Story of an Artist…

Daniel Johnston & John Cafiero

I am truly and deeply saddened by Daniel Johnston’s passing. It’s affected me in equal measure to the passing of the founding Ramones; who were nothing short of my childhood heroes. They meant the world to me—and still do. I feel now like I did then; maybe a bit older and wiser, but no less devastated. There’s one less star in the night sky and it burns less brilliantly for it. Daniel and his work were sincerity personified, human emotion in the purest sense of the word. I experienced his music for the first time listening to WFMU in the very late hours one night in the late 1980s… a block of several songs from his lo-fi masterpiece “Songs of Pain” was played from a homemade cassette album that included a cut called “Wicked World”. It simply blew me away and hit hard. One after another the songs by this unidentified artist rolled on to tell the story of a tortured soul, unafraid to lay it all on the line with a unique sense of isolation and intimacy. It was as if you were right there with him in the room, strapped in for an emotional rollercoaster ride. I’d never heard anything like it. So incredibly heartfelt and well crafted, yet beautifully imperfect and devoid of any pretense whatsoever. I quickly sought out his entire catalog in a non-internet age, hitting the jackpot with a treasure trove of cassette albums by this relatively unknown artist available for sale just a few towns over in Hoboken NJ at a store called Pier Platters. I’d go back every week or so to pick up another, and another… And I’d make anyone that would listen, listen.

That first impression made such a lasting impact that years later I would record a punk version of “Wicked World” with Osaka Popstar, giving it a treatment I could always hear playing out in my head when listening to the original. I channeled all of the power Daniel brought with his sincerity, purity and raw emotion into the power and purity I’d been taught by the Ramones. Daniel dug it (which meant a lot to me) and that led to our collaborating on a punk-pop cover of the bluegrass classic “Man of Constant Sorrow”. I envisioned Daniel as the voice of hope to the “man of sorrow” and so—he was. We scheduled the session in NYC around a gig he’d do at the Knitting Factory. Our mutual friend, artist Ron English, came to the session and snapped the photo of us (shown above) immediately after the recording wrapped. It was raining when we left the studio and headed out on our way for a shopping spree at comic book shops and toy stores along St Marks place. Daniel drew his iconic illustrations in the fog on the car windows as I played him A Camp (Nina Persson’s band)’s cover of his song “Walking the Cow”. It was unreleased in America at the time and I felt it was an amazing rendering that warranted his attention. That day was a surreal and amazing experience. It’s a treasured memory and I’m so thankful for it, along with the incredible body of work Daniel left behind. The world seemed a little less wicked with Daniel in it… He will be missed but never forgotten.

— John Cafiero, Sept. 12, 2019

In loving memory of ‘the voice of hope’ the late great Daniel Johnston.