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Genius and Madness Collide in a Sweet Song

Daniel Johnston has battled mental illness for decades, but his sense of melody is undeniable.
Daniel Johnston has battled mental illness for decades, but his sense of melody is undeniable.

Many songwriters have battled mental illness, and some, like Brian Wilson, have been lionized as troubled geniuses. Opinion is somewhat more divided about mentally ill but cultishly admired Texas singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston, who made his name recording primitive, Beatles-inspired originals on his cassette recorder.

But it's hard to dismiss Daniel Johnston as a songwriter after hearing the tender, childlike ballad "The Sun Shines Down on Me," off the recent retrospective Welcome to My World. The disc includes some of the best material from Johnston's homemade tapes, and while the recording quality is almost as ragged as his voice, the low fidelity only adds to the songs' mystery and charm.

Now in his 40s, Johnston is unable to care for himself, and he lives with his parents near Houston. But a recent retrospective of his visual art by New York's Whitney Museum — together with a documentary feature film — may make this Johnston's biggest year. Given his innate and undeniable sense of melody, and his enormous influence on countless musicians, he deserves it.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Brown
David Browne is a contributing editor of Rolling Stone and the author of Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth and Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, Spin and other outlets. He is currently at work on Fire and Rain, a book that will track the lives and careers of The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young during the pivotal year of 1970.