Songs of Pain
September 11, 2019 3:25 PM   Subscribe

Daniel Johnston, singer/songwriter died of heart attack last night. Johnston, recorded 17 full-length albums of original music. His trio of home-recorded tapes from the early 1980s, Songs of Pain,More Songs of Pain, Yip/Jump Music, and Hi, How Are You were incredibly influential in the indie-music and low-fi scene. His songs were covered by Yo La Tengo, Tom Waits and Pearl Jam to name a few. Kurt Cobain was a notable fan. Johnston was also a visual artist who created murals, paintings, comic books and more. Johnston had bipolar disorder and his life and struggles were explored in the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston. He was 58.

The official Daniel Johnston website (www.hihowareyou.com) appears to be down, no doubt being hugged to death.

In his best work Daniel tapped into universal human emotion like noone else. If you have never heard his work, I might recommend "Walking the Cow", which in my book, is one of the most achingly beautiful, raw, and sad songs ever recorded.
posted by jeremias (100 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
 
I am so so so sad about this. this is such a loss. tears.
posted by nikaspark at 3:27 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


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posted by nestor_makhno at 3:28 PM on September 11


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a singular voice who made the world I live in a better, stranger place.
posted by mwhybark at 3:29 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


That the Hi, How Are You? mural is now on a restaurant called Thai, How Are You? makes me happy.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 3:41 PM on September 11 [16 favorites]


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posted by mandolin conspiracy at 3:51 PM on September 11


Oh, this makes me so sad. He was still young.
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posted by Ten Cold Hot Dogs at 4:12 PM on September 11


Daniel sang his heart. It's the gift he gave us, if we will receive it.

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posted by sjswitzer at 4:18 PM on September 11 [4 favorites]


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posted by bxvr at 4:20 PM on September 11


Kathy McCarty did a lovely cover album, "Dead Dog's Eyeball: Songs of Daniel Johnston", well worth having.

Died way too young, but I'm genuinely surprised he lived this long.

Tears. Off to watch the doc again.

RIP, Daniel.

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posted by dbiedny at 4:22 PM on September 11 [9 favorites]


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posted by rhamphorhynchus at 4:34 PM on September 11


Be just who you're meant to be
Papa is so mighty pleased with thee
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 4:35 PM on September 11 [4 favorites]


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There are many great covers, but I really like Daniel's work with full production on Fun, and the single, "Speeding Motorcycle" sung over the phone and accompanied by Yo La Tengo.
posted by CCBC at 4:41 PM on September 11 [4 favorites]


This one hurts. What a soul.

The version of "Speeding Motorcycle" he does on the phone with Yo La Tengo breaks by heart every time.
posted by gwint at 4:43 PM on September 11 [5 favorites]


Whoa, jinx CCBC.
posted by gwint at 4:43 PM on September 11


I saw him play at the Paradise in Boston not incredibly long after seeing "The Devil and Daniel Johnston." At one moment during a pause between songs, or maybe a pause during a song, someone in the audience shouted "we love you Daniel!" Somone else added "more than you will ever know!" And it was true, you felt the love in that room, it felt like an audience and a support group all at once.

It was a fine performance that ended on a number of high-energy Beatles/John Lennon covers and a perfect rendition of "True Love Will Find You In The End." I hope he knows that it did find him in the end.

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posted by HunterFelt at 4:46 PM on September 11 [6 favorites]


As I've gotten older Ive mostly let go of the idea of music as a litmus test, but I still stand by the opinion that if you're open to Daniel Johnston's guileless honesty and vulnerability, we can probably get along.

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posted by whuppy at 4:46 PM on September 11 [5 favorites]


"I Live My Broken Dreams" live at Austin's Liberty Lunch in 1985.

Our paths never crossed, but he was part of the glue for several friendships and musical connections in the 90s that are still going on. RIP + thank you, Daniel - you made some real beauty out of a bad hand.
posted by ryanshepard at 4:54 PM on September 11 [6 favorites]


I’ve never really listened to his music, but that mural was a significant background to my life in Austin, so that’s his impact on me.

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posted by GenjiandProust at 5:15 PM on September 11


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posted by rather be jorting at 5:23 PM on September 11


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I don't know if he was brave, or fearless, to lay it all out for everyone to feel. Either way he was an inspiration.
posted by BlackPebble at 5:24 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


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posted by riverlife at 5:33 PM on September 11


hope that he's hung up his worried shoes for good...

