It’s hard to begin discussing the impact Daniel Johnston leaves behind.
Johnston had a tumultuous career, a combination of his rather abrupt rise to fame and the struggle for sanity he so often wrote about.
He began writing songs and recording them on a boombox in his parents’ West Virginia basement as a teenager; later, he handed out his cartoon covered cassettes like business cards on the streets of Austin, Texas. It was in Austin where he found the fame he knew he would always somehow achieve after talking his way onto MTV Unplugged, where his warble-y vocals and awkward stage presence caught the attention of the music industry.
His compulsion to create coupled with a thirst for fame are why his body of work is so prolific: over twenty albums and hundreds of unreleased tracks. Creation was an integral part of his life, often churning out pages of drawings and lyrics each day from the different rooms and garages in which he made a studio. The nature of his self-recorded and self-released music, even after fame granted him the resources to (for lack of a better word) legitimize his process, show the sheer urgency Johnston found in his own artistic process. In 2017, he told the New York Times, “I can’t stop writing,” he said. “If I did stop, there could be nothing. Maybe everything would stop. So I won’t stop. I’ve got to keep it going.”
Johnston battled manic depression and schizophrenia most of his adult life, and he was entirely transparent in communicating these battles through his songwriting. His DIY style eliminated any middle man, any chance of censorship or second-guesses. He poured the despair, dreams, fantasies, and delusions of his mind into his albums with raw, sometimes apologetic sincerity. Major themes of unrequited love and the battle between good and evil are delicately balanced with references to his favorite cartoons like Casper the Friendly Ghost or Captain America. It all can be boiled down to an account of how Johnston shakily navigated his own brain. Moments he shared were intimate and embarrassing, painful and playful all wrapped into one raw nerve.
His stream of consciousness and free expressive style granted him respect from some of the alternative scene’s biggest names. Kurt Cobain was often photographed in Hi, How Are You? shirt. Johnston did a rendition of that same doodle on a street in Austin, which is now considered a cultural landmark. If you look closely, you’ll notice traces of Johnston’s doodles and lyrics quietly positioned on walls of record stores, t-shirts of strangers you pass on the street, scribbled onto bathroom stalls and subway stops. In our little KCPR studio alone, you can see several posters and drawings tacked proudly to the walls.
Daniel Johnston, for me, has always been someone I listen to alone. Knowing he often recorded these tracks alone, screaming and crying in a makeshift garage studio, my own isolation felt like it drew me a little closer to him, and him to me. Johnston reached incredible lengths in terms of the types of individuals touched by his music, as well as the ever-growing slew of artists that cite him as an inspiration. He leaves a permanent stamp on music, and will be greatly missed.
Here are a few ways Johnston has touched our DJs:
Ian Risdale (DJ Ridsdale)
Since I first discovered his album Hi, How Are You in high school, Daniel Johnston’s music has brought me solace in times of anxiety and distress. There’s something about it that hits you straight in the heart; Johnston’s lo-fi production and sincere lyricism give you a genuine look into the mind of a person who has made something beautiful out of the struggles that life has presented to them. His songs, many of which were recorded on cheap tape recorders in basements and garages, paint more vibrant mental pictures of the deepest depths of anguish and the brightest peaks of pure joy than most other songwriters could ever achieve. Johnston’s propulsion from being an obscure singer-songwriter passing out his tapes while working at a McDonalds in Austin, Texas to an internationally-recognized icon whose music would later be covered by Tom Waits, Beck, and The Flaming Lips is one of the most inspiring success stories I’ve ever seen, as he never abandoned his sincere songwriting once during his entire career. Although Johnston has passed, his music will continue to bring joy and respite to those who listen for years to come, and we will remember him well for that.
Jakob McQuade (MC Quade)
There is something indescribably magical about Daniel Johnston’s sound. The unadulterated, raw sound of someone who cannot fight their own compulsions to create is simply inspiring. As an artist, as a musician, and as a writer, Daniel is as pure as it comes. While his style might not resonate with everyone, his story is one that has a profound effect on my creative process. Music is not always simple. It is not always about what sounds the best or makes you want to dance. Music should be raw expression of feeling, because it is one of a few media that can illicit gut-wrenching empathy. If you see someone wearing a Hi, How Are You? t-shirt, you can be certain that they get it.
Francisco Martinez (Diamante)
When I first learned of Daniel Johnston class, it was actually in my first AP Psychology class junior year. Though it was not the most traditional, I found it to be the best way to be introduced to him. Seeing the beauty of his soul in contrast with the torment he had gone through, seeing his impact — not only on other musicians, but me personally — relating to him and seeing his unfettered beauty and existence baffles me. He is a one of a kind, unique, and genuine. There aren’t many genuine people out there these days. I hope he found peace and solace. I hope he found true love.
Drew Morrison (Edgy Veggie)
Daniel Johnston taught me so much about vulnerability and authenticity as an artist; he created a beautiful and truly unique world through his artwork that never concerned itself with the opinions of others. Daniel did exactly what he wanted to do creatively, encouraging countless other musicians, poets, and artists of all kinds to not be afraid to put themselves out there.
“You can listen to these songs
Have a good time and walk away
But for me it’s not that easy
I have to live these songs forever”
— Peek-a-Boo, 1982
Olivia Peluso is a Cal Poly English senior and a KCPR staff member. She wrote the article. Featured image credit to Daniel Johnston.