Time stood still when I heard the news that Daniel Johnston left us this month. There are only a few moments in one’s lifetime when time stands still. At the time I felt guilty for the sorrow I felt and for the tears that I cried, because if you’re a Johnston fan, you know he wouldn’t want that. It wasn’t simply the fact of death that caused my sorrow, but also the sudden understanding that I would never see an artist of this caliber in my lifetime again.
The first time I heard Johnston’s music, I was thirteen, at an age when self-discovery seemed so crucial my mind and body felt like they were on fire. The year had not been a particularly good one for me and it felt like any daily event could change the course of who I was forever. I couldn’t put it into words myself, but I craved a sense of security — I craved a sense of identity, however strange it would be. I wanted a world where I could run away to escape everything going on around me, if only for a short while. Music was an obvious escape from reality, a place where I couldn't be bothered.
After some time spent going to record stores, watching old bootlegs of musicians, and wandering into clothing shops, I began to notice one image that kept catching my attention: Jeremiah the Innocent, the little cartoon frog from the cover of Johnston’s Hi, How Are You. It seemed like everywhere I turned, he would be there, staring and asking me how I was. The answer was always “not very good.”
It was probably 2010. I listened to music by downloading it off LimeWire from a computer I shared with my brothers. I remember I typed “Daniel Johnston: in the search bar and only one song came up: “Walking the Cow.” I put it on my iPod, and when I pressed play, I heard the sound of a toy impersonating barn animals: “Do you hear the frog?” Then, a muffled voice in the background: “Hi, how are you?” I had already been hearing the frog say this in my head and now I was finally going to have a conversation with him. What came next was unlike anything I had ever heard. It was as if it was beamed in from another dimension, one I belonged in. I almost didn't believe this was actually the album I was searching for and that it was perhaps a file posing as the real song. It didn’t really matter, though, because I knew whatever it was had already changed me. Someone out there had captured the ghosts I was feeling all around me and managed to record them. It was undeniably magic.
I saved up money to buy a copy on tape to listen to on an old Walkman from Goodwill. It’s the first time I remember feeling I was listening to a “masterpiece” and the first time I remember feeling I was not alone.
From that moment on and throughout the span of my teenage years, Daniel Johnston felt like my savior in a very literal sense, and I spent my time living in the world he created. I had Johnston's frog laminated on the front cover of my Bible for scripture classes. My notebooks were covered with his lyrics and the inside of my closet door was lined top-to-bottom with print-outs of his artwork. My mind was developing rapidly and my grip on reality fell apart sometimes, but I always had a haven knowing someone out there knew what I was feeling. “Yip/Jump Music” for the manic highs, and its sister album “Hi, How Are You?” for depressive lows, were each other’s yin and yang. They got me to the other side.
Daniel and I shared a similar religious upbringing wherein we learned that Christianity is built on sacrificing realism for the sake of something greater. Daniel strived to create these spontaneous expressions of the Holy. You hear him say “there’s a heaven and there’s a star for you” through the fuzz of the tape, but the meaning can shift any which way once the Holy breaks through, that transcendence beneath the surface. I spiritually related to every word Daniel ever penned down and bellowed out, and I felt as if I understood everything he ever wanted to convey; I cannot say that about any other artist. He absorbed all of my pain and held it on his back with love. His struggle to be understood by the outside world was my triumph in understanding myself.
Daniel wore his influences on his sleeve, openly obsessing over The Beatles and Jack Kirby as his heroes. I will forever wear Daniel Johnston on my sleeve. My first feature film King Baby could not have been made without his influence and it is ultimately dedicated to his legacy. I titled the first act with a line ripped straight from the Songs of Pain tape: “All That is Made is Made to Decay.” I would not be the person I am today without his guidance and philosophies — to constantly be creating things, no matter what gets in your way, and to work with whatever you have in front of you — so I bow to him with bruised knees. The underlying message in all his work is hope, and that is what he’s left us with. He is still teaching me how to fight demons, and I will always be learning from the best.
To me, Daniel Johnston is the greatest songwriter this world has known, forever the true American genius. Although it pains me to know he is with Casper the Friendly Ghost now, it was a miracle he ever with us to begin with. I like to think that his passing will bring all-new eyes and ears to his work, people who will need it as much as I did. I’m sure someone out there now is feeling less alone as they listen.
On the track “Go” off of Respect, he sings,“To understand and be understood is to be free” I can tell you, Daniel Johnston, that you are absolutely free. Thank you.