September 12, 2019
Johnston’s mental health struggles made him an unlikely musical hero, but his beautiful, artifice-free songwriting remains hugely influential• Cult US indie songwriter dies age 58
Daniel Johnston: a potent, profoundly moving songwriter
Of all the artists signed in the post-Nirvana goldrush – a brief and bizarre period when the US music industry, wrongfooted by Nevermind’s unexpected success, frantically attempted to replicate it by signing virtually anyone with even a vague connection to the band – Daniel Johnston was perhaps the most unlikely recipient of a major-label deal. It wasn’t that his music was uncommercial in the way of Kurt Cobain favourites the Melvins or Tad. Johnston didn’t make a fearsome noise: some of his albums were certainly heavy-going by the standards of mainstream rock – it takes an effort to imagine, say, the chaotic, wildly out-of-tune 1989 collaborative album, It’s Spooky, he made with Jad Fair getting played on the radio – but at root, Johnston wrote spare, melodic songs. It was Johnston himself.
He was a bipolar schizophrenic: his mental health had been at the root of a succession of lurid, disturbing stories for years. At the time of the bidding war to sign him, he was resident in a mental hospital, where he had been involuntarily committed after a psychotic episode during which he had caused the plane his father was piloting to crash by removing the keys from the ignition mid-flight. The question of whether this was a man in any state to be subjected to the machinations of the major label music business hung heavy over his deal with Atlantic; the uneasy sense that at least some aspects of the cult following Johnston had developed were prurient and voyeuristic was hard to shake off.
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