The legendary outsider musician and artist has died, aged 58
As regular Reprobate readers will be aware, we have a genuine love of the outsider artist. While the work might sometimes be a little too off-kilter to take entirely seriously, we have never doubted the sincerity and uniqueness of those musicians and other artists who are driven by their own passions and demons to create, and who defy the conventions of the mainstream to instead work in their own way. In a world of increasing cultural conformity, these people are increasingly important.
Daniel Johnston, who died yesterday, was one of the best known outsider artists, and in the wake of Kurt Cobain wearing one of his T-shirts (leading to a fairly ludicrous bidding war by major labels to sign Johnston up) and the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, he became well known enough for you to always question if his media supporters and vocal fans all really liked his work or simply wanted to look cool and on-point, using him to establish their hipster credentials. It’s a pity, because Johnston deserved his moment in the spotlight, and perhaps thrived in it. As someone who had suffered with extensive mental illness problems, Johnston arguably benefitted from the ability to do what he loved – or in his case, what he seemed driven to do – and to have other people like it.
If you are unfamiliar with Johnston’s work, I’m not quite sure how I could describe it. He created poignant, highly personal recordings, all original songs and often relating to a ‘lost’ (or unrequited) love. The songs were recorded at home using a tape recorder and are as lo-fi as you could conceive, his fragile voice, minimal instrumentation, simple melodies and the inadvertant effect of both the inital recording limitations and the additional ghosting and deterioration of tape-to-tape duplication created work that is uniquely affecting. Album titles like Songs of Pain – his first release, in 1981 – and Don’t Be Scared suggest that these were expressions of an inner torment that Johnston had to get out somehow.
Johnston would distribute the cassettes himself, often handing them to people he met – a sort of organic distribution that would slowly build him a following. His infrequent live performaances became something to watch for. Then Everett True handed a tape to Kurt Cobain, and things would never be the same. I shouldn’t complain, I guess – the likelihood of Johnston’s work ever reaching my ears without that intervention seems slim.
And after the misguided attentions of record labels in 1994 (which of course ended quickly when his Atlantic Records album Fun failed to set the charts on fire and saw him abruptly dropped), Johnston effectively became self-contained once again, but now had an extended following that enabled him to tour around the world and make enough money from his work to not have to worry about the future too much. Johnston’s mental illness – which, infamously, had once seen him remove the ignition keys from a two-seater plane being flown by his father and throw them out of the window during a manic episode in which he believed he was Caspar the Friendly Ghost, leading to a crash landing that both managed to survive – seemed more controlled. He now had focus and some sense of control, and it seemed to help manage his illness. How much of Johnston’s creative work was a result of his illness is something that people will continue to debate – it does seem that schizophrenia in particular does often allow a creative person to find an entirely unique form of self-expression. To me, Johnston always seemed the quiet pop flipside to Roky Erickson, who had similar demons to battle and who also created extraordinary, unique outsider music for much of his life.
Personally, while I liked Johnston’s music, it was his artwork that really grabbed me. His simple cartoon illustrations for his cassette covers, most famously the frog known as Jeremiah the Innocent who appeared on Hi, How Are You? in 1983, are fantastic, as are his more frenetic colour works – oddball surreal images that are both childlike in their innocence and remarkable flights of imagination. His work has shown in galleries globally, and deservedly so.
Johnston’s death, aged just 58, is a sad moment for outsider art. His family seem to have a grip on his work and his legacy, so there seems little fear of it vanishing. He was that rarest of things – a genuinely original, painfully personal voice in a world where originality is increasing frowned upon by a corporate art world. We need more artists like him to escape from the obscurity that their work almost invariably dooms them too.