By Louis Addeo-Weiss
Daniel Johnston’s passing on Wednesday, September 11th, saw the loss of one of music’s most original and charismatic minds in recent memory.
“Listen up and I’ll tell a story about an artist growing old some would try for fame and glory others aren’t so bold.” This, one of Johnston’s most widely cited lyrics, is poetic, while simultaneously autobiographical.
Suffering from both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Johnston’s lo-fi bedroom aesthetic explored universal themes of lost love, depression, his struggles with mental illness, all while exuding a childlike innocence many of us tend to lose with the passage of time.
Johnston’s story is similar to that of Beach Boys’ mastermind Brian Wilson, whose own struggles with mental illness greatly informed the groups’ work with Pet Sounds and ensuing releases such as Smiley Smile.
Like Wilson and Co., Johnston’s work straddled the line between the avant-garde and his love for pop music, particularly the Beatles, whom he was a lifelong fan. And while songs such as “Til I Die” off of the group’s 1971-cult classic Surf’s Up paint a picture of a man (Wilson) admitting defeat to the cogniscient forces that had drastically altered his life to that point, Johnston’s work revealed itself to be far more direct and in-your-face.
His 1983 lo-fi opus, “Hi, How Are You”, set the standard for what we now know today as bedroom pop.
Recorded on cassette in the basement of his parents’ home in, “Hi, How Are You” sees Johnston meld his distinct Texas-drawl, rudimentary guitar playing with piano and chord organ inflections, the latter of which is most synonymous with the singer-songwriter, to make what is seen as a benchmark of the outsider and lo-fi music scenes.
Years later, after numerous psychotic episodes and extended stints in psychiatric hospitals, Johnston’s profile would see a surge in popularity when Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain was spotted wearing a t-shirt of the aforementioned “Hi, How Are You?”.
As most who knew of and admired Cobain, the parallels between him, Wilson, and Johnston were ever-present, as he too looked to straddle the line between the weird and accessible through what he deemed “three-chord grunge”. And while Johnston never bared the same commercial fruits as Cobain and Wilson, this childlike innocence and simplicity at which he recorded and released his work is what makes him such an endearing force to those who knew him and the art he created.
Johnston taught us that while there may be forces at play that look to bring us down, it is imperative that we never lose sight of ourselves and continue to move forward and embrace the many beauties, big or small, that life has to offer.
But don’t take my word for it, take his: “do yourself a favor, become your own savior.”