Feature: In Memoriam: Daniel Johnston

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About a decade ago, I lifted my hungover head from the backseat armrest of a 2002 Honda Civic halfway to Austin, Texas and requested that my friends in the front seat play “Devil Town” by Daniel Johnston. They didn’t have that one on the iPod, but they could sing it for me:

I was livin’ in a devil town
Didn’t know it was a devil town
Oh Lord, it really brings me down
About the devil town

And all my friends were vampires
Didn’t know they were vampires
Turns out I was a vampire myself
In the devil town

I was livin’ in a devil town
Didn’t know it was a devil town
Oh Lord, it really brings me down
About the devil town

I had never been to Austin, but Daniel Johnston, through a mixture of luck and fate and talent and charm, had associated himself so thoroughly with that particular devil town that it was him I wanted to hear. It would turn out, as it does for everyone, that my own town was also a devil town, and that all my friends were vampires, and that I was a vampire myself. But in that moment, I was more interested in feeling better, if only for a moment, than in diagnosing my own increasingly vampiric and alarming behaviors. I simply wanted to hear the song, and of course my friends knew the song. Everyone knew Daniel Johnston’s songs.

Daniel Johnston’s legacy will be that everyone who knows about him knows his songs, can sing his songs, can play his songs. His words are so concise and his melodies so simple that it doesn’t take effort to learn them, but rather to get them out of your head. His fans recognize each other not through stickers and t-shirts, but through hummed fragments in grocery store aisles. The fact that Johnston was not a star, not played on the radio, not part of the larger machinations of record-industry influence is a testament to the power of his songs. He made his mark not through cultural osmosis, but through the immediate impact of his work on those curious enough or lonely enough or strange enough to seek him out.

Johnston’s legacy will also be informed by his struggle with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. If you didn’t learn about him through the grapevine of his fans and followers, you probably discovered him through the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which portrayed the exultant highs and miserable lows that his mental health caused him and those around him. I admit that I turned quite a few people on to Johnston’s music through this spectacle of his grief and paranoia. “He thought he was Casper the Friendly Ghost,” I’d say. “Crazy stuff.”

But it is not Johnston’s grief and paranoia that set him apart. Grief and paranoia are merely the watchwords for a set of people that identify with him. Grief and paranoia are what unite his fans together. Grief and paranoia we all share; it is his ability to create community despite, through, because of, and upon his own experiences of grief and paranoia that set him apart.

Hope, it would turn out, is another watchword that joins his community of fans together. Here’s another song from the same album, 1990, just as easy to remember and to sing along to as the first:

True love will find you in the end
You’ll find out just who was your friend
Don’t be sad, I know you will
But don’t give up until

True love will find you in the end

This is a promise with a catch
Only if you’re looking can it find you
Cuz true love is searching too
But how can it recognize you
Unless you step out into the light, the light

Don’t be sad, I know you will
But don’t give up until

True love will find you in the end

True love is an active endeavor that requires you to do your part in realizing it — seemingly bad news for the vampires who populate the devil towns of Johnston’s world. But for me and for many of my friends, this sentiment was the antidote to a grief and paranoia that would otherwise render us paralyzed in the face of the larger, uncaring, viciously selfish world.

Daniel Johnston died on September 11, 2019, a day when grief and paranoia threaten to immobilize large swaths of people who connect to his music. It’s now, unfortunately, that we need Daniel Johnston the most. But don’t give up until