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posted by kaibutsu at 5:34 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


If we're sharing our favorite Johnston tracks here's mine, Davinare. Can't really explain why. It's tender and sad like a lot of his stuff. The bit where he quotes a Police melody doesn't feel like a rip off. It just works.
posted by mcmile at 5:45 PM on September 11


It must have been a happy time.
posted by unknowncommand at 5:49 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


I'd also like to add that I always thought Johnston had a great sense of humor that comes through in his songs and art but was overlooked by most, I guess because many thought that a person with his mental health issues can't possibly be funny (or is not smart enough to be funny). But he was!
posted by mcmile at 5:53 PM on September 11 [3 favorites]


The version of "Speeding Motorcycle" he does on the phone with Yo La Tengo breaks by heart every time.

I was in my NYU dorm room listening to that same show live in 1990 on WFMU.

Being a bit of a doofus at that age, but a big fan of Daniel, I called in, lamely pretended to be Paul McCartney and then played harmonica (poorly) while he humored me and sang along. (Yep, this is 20 year old jeremias that you're hearing.)

His phone accidentally gets cuts off at the end and Nick Hill, the host, says "Oops, Daniel, I've lost you for good."

Yes, we have.

If you'll excuse me, I have to go back to crying now.
posted by jeremias at 6:03 PM on September 11 [30 favorites]


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posted by ghharr at 6:09 PM on September 11


> (Yep, this is 20 year old jeremias that you're hearing.)

Holy shit that's you!

And there's this from Johnston's Wikipedia entry: "In 1990, Johnston played at a music festival in Austin, Texas. On the way back to West Virginia on a private two-seater plane piloted by his father Bill, Johnston had a manic psychotic episode; believing he was Casper the Friendly Ghost, Johnston removed the key from the plane's ignition and threw it outside. His father, a former US Air Force pilot, managed to successfully crash-land the plane, even though "there was nothing down there but trees". Although the plane was destroyed, Johnston and his father emerged with only minor injuries."

He didn't have an easy life, but wow what a life it was.
posted by ardgedee at 6:09 PM on September 11 [5 favorites]


I'm glad I got to see him, in Austin- I guess it must have been in June 2010. It was a lovely show, I got a t-shirt that I've never worn because it has an autograph - w ell, his initials at least - on it. Guess I should start wearing it, eh?

There was a comic book I really enjoyed, The Incantations of Daniel Johnston, I felt like it did a good job presenting his point of view.

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posted by hap_hazard at 6:10 PM on September 11


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My [.] contributions this week have really made me sad.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 6:16 PM on September 11


My friend Kathy was married to him for a little while, & they remained close. A lot of Austinites are in grief right now - I know she is.

I haven’t seen him since the late 80’s, but he was a fan of my band back in the mid 80’s & came to a few of our shows, & excitedly talked my ear off on a few of those occasions. The man had boundless enthusiasm for music. A promoter once held a “celebrity battle of the bands” where about 6 local music luminaries got to choose a band to appear at the Continental Club, & Daniel, as one of the celebrities chose us as his band. It remains one of the highest compliments anyone ever paid to me & my music. He gave me a cassette tape after one show & suggested we could cover some of his songs if we wanted, but being young & stupid, I didn’t see any way to interpret them for a dance-funk pop band, so I set the tape aside & .... lost it. One of my great regrets.

He was a truly kind & friendly human being, & his life was cut way too short.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:25 PM on September 11 [38 favorites]


… but don't give up until
true love will find you in the end


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posted by scruss at 6:35 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]




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posted by calamari kid at 6:42 PM on September 11


Oh fuck this is really sad news.

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posted by capricorn at 6:46 PM on September 11


Do yourself a favor; become your own savior.
And don't let the sun go down on your grieviance.

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posted by chbrooks at 6:48 PM on September 11 [12 favorites]


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posted by 23skidoo at 7:20 PM on September 11


well, shit.

his songs always held such a youthful quality for me, i somehow didn't register that he must be getting on in his years.

still too soon.

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don't be sad i know you will
but don't give up until
true love will find you in the end

posted by cwill at 7:35 PM on September 11


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posted by Lyme Drop at 7:55 PM on September 11


Dammit.

