Of all the artists signed in the post-Nirvana goldrush – a brief and bizarre period when the US music industry, wrongfooted by Nevermind’s unexpected success, frantically attempted to replicate it by signing virtually anyone with even a vague connection to the band – Daniel Johnston was perhaps the most unlikely recipient of a major-label deal. It wasn’t that his music was uncommercial in the way of Kurt Cobain favourites the Melvins or Tad. Johnston didn’t make a fearsome noise: some of his albums were certainly heavy-going by the standards of mainstream rock – it takes an effort to imagine, say, the chaotic, wildly out-of-tune 1989 collaborative album, It’s Spooky, he made with Jad Fair getting played on the radio – but at root, Johnston wrote spare, melodic songs. It was Johnston himself.
He was a bipolar schizophrenic: his mental health had been at the root of a succession of lurid, disturbing stories for years. At the time of the bidding war to sign him, he was resident in a mental hospital, where he had been involuntarily committed after a psychotic episode during which he had caused the plane his father was piloting to crash by removing the keys from the ignition mid-flight. The question of whether this was a man in any state to be subjected to the machinations of the major label music business hung heavy over his deal with Atlantic; the uneasy sense that at least some aspects of the cult following Johnston had developed were prurient and voyeuristic was hard to shake off.
But then, the potency of Johnston’s music was hard to shake off. The sound of the tapes he released in the 80s – recorded on a mono cassette player in the basement of his parents’ home – was shockingly primitive: this was an era before the term “lo-fi” came to denote a desirable indie aesthetic. But the songs he wrote and played on an out-of-tune piano and a cheap organ cut through the background noise, tape hiss and ramshackle performances. A huge Beatles fan, Johnston had a way with a simple, indelible tune. Moreover, his songs often had a haunting impact. People sometimes used the adjective “childlike” to describe them, which seems faintly pejorative, but there was certainly a weird, potent directness about them. Like a Monkey in a Zoo, from 1981’s Songs of Pain, laid bare his isolation and mental health problems in stark terms – “it could happen to you, you could be in my place,” he warned the listener, “I wasn’t always like this, I never saw it coming” – and set them to a gorgeous melody.
The Beatles, from Kurt Cobain’s favourite Johnston album, Yip/Jump Music, uses every cliche imaginable to describe the band – “the legendary rock group … four lads who shook the world” – but it’s sung with such sincerity and intensity, Johnston slapping the keys of his chord organ so hard he effectively provides his own percussion, that the cliches take on a real emotional power. On the most basic level, these are just good songs, but there was something else attractive about them: they appeared to be completely guileless, utterly lacking in artifice. Moreover, they seemed to pour out of him. He released 10 cassettes in eight years, creating his own universe of recurrent characters – Caspar the Friendly Ghost, Joe the Boxer, Laurie Allen, the latter a real person, a local librarian who was the subject of Johnston’s unrequited affections. These tapes contained almost all his most celebrated songs: Speeding Motorcycle, Funeral Home, True Love Will Find You in the End.
The cult that grew around them led famed underground producer Mark Kramer to invite Johnston to record in a professional studio for the first time. The sessions at Kramer’s Shimmy Disc studios in New York were fraught and marked by another decline in Johnston’s mental health: the unfinished album had to be completed with home recordings and live tapes. And yet 1990 may well be the greatest album Johnston made, an alternately beautiful and profoundly disturbing collection of songs that frequently sounded like hymns. His recording of an actual hymn, Careless Soul, makes for discomforting, harrowing listening, Johnston fighting off tears as he sings about the day of judgment; at the other extreme, it contains the definitive version of True Love Will Find You in the End, the perfect example of the beautiful, profoundly moving simplicity of Johnston’s songwriting. It was subsequently covered umpteen times, most famously by Beck and Wilco, and eventually found widespread exposure, in the UK at least, as the soundtrack to an animal rescue charity’s advertising campaign.
He made a further studio album, Artistic Vice – home to Honey I Sure Miss You, another heartbreaking love song – before signing to Atlantic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the deal didn’t last long: he made a solitary album, Fun, before being dropped. But by then, appreciation of his work by other musicians had spread far beyond Kurt Cobain, who regularly sported a Johnston T-shirt: a 2004 album, The Late Great Daniel Johnston, featured Mercury Rev, Tom Waits, Eels, the Flaming Lips and Bright Eyes among those covering his material; Jason Pierce of Spiritualized subsequently hosted a tribute concert of Johnston’s songs at a New York exhibition of his art; more unexpectedly, Lana Del Rey covered Some Things Last a Long Time, a track from 1990 and executive-produced a short film about Johnston alongside the late rapper Mac Miller.
He continued sporadically releasing albums, all of them studded with exceptional songs, and touring when his health allowed. The fear that he would be remembered as a wacky curiosity or a footnote to the story of Nirvana rather than a songwriter turned out to be unfounded. Earlier this year, the Guardian interviewed a 19-year-old singer-songwriter called Bea Kristi, who records under the name Beabadoobee: signed by the 1975’s label Dirty Hit, her audience is largely comprised of tweens,born a decade after Cobain’s suicide and Johnston’s brief flirtation with a major label. But when asked about her influences, Kristi immediately named Daniel Johnston. Just as on the muffled tapes he recorded nearly 40 years ago, his songs continue to cut through.