Like a lot of people, Eugene musician Sarah Boehm discovered Daniel Johnston via the The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a 2005 documentary about the Austin musician. Johnston died in September from what’s believed to have been a heart attack. He was 58.
“When I heard of him passing, it truly felt like I had lost someone close. I cried,” Boehm says.
Boehm, along with Betty Jaeger of Eugene band Baroque Betty, has now planned a Johnston tribute show, Don’t Be Sad I Know You Will: A Tribute to Daniel Johnston, for Nov. 23 at Luckey’s.
The riddle of Johnston’s music — little lo-fi pop songs, often recorded at home, with as much poetry as Dylan and the same sense of musical transcendence as Brian Wilson’s much more sumptuous compositions — lies in the songwriter’s struggle with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
It’s reductive, though, to attribute all of Johnston’s magic to a fluke of the non-neurotypical mind. There’s too much rapture in the songs, a kind derangement that cuts close to the truth. Even if you’ve never heard Johnston, the first time you do it feels like a friend.
An old boyfriend helped Jaeger discover Johnston. “Daniel became a person I genuinely wanted to get to know. I fell in love with this profoundly vulnerable human being,” she says.
Jaeger and Boehm floated the idea of a local Johnston tribute on social media, and the response was overwhelming. In addition to performances from Boehm and Jaeger, artists appearing at the tribute include Michael Roderick of Mood Area 52, Megan Johns, Dubious, Colin Redmond of Le Rev and Lauren Hay of Snow White.
Johnston was also a visual artist, and several of his cartoon drawings were included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial. A cover he drew for his 1983 album Hi, How Are You was popularized when Kurt Cobain wore a t-shirt with its picture of a friendly frog.
“As a person who feels emotion very deeply, and who has struggled with mental illness, anxiety and depression, Daniel Johnston songs tackle these subjects deeply and with great honesty and rawness,” Boehm says. “His music sort of leaks this sense of intense heartbreak, and yet it’s sprinkled with all kinds of subtle humor. His music requires an open heart.”
Don’t Be Sad I Know You Will: A Tribute to Daniel Johnston is 10 pm Saturday, Nov. 23, at Luckey’s, $5, 21-plus. All proceeds benefit the Hi, How Are You Project, a nonprofit created with the support of Johnston and his family to inspire new conversations around mental health issues.