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posted by carsonb at 7:59 PM on September 11


Daniel Johnston is the only person I ever asked for an autograph. I bought a cassette after a show at the Knitting Factory and he signed it, playfully, right above where his signature appeared on the photocopied cover.

I don't believe in God but Daniel did, and it's a nice thought to imagine him happy and healthy in the next life, and finding the romantic love that he pined for so much in this one.
posted by hydrophonic at 8:02 PM on September 11 [3 favorites]



posted by BigHeartedGuy at 8:51 PM on September 11


Well, farts. And dammit. Gonna miss you, little buddy.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:53 PM on September 11


Oh my, that’s sad. I’m sorry to hear this news. The documentary about him was really good and I remember seeking out and enjoying his music after watching it.

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posted by dancestoblue at 10:54 PM on September 11


I knew I felt a disturbance in the force today. I thought it might be John Prine, but Daniel Johnston holds an equal place in my heart, a man who created music of unbelievable beauty and honesty that transcends any idiom or technical limits which might try to constrain him. I don’t know how I feel about the generation of twee kids who were inspired by and imitated his voice of innocence and directness, I am skeptical they ever shed entirely every affectation to achieve what Johnston had.

He showed us that the insight of those with profound mental illness weren’t just inspiring or cute but were really worth listening to, with compassion and open minds. In that sense he was literally the anti-Trump and so much more valuable to the cultural history of our species.

It should be noted that Mefi’s own item played in Johnston’s backing band for a time.

Although his recordings are singularly delightful and affecting, other bands’ renditions of his work give added dimensions and perhaps may help those put off by the poor recording quality and slightly off key singing appreciate what’s special here. Like Guthrie and Foster and Dylan I think we will be appreciating Johnston’s music for decades, if not centuries, to come.

My own favorites:

Daniel Johnston and The Swell Season on Austin City Limits singing Life in Vain

and

True Love Will Find You by Spiritualized and choir and orchestra in Reykjavik (cw: devastating heartbreak)

Daniel, I hope you came to find a taste of the love you so desperately needed before you passed. If it’s any consolation, you nourished the souls of many thousands who hold the same craving and are finding it harder and harder to come by in this cold compassionless world and I promise I will keep working for it, for you, and for all of us who need and deserve it.

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posted by Slarty Bartfast at 11:50 PM on September 11 [9 favorites]


It was linked by ryanshepard earlier, but I think it’s worth repeating: this 1986 video of him and his band performing “Hard Times” from some grimey little Austin apartment is a perfect uncut gem. It should be on display in a museum.
posted by Atom Eyes at 12:43 AM on September 12 [6 favorites]


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posted by nightrecordings at 3:05 AM on September 12


I was listening to Elvis Costello in the car last night and kept hearing 'Man Obsessed'...

RIP Daniel, thank you for everything you gave us.
posted by Cardinal Fang at 3:30 AM on September 12


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posted by mersen at 3:55 AM on September 12


My FB feed is full of cynical, merciless, too-cool smartasses and they're (ok, *we're*) the ones most gutted by the news.

There was just something so pure about his work that made our Grinch hearts swell.

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posted by whuppy at 4:17 AM on September 12


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posted by filtergik at 4:36 AM on September 12


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This has been a rough year, so many of my musical heroes are gone (Daniel Johnston, Roky Erickson, David Berman, Peter Tork.)
A good friend in college introduced me to Yip/Jump Music and I was floored. We were making our own primitive music at the time, but I could never allow myself to be as emotionally honest as Daniel.
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HEY UNIVERSE? WHAT THE FUCK!? FUCK YOU!!
posted by loquacious at 8:28 AM on September 12 [1 favorite]


And thank you for making this post. I was worried I was going to have to make my first obit post, but, no, of course MeFi loved Daniel.

Apparently Bowie and Prince needed someone weird to jam with.
posted by loquacious at 8:47 AM on September 12 [2 favorites]


At our wedding, my wife and I did our first dance to the Sparklehorse/Wayne Coyne version of "Go," but every anniversary we watch this live version together and bawl like babies.

"But anyhow here we are all on this planet
Taking everything for granted
But I think you've caught on to something
Don't let go"

posted by mcdoublewide at 9:09 AM on September 12 [3 favorites]


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I opened for him several times. It's a trite sentiment that I rarely express, but I hope he's in a better place. For all his brilliance (and I have loved his work for decades now), he seemed so profoundly unhappy and unwell.

