Daniel Johnston: "Artist of the World"
Listen up, and I’ll tell a story
About an artist growing old…
It's hard to imagine a more poignant set of lyrics than those beginning Daniel Johnston’s 1982 track titled "The Story of An Artist”—especially when the “artist growing old” refers to none other than Daniel himself, though notably only twenty-one years old at the time of its release.
In the span of less than two minutes, a young Daniel goes on to tell the archetypical story of the modern artist caught floating betwixt two worlds , much like the atom, cruelly suspended between the grips of a man-made ion trap. In other words, he sees himself as caught between two realities — one representing of death; the other, life.
“The Story of An Artist” is, of course, an age-old myth. Where the man, the artist, the human being, is caught in the conflict between his idea of living or that of dying .
It is the question of whether I should I follow my dreams, or join the melange of the status quo?
Everyone, and friends and family Saying, “Hey, get a job… Why do you only do that only? Why are you so odd?"
Daniel lays this problem out verse by verse, plain and simple. His music speaks of love, a burning passion for music—his bliss, as the master of myth, Joseph Campbell, would say. It is the mode of expression which gives Daniel Johnston life.
He can do that thing only — the only thing no one wants him to do.
Through authenticity, Daniel's music found its recognition. Just see the famous picture above of Kurt Cobain wearing a t-shirt printed with Daniel's Hi, How Are You album artwork.
More recently, that same artwork was tattoo’d into rapper Kid Cudi's arm, which he then posted a picture of to Instagram, of course making sure to include a salute to the late, great Daniel Johnston.
And just three months ago, a year after Daniel’s untimely death in September of 2019 at the age of 58, several prominent music artists (including Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, Phoebe Bridgers, Beck, Devendra Banhart, and others) came together to perform a virtual tribute album covering some of Daniel’s most beloved songs.
Watch and you will see each performance is without frills—raw, honest, utterly sublime—and conspicuous in a way where any listener with knowledge of Daniel's music will see it as being consciously tailored for the essence of which they found love for Daniel Johnston in the first place.
But even if you haven't heard Daniel's music, you may indeed already know him through his art—and perhaps without even knowing it.
In the town of Austin, Texas for example, his giant “Hi, How Are You?” mural still covers a large piece of real estate on the side of a building (formerly the Sound Exchange record store) located on the drag at 21st street and Guadelupe.
I dare say the examples provided are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Daniel's continued world influence. As such, one might assume much has already been written about the man, the artist, the tender genius. Should you wish to find the Daniel Johnston Sparknotes, I recommend the 2005 Sundance-winning documentary film, The Devil And Daniel Johnston.
My contribution hereby aims to offer a more personal edge.
A thank you letter, if you will. Primarily to share what this man and his creations have given me— a person striving to do my own thing, and that thing only.
The first song I heard of Daniel’s was “True Love Will Find You in the End”.
At ten seconds in, I stopped what I was doing—pencils down. By the time the final strum of Daniel’s guitar rang out, I was surprised to discover that my eyes had become wet. This is it, I thought—Daniel Johnston has put it into words. Perfect, rudimentary, poetic words. Distilled ruminations of life. How many times had I tried this myself without knowing this man had already done it for me!
At the junction of creation lies man and the artist. Take just one, and lose sight of the whole. Thus, Daniel's creations — the music and his seemingly endless production of drawings — are forever inexorably intertwined.
To remove his sweet Laurie — his eternal well of unrequited joy, pain, inspiration — the very woman and human being he desired more than life itself (yet could not have due to het matrimony with an undertaker ) would quell the story before it even began.
To forget Daniel's lifelong war with depression, the subsequent adverse reactions to medication, both prescribed and used recreationally...
To forget his extended stays at psychiatric institutions…
The sneaking of individually recorded mixtapes into the orders of customers at the McDonalds he worked at in Austin, Texas…
Or the almost unbelievable encounter Daniel had with an elderly woman, whom Daniel so frightened that she leaped out of her second-story window and broke both her legs…
Or the time in 1990 when he left a performance at an Austin Music Festival with his father in a private two-seater plane, only to suddenly assume the identity of one of his favorite characters, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and then remove his father’s keys from the plane’s ignition, confidently chucking them out the window mid-flight…
To forget all these things would only serve to reduce the three-dimensional being to the two—or even the one.
But was the life worth the art?
This the question debated often when it comes to the troubled lives of those who gave back the most— Kurt Cobain himself among the ranks.
What is clear with Daniel is that every breath, ever interaction, every relation, and every detail of his day—all parts led to creation of the whole man revered, whose art and music are not only worth listening to, but should be an absolute requirement for any so-called artist striving for the honest expressions of the human condition.
Daniel Johnston is a true human being.
A man who, time-after-time, said NO to the pressures exerted upon him by society, family and friends. A man who did so, perhaps sacrificing everything in the process.
How many of us can say the same?
I foremost think of how Daniel’s story is typically painted as one of tragedy—but is it, really?
Sure, Daniel may have died young , encountering numerous problems along the way in health, relationships, finances, etc. Yet, at the same time, he was undeniably able to tap into the ever-elusive essence of what it means to be alive.
To me, Daniel Johnston remains a god amongst men who only pretend. Thankfully, he has left us with immortal treasures.
“I forgot to grow up, I guess. I’m a simple kind of guy, just like a child, drawing pictures and making up songs, playing around all the time.” - Daniel Johnston, for Rolling Stone