Today the singer/songwriter Daniel Johnston passed away. This has nothing to do with my actual art, but in some ways, it has a lot to do with me as an artist. The day is also immensely loaded as it is the eighteenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks. However, that isn’t my story to tell. It would be wrong for me to even begin attempting to assume those raw emotions as I was only a seven-year-old child at the time. What I can speak about though, is the loss of a very talented lyrical genius whose music managed to inspire and empower me. I can speak to what I think it means to exist and make impressions, to create echoes of yourself which will outlive you and hopefully have a positive effect on those who live beyond you.
It is fair to say that a lot of my work is musically inspired. At the very least, I can admit that a lot of my ideas are conceived when listening to music. I myself am not a musician. I played guitar in high school like any other long-haired misfit, but I never actually committed to becoming a well-trained and skilled guitarist. I was merely searching for a tool to help me spit out all of my thoughts – the guitar and subsequent lyrics I wrote for songs did just that.
Somewhat narcissistically, I’ve always enjoyed seeing myself as John Lennon did in this quote:
"I'm an artist, you give me a fucking tuba, I'll get something out of it."
Sure, it is an arrogant statement, but I think if you are the type of person who needs to express themselves, you’ll at least try with whatever tool you have within reach.
Back to Daniel Johnston. He sounds like he is singing alone in a room and taping everything in some homemade studio. You get the impression that he is a man who needed to get some words out of his head, and he used the nearest tools he had. His recordings sound unpolished and blissfully childlike. Of course, like almost all modern art, it can be tricky to make something so simple be so impactful. Yet, Daniel can sing in a stripped down fashion on the track “Some Things Last A Long Time” and it hits me in such an emotionally tender place. Losing someone and still clinging to any relic you have of them, in this case a photo on a wall. You want those happy moments to last forever and you allow them to get close to immortality by simply conjuring them in your mind over and over.
I remember the day Bowie died, where I was at and who I spoke to about it first. That was heartbreaking, but I never necessarily shed tears over these artists. I didn’t know them personally and I’ll never be without them as they left behind their music and those songs are the only way I’ve ever known them anyway. I would say that’s what we all strive to do as artists, we want to create something to say, “this is me and this will be me when I no longer can be.” A little existential, I know, but I think that’s a fair assessment.
Look at all the great artists and how they are still spoken about and revered today. I’m not saying I deserve to be in that pantheon. I’m saying that, like a musician, we have the ability to let our voices echo long after we can no longer speak, and I think that is the most powerful tool with which to last a long time.