Roky and now Daniel. The devil better watch his back.
posted by SystematicAbuse at 9:28 AM on September 12 [4 favorites]


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posted by dogstoevski at 11:33 AM on September 12


I have more than a dot.

Daniel's been on our minds in Houston a lot more this year, because the local Catastrophic Theater group restaged their 2006 rock opera "Speeding Motorcycle," which is based on his songs. He collaborated with my friends Tony and Jason back then, and came to see it a time or two back in 2006. So did the New York Times.

The story of "Speeding Motorcycle" is taken directly from Daniel's "Laurie" songs, or at least the first act is. The protagonist is shown as 3 distinct actors, all dressed as Daniel's open-headed Joe the Boxer character, trading off scenes and songs.

The arc of the Laurie story ends with Laurie marrying the undertaker, which leads Joe to be convinced the only he can be with her is to die, so he'll "be in the arms of my dear Laurie."

In the second act, we realize Joe didn't really die, and he confronts his sadness and chooses joy (to grossly oversimplify). The ending song, "Loving Feelings," is an explosion of joy and wonder that I wish I could share with everyone here.

It's heartbreaking and beautiful and full of love and joy, despite the first act.

Anyway, Daniel came to see it a few times back in 2006, when he was in better health. Here he is with my friend Cary, who played one of the three Joes.

The remount this summer included two of the original three Joe actors, but they had to recast Cary's part because he died, of cancer, in 2008 (at fucking 38, and don't get me started on health care).

I was on the board of the group when they did in 2006, and saw it countless times. Now I'm just a fan, but my wife and I still made a point of seeing the remount this summer 6 or 7 times. We cried every time; mostly happy tears, but also sad ones -- sad ones for Daniel's incredible songs ("Peek a boo" is a showstopper), and sad ones for Cary.

Since yesterday, I've been listening to Daniel's songs again, and then to Kathy McCarty's versions, and Sparklehorse's versions, and especially to privately shared recordings from the show. Daniel was in very poor health, and had not been doing well by any stretch this year. He was unable to come see the remount. I'm sad he's gone, but given his state it seems selfish to wish he'd stayed longer.

But I do, anyway.
posted by uberchet at 1:54 PM on September 12 [14 favorites]


I feel like I should share these pictures I took with a point and shoot at the original 2006 production, partly because they include the "autograph" my friend AJ got from Daniel on her scooter.

Cary is the "Joe" in green shorts.
posted by uberchet at 1:57 PM on September 12 [1 favorite]


The inane media buzz around "HE'S A MENTALLY-ILL GENIUS" probably didn't help.
He was a good songwriter.
posted by ovvl at 6:22 PM on September 12 [2 favorites]



posted by Katjusa Roquette at 10:25 AM on September 13


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He was part of my introduction to outsider music.

Strong Sad was a fan, too. The Brothers Chaps posted a rare heartfelt tribute.
posted by Countess Elena at 12:47 PM on September 13 [4 favorites]


A short Austin American Statesman video (on youtube) with fans talking about their connection to Daniel Johnston- people are leaving things at the Hi, How Are You mural as a shrine

Daniel Johnston's brother has posted details (on facebook) about the funeral- it's going to be open to the public next weekend in Katy, TX. Details below for anyone who wants to pay their respects but isn't on fb:

Friday, September 20th

5 - 8 pm VIEWING at Schmidt Funeral home
(OPEN TO THE PUBLIC)
NEW LOCATION (to handle more people): Schmidt Funeral Home Grand Parkway
1344 West Grand Parkway South Katy, Texas 77494 Phone: (281) 391-2424

Saturday, September 21th

1 pm Memorial service at the KATY church of Christ - 5458 East 5th Street, Katy, Tx.

2:30 pm Graveside Service Magnolia Cemetery, (corner of Barlett and Franz, Katy, Tx)
(ALSO OPEN TO THE PUBLIC)

posted by 23skidoo at 1:12 PM on September 13 [2 favorites]


Wow. I can't decide between "go to ensure a sufficient outpouring of popular love" or "stay away because Katy and likely enormous crowd."
posted by uberchet at 1:54 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]


Turns out an old friend did a vocal solo on Ain't No Woman Gonna Make A George Jones Outta Me. What a world.
posted by Lyme Drop at 3:11 PM on September 13


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posted by dogheart at 2:36 AM on September 16


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