devil daniel


Given the death last week of Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston at the age of 58, it seemed right to write about the 2005 documentary on his troubled life, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston.” I suppose there are many people out there who have no idea who Johnston is and some of those people might have seen reactions by friends and acquaintances on social media despairing about Johnston’s untimely death. The 2005 documentary goes a long way to revealing not only who Johnston was, but why he was important.

Born in California and raised in West Virginia, Johnston made his way to Austin, Texas, in the early 1980s and gained a reputation as an eccentric performer of outsider music and releasing his music on homemade cassette tapes adorned with childlike drawings. In the mid-1980s, he made an appearance on an MTV special about the Austin music scene and this led to making a record in New York City, but throughout Johnston was plagued by often debilitating mental health issues, specifically schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” reveals the effects of all his demons, both real and imagined.

Johnston’s life is well-documented in film, video, photography and audio recordings, largely made by Johnston himself, and the extended use of this material in the film not only illustrates his life clearly but makes it a first-person experience. You witness some of Johnston’s most alarming moments thanks to them, but this also puts them in a dire context in which you see that many within his retinue hadn’t completely come to a sense of understanding about the depth of Johnston’s issues and the level of intervention he required to survive them.

As Johnston’s health issues became more prevalent, some friends realized the seriousness of what was happening to him. Others, unfortunately, assumed he could still deal with the normal pressures of a music career, that his psychosis might even be cured by it. It was probably music that saved Johnston in the end, but the business of music did its part to destroy him as well.

This is perhaps a gray area within the film for anyone who isn’t wrapped up in the Johnston legend. Watching footage of his early Austin days makes you wonder what some people were thinking, given the obviousness of his issues, and whether he fell victim to the romantic myth of the crazy artist that doesn’t allow for much practical insight about mental illness.

The important thing about “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” is that other than the dignity of being a human being, it makes a strong case for the aspect of Johnston that brought him attention — his music. He himself is by no means a polished performer, with his high-pitched, lispy delivery accompanied by manic, disorganized strumming, and there’s little about this that is going to persuade many people whose ears are more attuned to orderly, professional sounds to recognize the talent that’s there.

But there are plenty of people in the film that are able to filter the aural stumbling blocks and get to the root of the songs themselves, notably the astonishing lyrics in which Johnston shows grace and wit, playfulness, depth, and, most significantly, a poetic honesty that doesn’t set his emotions aside from everyone else’s, but rather unites his with ours. In what Johnston expresses of his own experience and his own views of the world, we can find both a singular vision and one that can also remind us of our own, and that quality won him fans like Wilco and other musicians who performed his songs.

This is similar to the way one might approach the man himself and “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” understands this strength of his legacy, the message that it takes great care and sometimes focused effort to see what is on the inside of a disarming exterior. But it’s crucial that we do so routinely, every day. It makes the world a kinder place to live in and sometimes it unearths something transformative like the music of Daniel Johnston.

Originally published at on September 20, 2019.

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