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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

Daniel Johnston - Minds in Music blog

 Musicians with mental health problems are not immune to some potentially troubling implications of such a construct, for example that ‘madness’ is required for great artistic work.


The connection between mental illness and creativity is an interesting and contentious subject. I have explored different aspects in this blog to date. One consideration that has not been mentioned is the possible exploitation of those with a mental illness to generate notoriety or sensationalise their artistic work.

An excellent overview of the life of the poet Robert Lowell and the role of mental illness in his work points to a romanticising of mental illness by poets and critics in the US in the 1950s and 1960s, exemplified by this quote from Peter Davidson’s  ‘Madness in the New Poetry’:

"Madness .. can be construed—and is by some poets—as the regular and inescapable concomitant of the reach beyond reality; and sanity is construed as the dullness of those who refrain from reaching."

While the idea may be alluring, there are implicit dangers in such a simplification. Musicians with mental health problems are not immune to some potentially troubling implications of such a construct, for example that ‘madness’ is required for great artistic work. My last piece dealt with some of these, focusing on the troubled life of Townes Van Zandt, who was the subject of Margaret Brown’s compelling documentary ‘Be Here to Love Me’.


Aura of mystique

In the modern hype-driven music world, another danger is use of an individual’s mental illness to create an aura of mystique. Daniel Johnston, another Texan songwriter, is also the subject of a fascinating documentary, ‘The Devil and Daniel Johnston’ (2005). The film provides an insight into his life and development as a creative individual. Far from romanticising his illness however, the director does not shy away from the more troubling effects of illness on the artist’s life, including an incident where he caused a small plane in which he was travelling to crash-land due to behaviour arising from a psychotic episode.

There are also several moving accounts of those close to him about the effects his illness had on his life. The film was directed by Jeff Feuerzeig and won the Documentary Directing Award at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. It is highly recommended viewing for those interested in music and mental health.


The music industry

Johnston has certainly suffered from a severe psychotic illness throughout his adult life, characterised by episodes of both manic and psychotic symptoms. A somewhat disturbing feature to Johnston’s life was the apparent lack of understanding or outright disregard demonstrated by facets of the music industry towards Johnston’s mental illness.

While he was very unwell in a psychiatric hospital in the early 1990s, there was a race among record companies to sign him on the back of an endorsement by Kurt Cobain. Others do not appear to grasp just how vulnerable he may be in the stressful environment of a live performance.

Counter to these concerns, others from the music world have been very supportive and understanding. Johnston’s success at continuing his creative career despite his mental health problems may also serve as a source of inspiration and encouragement to those experiencing similar difficulties.


Acquired taste

Johnston’s music is certainly an acquired taste. He has a very unusual approach to writing and singing and his live performances can be erratic and unpredictable. Some find his often child-like lyrics to be simplistic and his music unsophisticated. However, others point to similar apparent limitations in some of Neil Young’s work, which do not necessarily lessen its emotional impact. Other still cite a quirky inventiveness similar to the offbeat work of 90s indie groups such as Neutral Milk Hotel and the Elephant 6 Collective

There is no doubt that other artists have taken a great interest in his work and cover versions of his songs may provide a gateway to his music for those put off by his own idiosyncratic delivery. Many of these are collected on the 2004 album ‘The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered’ (note - Daniel Johnston is still very much alive (and touring); like Townes Van Zandt he appears to have used ‘Late Great’ in an album title as a moment of black humour).

Daniel Johnston is also an artist, with a focus on often absurdist cartoon-like imagery, and his work has been shown in galleries in London and New York.




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Re: The Devil and Daniel Johns
Interesting piece about a facinating outsider artist. I have seen him live, and it can be nerve-wracking. However, like his heroes the beatles, he can write a great pop song with clever, personal lyrics.

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Minds in Music

Minds in Music

  John Tully  


Dr John Tully is a forensic psychiatrist and researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, London. He is also a musician and is interested in the role of the arts in mental health.