Daniel Johnston, the Austin-based folk artist whose fans included some of music’s top names and whose influences were in the realm of outsider and lo-fi sound, has died at the age of 58. The cause of death is listed as a heart attack.
Johnston’s mental fragility – he struggled for years with mental health issues – were a key part of his identity and music. His early years passing out handmade tapes to strangers on Austin, Texas streets are cult legend.
According to Rolling Stone, Johntson’s admirers included the likes of Kurt Cobain; some of his songs included “Life in Vain,” “True Love Will Find You in the End,” and “Walking the Cow.” The news of his death was first broken by the Austin Chronicle.
Pitchfork dubbed him a “lo-fi singer-songwriter and visual artist who rose to underground fame in the ’80s.”
“When I was a kid, probably nine, I used to bang around on the piano, making up horror movie themes. When I got a bit older, I’d be mowing my lawn and I’d make up songs and sing them. No one could hear me ’cause of the lawn mower,” he once said, according to his biography at HiHowAreYou.com.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Daniel Johnston’s Health Had Been on the Decline in Recent Years
Johnston’s death came after several years of physical decline, according to the Austin Chronicle, which reported, via his sister, that his health problems included “falling, hospitalization, and frequent adjustments to his medication.”
That was a year ago. He ended up in the hospital in January 2019, the newspaper reported. His death, which occurred on the evening of September 10, 2019, was confirmed to the newspaper by his former manager.
He also famously struggled with mental health issues for years, pouring the angst into his sound; in 1990, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and ended up in a mental hospital, according to Pitchfork. This was part of his music and identity; in 2006, the Boston Globe wrote, “Daniel Johnston is a gifted musical talent and a deeply ill man: The two are inextricably entwined.”
He spent time living with his parents, and, Texas Monthly reported, his mental illness resulted in “violent psychotic explosions in which he has almost killed himself and others, including his father.” He was the subject of a documentary called “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” with its protagonist described as “a mentally ill singer-songwriter and artist” who “diagnoses himself as a manic depressive with grand illusions.”
2. Johnston Was Born in California But Raised in West Virginia & Found Cult Fame in Austin
According to Rolling Stone, Johnston was born in Sacramento in 1961 but then moved to West Virginia, where his influences included the Beatles. His first album was released in 1980 and was called Songs of Pain.
He was born to Mable and Bill Johnston, who were described by Texas Monthly as fundamental Christians who belong to the Church of Christ. According to HiHowAreYou.com, Daniel was “the youngest of five children in a Christian fundamentalist household. He and his family soon moved to New Cumberland, West Virginia, where his father, an engineer and World War II fighter pilot, landed a job with Quaker State.”
By the 1980s, he was living in Austin, Texas. The Chronicle noted that he was still active through 2018, quoting him as saying, “I’ve been working on a new album with [Austin’s] Brian Beattie for years, and I hope it comes out real soon.”
The Boston Globe described how he “came to cult fame in the Austin music scene of the mid-1980s,” by “obsessively writing and recording hundreds of songs that he played on a cheap organ” in what was described as a “high, quavering voice.”
His 1983 tape, called “Hi, How Are You?” was homemade. Texas Monthly once described his early Austin years as “this kid who was handing out homemade tapes with strange cartoons on the covers to anyone who would take them.”
3. Kurt Cobain Brought Attention to the Singer; Celebrities & Fans Are Mourning Loss
No other than Kurt Cobain was a fan of Johnston’s; according to Pitchfork, Cobain “brought attention to his music by sporting his Hi, How Are You artwork on a T-shirt.”
Cobain also praised Johnston in interviews. Johnston achieved additional celebrity status when he was featured on MTV when the program came to Austin. AllMusic described how Johnson’s lyrics “focused mainly on lost love, the pain of miscommunication, his love for the Beatles, and comic-book superhero Captain America.”
Johnston once appeared in a psychedelic short film. He was a cartoonist whose artwork was featured on his music covers. More people were introduced to Johnston when indie label Homestead “issued some of Johnston’s early recordings on vinyl,” AllMusic reported.
Fans have taken to social media to off tribute. “Daniel Johnston wrote beautiful songs and inspired countless musicians and songwriters. The heart and its truths are captured in his music. I feel lucky to have been introduced to his artistry. I never know what to say in these times, but I will miss you,” wrote one man.
Judd Apatow wrote, “So sad to hear of the death of the great Daniel Johnston. Here is a beautiful performance of his which makes me cry every time.” He shared this:
The Mountain Goats offered tribute, writing on Twitter, “Those early DJ tunes meant a lot to so many of us. ‘Walking the Cow’ was also a favorite of mine, along with ‘Keep Punching Joe,’ whose lyrics reference ‘Walking the Cow.’ Rest well Daniel Johnston, you sure earned it.”
4. Johnston Dropped Out of College When His Girlfriend Married an Undertaker
For a time, Johnston attended Kent State, where he dabbled in songwriting.
According to the Austin Chronicle, he fell in love with a woman in college but she dumped him to marry an undertaker, and he eventually dropped out of college, initially moving with his brother to Houston, where he joined a carnival. That story is all part of his lore.
From there, he found his way to Austin, and that’s where his homemade cassette tapes landed in the hands of many people throughout the city. They found more than a following; they helped people. “Daniel Johnston’s music helped me get through a difficult time in my life and he always seemed like such a kind soul. True Love will find you in the end is honestly one of all time fav songs,” wrote one man on Twitter after hearing the news of Johnston’s death.
5. Daniel Johnston Developed an Underground Following
Johnston’s despair and his music appealed to a cult following. Eventually, he was getting a lot of attention; as Texas Monthly recalls it, there was “MTV, big shows in front of adoring fans, a major-label deal, his artwork hung in galleries in London and Berlin.”
He was, the magazine recalls, “an underground hero,” and other bands started covering him, including some really famous ones like Pearl Jam and Death Cab for Cutie.
“Daniel Johnston has spent the last 20 or so years exposing his heartrending tales of unrequited love, cosmic mishaps, and existential torment to an ever-growing international cult audience,” HiHowAreYou.com wrote.
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