West Virginia-raised musician and artist Daniel Johnston died this week at the age of 58. Known best for his earnest and harrowing lo-fi pop songs, Johnston remained an underground hero for most of his life. His influence, though, continues to stretch across musical and artistic genres -- and around the world.
Whether you’ve heard of Daniel Johnston or not, here’s a quick warning: There’s really no way to fully condense his life and work into a few minutes worth of radio or a short written article.
There are full-length documentaries for that -- films that show a brilliant, yet tortured person. There are flashes of genius interspersed with dark stories about psychotic episodes, bad hallucinogenic trips, and unrequited love.
In the backdrop, of course, are songs that have inspired countless people.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Johnston by phone once, in 2011, for a piece I was writing for the West Virginia-focused alternative magazine Graffiti.
He told me about growing up in New Cumberland, in Hancock County, and -- even as a teenager -- he felt a struggle to find acceptance while being himself.
“When I was young, there was no bands that didn't play top 40 music,” Johnston said. “There weren't any new music, original music bands. I had bought a synthesizer and I had an organ and an electric piano, trying to get into one of those bands. I knew ‘Free Bird.’ But I didn't quite make it into these bands all the time.”
But that early rejection didn’t stop Johnston from dedicating himself to the craft of songwriting. He obsessively recorded nearly every idea he had.
“If I met anybody or somebody was interested, I'd go home and make up a tape for them. And that's what I did forever,” Johnston said. “I really felt like I was a star for some reason, because my friends liked the tapes so much. And we would always have a party and pretend that we were on David Letterman and interviewing each other. We were a bunch of crazy people.”
Johnston made those recordings at his parents’ home. In 1981, he released his first proper album, Songs of Pain -- a cacophony of found sounds, piano and Johnston’s voice emitting a wavering, yet calculated, stream of consciousness.
His impact stretches far and wide -- countless musicians have cited him as an inspiration. To be sure, some of Johnston’s work rubbed off on those who grew up in West Virginia -- including one-man folk-punk dynamo J. Marinelli, originally from Morgantown.
“For me, I think that he was really the first musician that I ever got into that kind of showed me that -- at the end of the day -- it's the song and just the delivery of the song matters infinitely more than how the song is produced or whether or not it is done in the ‘right way,’” Marinelli said.
Marinelli got the chance to meet Johnston when they performed on the same billing at a music festival in Louisville, Kentucky in 2008. When Johnston left behind an empty bottle of Mountain Dew, Marinelli quickly grabbed it as a souvenir. The Mountain Dew bottle was ultimately gifted to another West Virginia musician, Tyler Grady of the Morgantown pop-rock outfit Goodwolf.
(Johnston wrote a song about Mountain Dew while being treated for mental health disorders at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia.)
Local folklore aside, Marinelli points to the song “Wild West Virginia” as being a key connection between Johnston, his home state and genius-level songwriting.
“It should be associated with the state of West Virginia as much as that damn John Denver song -- which is also great, don't get me wrong,” Marinelli said with a laugh. “But, the first time I ever heard [“Wild West Virginia”] I was just like, ‘Wow! You really got it’ -- ‘Crooked politicians, crater bomb roads,’ you know, all that stuff.”
When I spoke to Johnston eight years ago, he told me his fantasy was to attain the same level of fame as The Beatles. He acknowledged his passionate fans who applauded wildly when he would take the stage or finish a song. Even so, he was always aiming for something bigger.
“I'm famous, but I’m still not on the cover of Rolling Stone yet,” Johnston told me. “I mean, I'm not that popular as far as like big time. But that's what I want to try.”
Johnston’s face never did make it on the cover of Rolling Stone while he was alive. The magazine did report on him from time to time and did offer an obituary upon news of his passing.
More importantly, Johnston did have legions of fans -- millions of people who saw the beauty in the simplicity of his songs.
A lot has been written about Johnston’s struggles with mental illness. It’s impossible to find a story that doesn’t mention that part of his life.
But what made Daniel Johnston so great -- at least in my mind -- had nothing to do with mental illness. In fact, Johnston’s greatness was in spite of it.
He was earnest and warm. Awkward and unpolished, but ultimately sincere.
Daniel Johnston saw the world for what it truly was -- people just wanting to feel loved and accepted.