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True Love: On the Crushing, Rewarding Work of Daniel Johnston

The prolific Austin singer-songwriter, who died Tuesday at age 58, garnered a cult following from his homemade cassettes and overwhelmingly heartfelt lyrics

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There is no other place to turn for solace, here at the end, than “True Love Will Find You in the End.” Daniel Johnston, the singer-songwriter and beloved Austin, Texas, institution who, as reported by The Austin Chronicle, died last night of a heart attack at 58, sang perhaps his signature song with a plaintive wail over gentle and gently shaky acoustic guitar, swathed in reverb and, soon thereafter, the very public adoration of famous admirers from Tom Waits to the Flaming Lips to, most famously, Kurt Cobain. “But how can it recognize you / Unless you step out into the light, the light,” Johnston sings, in a frail acquired-taste voice you never shake once you acquire it. “Don’t be sad, I know you will / But don’t give up until / True love will find you in the end.” He sounded like he was trying to convince himself; the end result, wobbly as it sounded, was uncommonly, ferociously convincing.

The song is immediately followed, on his 1990 album titled, simply, 1990, by a typically beyond-lo-fi piano cover of the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life.” Johnston’s music—homemade, painfully interior, and overwhelmingly heartfelt—could be challenging both sonically and emotionally. 1990 was also the year that Johnston experienced a psychotic episode while flying in a small plane with his father, Bill, from Austin to New Cumberland, West Virginia. Johnston ripped the plane’s keys out of the ignition and flung them out the window, forcing Bill to crash-land the plane in, essentially, a forest; it is a miracle that both men survived nearly unharmed, which Johnston took as further evidence that God was winning the battle with Satan for his soul.

That battle consumed much of his art, and while that art could be quite beautiful, you could never forget that for the artist, that battle was a terrifying, all-consuming, and very real thing.

The plane crash is recounted in wrenching detail in The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a 2006 documentary, directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, that does not shy away from the myriad heartbreaking aspects of the musician, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia: his struggles in both work and life, his hospitalizations, and the extraordinary effort it took him as well as his friends and family to help get him through the day. Part of the reason I’m listening to “True Love Will Find You in the End” right now is that I am not yet ready to listen to, say, “Peek a Boo,” a characteristically shattering early-’80s piano tune that lays out his anguish plainly:

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
Please hear my cry for help
And save me from myself

Born in Sacramento, raised primarily in West Virginia, and first rising to prominence in the early ’80s after moving to Austin, Johnston was a prolific songwriter and visual artist often described in uncomfortable terms—eccentric, quirky, weirdo, outsider—that evoked the discomfort of the songs themselves. The more you loved him, the harder he got to talk about. He worked at a McDonald’s and would hand out his homemade cassette tapes to customers; his debut album, from 1980, is called Songs of Pain.

Kurt Cobain, who wore a Daniel Johnston shirt while performing at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, was a huge fan, and helped trigger something of a mainstream breakthrough, though Johnston refused to sign with Elektra Records because he feared that Metallica, who also recorded for the label, were in league with Satan. However amusing that might be, Johnston believed it. “I forgot to grow up, I guess,” he told Rolling Stone in 1994, promoting his new major-label album Fun, produced by Butthole Surfers guitarist Paul Leary. “I’m a simple kind of guy, just like a child, drawing pictures and making up songs, playing around all the time.”

Johnston’s visual art was indeed infectiously simple and childlike—The Simpsons’ Matt Groening, also a huge fan, makes an awkward appearance in the documentary—in a way that leant itself to strange circumstances, such as the 2009 iPhone game, Hi, How Are You, that I fondly recall playing on the subway on the way home from work. However unlikely that project, it’s as emblematic of Johnston’s ability to bend the world to his worldview as the one time I saw him perform live. At the 2003 edition of the All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival in Long Beach, California, curated by Groening himself, Johnston performed solo in the rumbling bowels of a 1936 ocean liner called the Queen Mary, singing a heartrending song that likened his unrequited love to “a thousand pastries going stale.” It’s a vivid and funny line even if he didn’t find it so funny.

An unsettling 2017 interview with The New York Times asserted that Johnston’s then-imminent minitour—featuring a backing band of musicians from Built to Spill, Fugazi, and Wilco—was likely to be Johnston’s last, given his worsening health and significant mental-health issues. (That conversation with the Times took place, incredibly, mere hours after the death of Johnston’s father.) “I can’t stop writing,” Johnston said then. “If I did stop, there could be nothing. Maybe everything would stop. So I won’t stop. I’ve got to keep it going.”

He leaves behind an incredibly prolific body of work, rewarding but crushing, and all the more essential the more painful it becomes. It is sobering to realize how many songs, among the seemingly thousands he wrote, could capably serve as his epitaph, and in fact were meant to. Consider 1983’s “Sorry Entertainer,” the guitar ramshackle as always, his voice frail but brutally sincere as always:

Drove those demons
Out of my head
With an organ and a pencil full of lead
And when I’m dead
I’d like to have it said
He drove those demons out of his head

May he rest in peace.