Conor Oberst, M. Ward Remember Cult Artist Daniel Johnston – Rolling Stone


Conor Oberst praised the music and art of Daniel Johnston and remembered the unique spirit of the late outsider folk hero, who died Wednesday of natural causes at the age of 58.

Oberst said he was “lucky enough” to have played several shows with Johnston over the past two decades, but noted that prior to those gigs many people warned him that Johnston might “act ‘crazy’ or ‘off’ or something.” But, Oberst said, he never encountered that side of Johnston.

“When I locked eyes, and was talking with him, I felt an abundance of humanness that I have seldom experienced,” Oberst said. “It was like he was free of all ego and was just the id. A trait which I found very refreshing. I know he suffered long and hard from various maladies. I know he is gone now and I truly hope he has found some peace out there. Although I feel sad about his departure as a person I believe his art and music will endure.”

Along with sharing the stage with Johnston, Oberst also notably covered Johnston’s “Devil Town” as Bright Eyes, releasing his version of the song on the 2006 rarities compilation, Noise Floor. Oberst spoke about the qualities that drew him, and countless others, to Johnston’s music, saying “he tapped into something that we have all left behind and still sorely miss.”

“I think Daniel was pure,” Oberst continued. “I do not use that word lightly but I think it is the reason that so many artists have felt compelled to interpret his songs. He said what we all meant to say before we got ahead of ourselves. An economy of language and depth of spirit which blended into a perfect magical concoction of empathy for our human condition. No small task. There is never going to be another Daniel. But I thank the gods he came around.”

M. Ward, another Johnston acolyte who covered “To Go Home” and “Story of an Artist,” also shared a tribute in which he not only praised Johnston’s songwriting, but his production style — which essentially amounted to “no production.” Ward compared the recordings Johnston made between 1980 to 1995 to the work of artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Howard Finster, saying they invited the listener “to draw the connections” between full songs, false starts and other random sounds caught on tape.

“The overall feeling is a thrill because we feel like we are witnessing the invention process instead of — as with all other studio records — the end of the polishing one,” Ward said. “When I first heard his tapes I thought of Robert Johnson’s recordings. The fact that no money was put into the production is not a drawback at all — they’re stronger for it because theres nothing in the way between you and the inventor.”

Conor Oberst Statement

I was lucky enough to get to play some shows with Daniel over the past twenty odd years. It was often predicated, by others, that I should be prepared that he might act “crazy” or “off” or something. But honestly, I didn’t experience that. When I locked eyes, and was talking with him, I felt an abundance of humanness that I have seldom experienced. It was like he was free of all ego and was just the id. A trait which I found very refreshing. I know he suffered long and hard from various maladies. I know he is gone now and I truly hope he has found some peace out there. Although I feel sad about his departure as a person I believe his art and music will endure. Because he tapped into something that we have all left behind and still sorely miss. I think Daniel was pure. I do not use that word lightly but I think it is the reason that so many artists have felt compelled to interpret his songs. He said what we all meant to say before we got ahead of ourselves. An economy of language and depth of spirit which blended into a perfect magical concoction of empathy for our human condition. No small task. There is never going to be another Daniel. But I thank the gods he came around.

M. Ward Statement

daniel johnston was a truly incredible songwriter but his main genius was in self-producing music. especially early tapes he made from 1980 to 1995.

the genius production idea was this: no production.

or session players.
or engineers
or in-tune instruments or harmonizing singers.

the tapes were made unconsciously into modern art . like a Rauschenberg or howard Finster collage – where the listener has to draw the connections. sometimes a song would start with the sound of a thumb pressing record on the recorder or pounding an out-of-tune keyboard – then a false start and then a song with a beautiful and sad John-Lennon-Dakota-tapes melody and before the recording ends : an interruption from the neighbor who happened to walk in the door of the bedroom or leave a message on his answering machine – or is that the start of the next song?

the overall feeling is a thrill because we feel like we are witnessing the invention process instead of – as with all other studio records – the end of the polishing one.

when i first heard his tapes i thought of robert johnson’s recordings. the fact that no money was put into the production is not a drawback at all – theyre stronger for it because theres nothing in the way between you and the inventor.



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