An Open Mea-Culpa to Daniel Johnston

Dear Daniel,

I’m sorry. I’ve been neglecting you. I’ve been taking your music for granted. I’ve been a bad fan. I’ve forgotten. And because of my capricious and haphazard listening habits, this has happened and will happen time and time again. I’ll be idly hooked up to my iPod on shuffle when it’ll shift from some John Coltrane live performance, all majestic pomp and pout, to one of your fragile, beautiful and desolate songs. And I’ll be knocked over backwards, guaranteed, every single time. And I’ll be crushed. And I’ll angrily ask myself “why am I not listening to the songs of this mad genius every single day?”. And I will have no answer.

The fact of the matter is that there’s nothing out there that affects me in the same way as your songs do. There are many musicians who get to me on a number of different levels, but none elicit the kind of visceral reaction your music does. And there are musical approximations, sure– your songs run the gamut from psychedelic rock to Tin Pan Alley influenced numbers, through hushed folk ballads and experimental outbursts of abstraction. But even at your most polished, that voice will always demolish me. Quivery and childlike and heartbreaking and honest.

And yes, you were (are) unwell, in some ways, but more importantly, you were (are) in love. Doesn’t it sometimes feel like the same thing? To take solace in the mere thought of another, from a distance. How many songs did you write about her? When did you first realize she would never return the affections you poured her way? Did this make you angry and fuel your creativity? And at what cost? An entire life of pining for this woman after not seeing her for years, a statue that you created in your mind to kiss? And the crushing blow from learning she had married someone else. Did this seal your fate? Or did it not even matter anymore? Was your love for her yours, regardless of what she may say or do?
The world was not ready for your songs. It still isn’t, and who knows if it ever will be. They’re too pure, too unpolished, too unabashed. When your body joins you where your spirit has gone, how will you be remembered– as a legend or as an asterisk? As an artist or a novelty? As a musician or documentary subject? When clips of your songs are played on the radio during stories announcing your passing, how many listeners will lift their eyebrows in bemusement? Some of us, we understand. We listen to your recordings and your tentative strumming and the uncertainty of your voice and the simple and true words in your songs and we’ll see it– we’ll see what Cobain saw in you, what Elliott Smith saw in you.

They’re gone. And even though your body is still here, your spirit is gone as well. There’s a reason why you introduce yourself as “the ghost of Daniel Johnston”. We took you for granted, and you deserved so much better.

5 thoughts on “An Open Mea-Culpa to Daniel Johnston

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