Like many of my generation, I first heard of Daniel Johnston through Kurt Cobain. Cobain was often pictured wearing a t-shirt of Johnston’s iconic “Hi, How Are You” album cover, and was always a vocal supporter of the artists he loved. Whilst there were many other bands I discovered through Cobain’s patronage (The Vaselines & The Raincoats amongst my all time favourites), I never investigated Johnston’s music at the time, and I’m kind of glad, because I don’t think fourteen year old me would have understood. After Cobain’s death, for a while, Daniel Johnston was rarely in my thoughts.
Fast-forward a decade or so and out came “The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered”, A covers album featuring TV on The Radio, Beck, Bright Eyes and more performing Johnston’s songs, but crucially also featuring Johnston’s originals on a second disc. The sleevenotes, by music journalist Everett True, correctly assumed that I had bought the album because it featured many bands better known than Johnston. Bands that I already knew and loved, but the sleevenotes implored me to listen to Johnston’s songs first, to better appreciate them. I was sceptical, but obeyed, and was so happy that I did.
The songs were some of the worst I had heard commercially released in terms of the actual sound quality of the recordings, often recorded on a portable cassette player in his home basement, but the fidelity mattered not one bit. The beauty and directness of Johnston’s songs shone through. I almost never listen to the covers (although I retain a fondness for Vic Chesnutt’s version of ‘Like A Monkey In A Zoo), but I returned to Johnston’s songs again and again.
When my wife and I lived hundreds of miles apart in the early days of our relationship we used to post each other mix CDs (this makes it sound like it was a million years ago, although it was actually ten). Love CDs, one my wife’s colleagues referred to them as, taking the mickey of course, but they really felt like that to us. I started one of them with Johnston’s ‘Go’, which opens with the lines:
“So you think you’ve found the one
And she knows just how you feel”
It was my wife who taught me I could be as direct and honest with my feelings as I wanted to be, but I like to think Johnston had a little say in that too, as those qualities defined his songs. His music always held a special place in our collective heart, and my wife’s best friend covered his ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’ at our wedding, sending me into floods of tears and ensuring that song will always mean more to me than almost any other.
In the meantime Johnston’s career, such as it was, continued. He released albums intermittently, more professionally performed and produced than his early recordings, perhaps losing a little in that process, but still dotted with excellent songs. His art was exhibited across the world, and he even had a comic book published. However, a biploar schizophrenic, with numerous spells in psychiatric institutions, he continued to struggle with both mental and physical illness. It was hard not to feel uneasy at times, wondering whether the music industry would treat him with the care he deserved, knowing his health mattered more than producing more music.
We saw him live in Brighton, back in 2012. He certainly seemed to be enjoying himself, joking to the audience between songs, including a now sadly apt ‘Funeral Home’ .I get the sense that he would of appreciated the humour of us all listening to that song now:
Not a year goes by without someone whose music I have loved going to their own funeral home, but Johnston’s death hurts more than most. So I’d just like to thank him.
Thank you for teaching me that if a song is good enough, it will shine through, no matter how shitty your equipment, or your technical limitations.
Thank you for helping me appreciate songs that were simple, direct and emotionally honest.
Thank you most of all for Go, True Love Will Find You In The End, Walking The Cow, and all the other songs that will always be with me.
RIP Daniel Johnston