Insights on romance from the cult songwriter.
Few famous musicians have had a tougher go at love than Daniel Johnston. Or a tougher go at life, really — ever since he began to distribute his homemade cassette albums around Austin, Texas in the early ’80s, this West Virginian pop savant’s story has been fraught with heartbreaks and breakdowns. And while one need only Netflix the brilliant 2006 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston to be touched and inspired by the many bouts with psychosis Johnston has survived, the new six-disc box set of his earliest and roughest recordings, The Story of an Artist, offers the most moving record of the one ache that still hangs in Johnston’s heart. The pure-hearted romantic met a strapping young lass named Laurie in his college days, got in a single kiss with her, and has been lovesick — and writing songs about her — ever since.
Fortunately, these odes and torch songs have warmed the hearts of thousands — including the likes of Kurt Cobain, Tom Waits, and Matt Groening — and, perhaps because Johnston doesn’t see the world quite like the rest of us, he doesn’t hesitate to give his listeners a clear and direct window into his private thoughts and deepest emotions. Considering the big lug’s seen and felt a lot over the decades, it’s no surprise that love lessons abound.
1. Keep your cool. Nervousness is seldom attractive, but we all know how tough it can be to stay calm and collected around the love of our dreams. In "Grievances," the classic first song on the debut Songs of Pain (and, as such, the first song on The Story of an Artist), Johnston recalls a time that he visited Laurie at the funeral home where her husband worked and got so anxious that he felt tempted to crawl into a nearby open casket. Sometimes we build walls around ourselves to see who cares enough to knock ’em down, but coffin walls are pretty final, Daniel.
2. Everything in moderation. Romantic gestures are key to winning anyone’s heart, but they’re easy to overdo — as Johnston does in "You Put My Love Out the Door," when he leaves messages in the fresh snow covering his unrequited love’s frontyard. After all, no girl is likely to complain about having a love song penned in her honor — but most would probably agree that a dozen or so albums of them is a bit much. Which brings us to…
3. Know when to ease off. In The What of Whom‘s ninety-second opener "Man Obsessed," Johnston sings, "He’s a man obsessed / He couldn’t be a lover, so now he’s a pest." And a few tracks later, Johnston bookends "I Can’t Think Anymore" with scratchy tape recordings of himself asking a female fan what she thought of his show — much to the girl’s annoyance. Tenacity can be rewarded in certain situations, but it’s generally best to remember how many fish can be found in any given sea.
4. But above all else, never lose hope. One of the most iconic figures in Johnston’s drawings (which are nearly as famous as his songs, by now) is Joe the Boxer, the perennial underdog athlete who also stars in songs like "You’re Gonna Make It, Joe." And while Laurie may always remain Daniel’s "one who got away," it’d be hard to overstate the value of staying optimistic. Johnston shares that sentiment in his most beautiful and lasting song, "True Love Will Find You in the End" — a promise (with a catch) that isn’t included on The Story of an Artist, but is essential listening for anyone with a heart.