R.I.P., Daniel Johnston
Today’s Daniel Johnston post was originally intended to be a “Happy 25th“ piece devoted to honoring his album FUN, which was released this week in 1994, but instead we’re forced to do a sad piece, as we’ve confirmed that Johnston died yesterday at his home in the Houston suburb of Waller, Texas.
Johnston was 58 at the time of his death and – per his obituary in The New York Times – had been dealing with kidney issues, but according to his brother Dick, who served as his manager, “He was still productive, writing songs and drawing, and was just annoyed by his health more than anything. It was just one thing after another.”
Regarding FUN, which was Johnston’s lone album for Atlantic Records, it would be fair to say that no one necessarily expected the LP to shift platinum units when they signed the singer-songwriter to the label. After all, Johnston – who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder – was not an artist who would generally be considered prime for mainstream superstardom. That said, he was a cult hero in Austin, Texas thanks to his live performances and a number of self-released cassettes, and after an appearance on MTV’s The Cutting Edge, his profile began to rise to cult status outside of Austin. What really sealed the deal in terms of Johnston securing a deal with Atlantic, however, was the level of attention he received after Kurt Cobain began to wear a t-shirt featuring artwork by Johnston, resulting in a bidding war to sign him to a major label. Obviously, Atlantic came out the winner, but it’s said that they beat out Elektra because Metallica was signed to Elektra, and since Johnston believed Metallica to be possessed by Satan, he didn’t want to be on the same label as them.
In a possibly related story, we should probably mention that at the time he signed to Atlantic, Johnston was residing in a mental institution. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Produced by Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers, FUN may not have been a commercial success – and just to clarify, it definitely wasn’t one – but it was critically acclaimed upon its release, as well it should’ve been. If you don’t know anything about Johnston, we’d definitely suggest that you click “play” on the below video for “Life in Vain,” a gorgeous tune from FUN which could have and, yes, should have been a big hit.
We’d also recommend that you hunt down the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which details Daniel’s career and puts his music and mental struggles in the proper perspective. As of this writing, it can be watched for free on IMDb TV, but it’s easily found online for rental, and if you enjoy a good music doc, well, this definitely qualifies as one.
R.I.P., Daniel. You were a unique artist, and you’ll be much missed.