Daniel Johnston, the Folk Poet of Devil Town

Kriston Capps at The Atlantic:

Daniel Johnston perform in Rome (Photo by Simone Cecchetti/Corbis via Getty Images)

Taken as a whole, Johnston’s career shows how neuroatypical artists usually remain on the margins of the music industry, even when the scene reveres them. When Mary Lou Lord, Beck, and other alt-rockers rerecorded his songs, their versions reached far wider audiences. Despite his brush with broader appeal, Johnston never achieved commercial success. Half his recorded catalog was committed to cassette, and the other albums were published by a string of small labels. Johnston reached his artistic zenith in the 2000s, with a tribute album featuring covers by Vic Chesnutt, Tom Waits, Death Cab for Cutie, and others.

But by the time his drawings made it into the 2006 biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Johnston himself had mostly dropped off the map. Atlantic Records, the only major label to represent him, had let him go in 1996 after his debut album, Fun, proved to be a flop. He intermittently produced other recordings until 2012; while he endured hospitalizations all his life, in more recent years, they became frequent.

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