Category: Daniel Johnston

Single Song Saturday: True Love Will Find You In The End
(A birthday tribute to outsider musician Daniel Johnston)

January 22nd, 2011 — 12:01 am

Yes, we’re posting our Single Song Sunday feature a bit early this week. But infamously bipolar songwriter Daniel Johnston turns 50 today, and I can’t think of a better way to honor his impact on the music world than with this collection of covers of his best-known composition. The hope and pain inherent in the brilliantly simple lyric and melody of this piece and many others have touched a nerve in many artists both well-known and obscure since Johnston’s first cassette hit the streets in 1981, prompting a multitude of covers, and seven full-length tribute albums – making ours a long overdue tribute, indeed.

It’s not necessary to be familiar with Daniel Johnston’s history as a fringe artist and mentally unstable personality to make sense of his songbook and its influence, but it helps. As I noted two years ago over at Star Maker Machine, where I posted the original and two covers of Johnston’s Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievances:

If a severe manic depressive with an unhealthy appetite for Mountain Dew, who is known for such manic episodes as throwing an airplane ignition key out the window while the plane was still in the air, gives you advice, should you take it?

Oft-hospitalized indie musician Daniel Johnston is known for being a serious oddball, an outsider in a world of outsiders, but his lyrics and songcraft are celebrated by a significant slice of music world and beyond – from David Bowie to Kurt Cobain to Simpsons creator Matt Groening, themselves a fairly untrustworthy group of advice-givers. His lo-fi production and wavery falsetto first hit the world through a series of self-released cassette tapes recorded on a $59 boombox; according to Wikipedia, common themes in his music throughout his career have included “unrequited love, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and comic book superheroes…a propensity to proselytize for his conception of Christianity, warning about the devil, and a fixation on the number 9.”

Johnston himself, in other words, is one of a kind: a childlike, weird, and damaged soul whose hallucinatory relationship to the world around him has produced a wisdom which has touched numerous artists who see themselves on the fringes of society, or even sanity. And indeed, many artists who cover Johnston’s best works choose to channel the thick haze which surrounds both his incredibly lo-fi production method and his chemical imbalanced personality, resulting in a surprisingly varied set of portraits unified nonetheless by more than just the words and music which make the song what it is.

As with Johnston’s original take on Grievances, it’s hard to listen to the original of this piece: Johnston’s pain is wide open, and it comes through powerfully in his wavering, thin tenor voice and his often arrhythmic performance. But as much as we feel for Johnston’s innate discomfort with a universe that doesn’t always make sense to his fractured, scattered brain, there is something vibrant, enthusiastic, even loving in the way we see his engagement with the world, in the way he paints the foggy glimpses of hope he sees through his cracked mirror, in how both his craft and his very continued existence acknowledge the pain as a necessary condition for appreciating the benefits of life, when they finally arrive.

True Love Will Find You In The End is simultaneously a perfect prototype for this duality, and a manifesto for taking charge of our destiny: True love will find you in the end, he says, but how can it recognize you unless you step into the light? Don’t be sad – you know you will – but don’t give up until true love finds you in the end. And though there are many ways to find the right balance between pleasure and pain – from A Whisper In The Noise‘s drowsy shoegaze opium dream to Alela Diane‘s aetherial voice floating on the heady electro-Americana pulse of one-shot coverband Headless Heroes, from the cheerfully emphatic grungy handclap harmonies of 20 year old identical twins Taxi Taxi! to the ache of Richard Walters‘ gentle guitarplay and tender vocals, with their sudden build into soft acoustic indie-folk in the second verse, from Matthew Good‘s sparse, raspy Americana to the playful, almost carnival-esque atmosphere which Boise, Idaho indie-pop band The Very Most bring us by setting the song at a rapid pace, and using a toy piano as their primary instrument – the genius of Johnston shines through every version, from simple and sparse to rich and atmospheric, reminding us that no matter how slow or muddy or psychedelic the interpretation, under all the syrup and insanity, there is hope aplenty.

So Happy Birthday, Daniel. May you live on, in body and spirit, through your songs and your visions.

We don’t usually include bonus tracks in our Single Song Sunday features, but since the songs up at the Star Maker Machine post mentioned above were long since gone, in the interest of letting you follow the threads of his world, I’ve put ‘em back up. Head on over to June, 2008, to listen to covers of Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievances from Clem Snide and Dot Allison, and to experience the broken, beautiful original for yourself.

[UPDATE - 1/22/11 12:14 PM: Daniel Johnston is soliciting birthday messages for his afternoon podcast. If you've been inspired by Daniel, tell him. Sing a song, leave a msg or say Happy 50th Birthday! Call (936)-463-4688!]

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