me,” “True Love Will Find You in the End” and “Some Things Last a Long Time” -- have nothing especially quirky about them. Beyond the tape hiss, they’re tasteful, sophisticated -- the work of a student of pop music. In honor of the late Daniel Johnston, here are his 12 essential cuts.

Johnston arrived fully formed with his first cassette, 1981’s Songs of Pain, which he distributed to friends and slid onto the trays of customers during his day job at McDonald’s. Its pulverizing ballad “Urge” is a Plastic Ono Band-style cry for belonging. The song is nothing if not self-pitying, but Johnston doesn’t blame anyone for his loneliness but himself: “Get attached to a rolling stone and you’re liable to get crushed/ You’re better off to sit at home and watch the toilet flush.”

Johnston grew up in the Church of Christ, a fundamentalist Christian denomination highly active in Texas. His uptight upbringing was the fuel to his fire, and “Joy Without Pleasure” skewers his parents’ straight life: “My mama said ‘You better have fun while you play/ You'll work in a factory and earn your pay/ And your fingers will rot and your mind will decay.’” It’s set to a bouncy music hall backing, showing Johnston could be just as much a prim McCartney as an oversharing Lennon.

Cautiously optimistic and world-weary, it’s not hard to imagine Ray Charles or the Staples Singers tackling Johnston’s gospel ballad “The Sun Shines Down on Me.” Weaving through worshipful majors and minors, Johnston yelps about leaving behind a “lonely road,” a “heavy load,” “crawling slowly through the dark” in search of comforting light. If you can get past the gawky delivery and anti-production, this is church.

Johnston turned up the gallows humor on More Songs of Pain, in which he brooded over his lifelong crush and muse, art school classmate Laurie Allen, who ended up marrying an undertaker. He agonized over this in the songs, denigrating himself as a corpse, a clown and a crying lounge singer. But his pain didn’t take away from his sense of humor; over a hilarious stride piano pastiche a la Dr. John, Johnston pokes fun at himself as the masked antagonist of the classic Gaston Leroux novel.

Maniacally strummed on a seemingly untuned guitar, “Sorry Entertainer” is a summation of what Johnston was all about: fighting off his torment via raw creative acts. “Drove those demons out of my head/ With an organ and a pencil full of lead,” he wails over angry-beehive music. Then, he writes his own epitaph: “And when I’m dead, I’d like to have it said: ‘He drove those demons out of his head.’”

After getting static while living with his brother, Dick, in Houston, Johnston got an eviction notice and took off via moped to join a traveling carnival. He was mentally wobbly and out of contact; his parents were terrified. “It’s the saddest time in your life not to know where your son is and he might be needing help,” Johnston’s late mother, Mabel, said in The Devil and Daniel Johnston. That moped inspired his most indelible pop song: “Speeding Motorcycle.” In 1990, he memorably covered it with Yo La Tengo on WMFU, literally phoning in his vocal.

Johnston’s most stirring song about emotional baggage was inspired by, of all things, an ice cream wrapper. Painted advertisements for Blue Bell Creameries, in which a girl walks a stubborn cow by the reins, littered the Virginia landscape, and it inspired a plaintive meditation on carrying the world on your shoulders: “I really don’t know how I came here/ I really don’t know why I’m staying here,” Johnston sings over stabbed chord organ. This poignant ballad was covered by Eddie Vedder, Mike Watt and TV on the Radio, who all gave it their own melancholic shades.

The humble, four-chord folk song “True Love Will Find You in the End” is among the most believable ballads for lonely people ever written -- because it calls for action, putting yourself out there, rather than settling for wall-gazing and what-ifs. “Only if you’re looking can it find you,” he sings, gently prodding you along, “Because true love is searching too.” Considering Johnston’s long infatuation and eventual reunion with Laurie Allen, “True Love” remains almost unbearably moving, and it remains Johnston’s most-loved song for a reason. The song gained steam as a modern standard when Wilco covered it in 1999; Jeff Tweedy especially loved the line “Don’t be sad/ I know you will.” “I think that captures a real internal moment,” he told The Atlantic. “He knows that’s impossible. In fact, before the line is even over, he’s retracted it.”

The brief a cappella introduction to 1990, “Devil Town” casts Johnston in a desolate Wild West of creeps and monsters and condenses a Stephen King novel into 29 words. The shrugged punchline: “Turns out I was a vampire myself.” “Devil Town” is less a song than a Son House-style holler, rattling the cage at Johnston’s psychic oppressors as his mental decline worsened. It became a group chant at his live shows and has been covered by the National, Bright Eyes and Marissa Nadler.

The refrain with Johnston is that he was “guileless,” “unfiltered,” the creative id run amok. He was certainly highly prolific and emotive, a firehose of drawings and songs. But does the minimal, evocative ballad “Some Things Last a Long Time” sound like the product of an undisciplined artist? Over a hypnotic piano figure, Johnston draws out reminders of lingering feelings, cycling through single words: “Your picture/ Is still/ On my wall/ On my wall/ The colors/ Are bright/ Bright/ As ever.” Forget the freaky depictions of heroes, gods and monsters: Johnston could work with next-to-no ingredients and still stun you.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston begins brilliantly: a darkened stage and an announcer trumpeting, “Ladies and gentlemen, the greatest songwriter alive today!” Shuffling into the spotlight isn’t Dylan, Simon or Mitchell, but Johnston, disheveled in sweatpants, guitar resting on his gut. He launches into “Silly Love,” a disarmingly sweet ballad from his failed major label experiment, Fun: “I’ve got a broken heart/ And you can’t break a broken heart.” Point of the scene being: this anti-celebrity with his erratically strummed guitar could stand toe-to-toe with songwriting giants.

Johnston’s post-Fun discography is marred by spotty albums like 1999’s Rejected Unknown and 2006’s Lost and Found. This period is best skipped: the Beatles-loving, gifted, but physically limited Johnston needed a facilitator, not someone to magnify his idiosyncrasies. Is and Always Was, produced by power pop classicist Jason Falkner, finally gets late-period Johnston right, and it’s the curtain call he deserved.

When the glorious “Mind Movies” kicks into gear, Johnston suddenly becomes who he was meant to be -- a Dylanesque wordsmith, a Lennon-style experimenter, a McCartney-esque melodist. Of course, Johnston never reached those heights. But for a moment, he made a lot of movies with his mind.