Daniel Johnston, Cult Singer-Songwriter, Dies Aged 58

Daniel Johnston, Cult Singer-Songwriter, Dies Aged 58

daniel johnston
Daniel Johnston. Photo by Brigitte Engl/Redferns.

The music world is today mourning the loss of a much-beloved cult icon, Daniel Johnston; an eccentric and enduring artistic outsider who captivated his loyal underground following, inspiring many great artists with his poignantly simplistic folk music. News of his death at age 58, following a heart attack, was confirmed by his manager, Jeff Tartakov:

“The Johnston family is deeply saddened to announce the death of their brother, Daniel Johnston. He passed away from natural causes this morning at his home outside of Houston, Texas.”

“Daniel was a singer, songwriter, an artist, and a friend to all. Although he struggled with mental health issues for much of his adult life, Daniel triumphed over his illness through his prolific output of art and songs. He inspired countless fans, artists, and songwriters with his message that no matter how dark the day, ‘the sun shines down on me’ and ‘true love will find you in the end.'”

As an artist, Johnston possessed a rare ability to articulate a singular, most meaningful point, cut through the white noise of day to day life that dulls our emotional clarity and shine a spotlight on what truly matters. His music wasn’t so much simple, as it was concise. 

Daniel Johnston | “Life In Vain” 

Johnston’s consistent thematic focus was based in childlike pleas for love and comfort that tap into the soul of any listener, igniting the inner child in all of us with a craving for comfortability and affection. It was this truthful innocence, the type most of us are too proud to admit to, that captivated the likes of Kurt Cobain, Matt Groening and Tom Waits, all of whom have affectionately paid homage to his motivational force at some point. 

Daniel Johnston | “True Love Will Find You In The End”

Johnston was born in California in 1961 and raised in West Virginia, but it was the bohemian oasis of Austin, Texas where he would begin to make a name for himself as a musician. His DIY approach to marketing was as obvious, simple and effective as his music. He began handing out tapes of his affectingly naive first albums to people in the street until, three years later, he made his commercial breakthrough with the album Hi, How Are You. However, it didn’t curb his enthusiasm for handing out tapes to anyone willing to listen.

Daniel Johnston at Woodshock 1985

Between his own admirably relentless legwork and Kurt Cobain’s steadfast patronage (Cobain stated in interviews that Johnston was among the “greatest” songwriters and notably wore a T-shirt repping Johnston’s Hi, How Are You album to the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards), a bidding war began, and he eventually signed to Atlantic Records in 1994. Despite being signed to a major label, mainstream success still eluded him, but for an artist like Johnston, that was never really the point. 

Daniel Johnston | “Walking The Cow”

His eccentricity was legendary: Johnston refused to sign with Elektra because they employed Metallica (whom he believed to be satanic); he ran away from home as a teenager on a moped to join a travelling circus; he was arrested for graffiti-ing the Statue of Liberty with hundreds of Christian fish symbols – whether he was writing music or being a hellraiser, Johnston had his very own wildly creative process. 

But, in the early 1990s, he crossed a line when he suffered a manic psychotic episode during a small plane flight. Believing he was the cartoon character Casper the Friendly Ghost; Johnston threw plane’s ignition keys out the window. Miraculously, his father managed to crash land the plane and the two escaped with only minor injuries, but the incident prompted one of many spells Johnston would spend in psychiatric institutions over the years. Diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and he was plagued by both physical and mental health issues for the duration of his life. 

The 2005 documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston chronicling his music and life story included a sequence detailing the shocking moment Johnston threw away the key to the two-seat plane mid-air.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston Trailer

“Well, it sure was embarrassing,” Johnston said of the film in 2005. “Every terrible dilemma, every fabled mistake. Nothing I can do about it now, though. I wish they’d added a laugh track to it, because it sure is funny.”

But as admirer and Wilco frontman, Jeff Tweedy, said in 2017: “Daniel has managed to create in spite of his mental illness, not because of it. He’s been honest in his portrayal of what he’s been struggling with without overtly drawing attention to it.”

Johnston was compelled to create, not to be ‘cool’. He wasn’t weighed down by insecurities about being popular or rich. Despite the unavoidable suffering and difficulties brought on by his mental health issues (and the pressures this placed on his family), such pure motivations are enviably sane; and rare. Especially in the world of entertainment.

“Some people really liked me, and other people were making fun of me they thought I was a freak show,” Johnston told Rolling Stone in 1994. “I was just all wrapped up in the middle of it like a total psychopath. Not like a killer or anything. More like a way-out teddy bear. … And if people were making fun of me, if they have a good time making fun of me, then that’s just as good, really. I’m entertaining them. Maybe I’m more of a comedian than they know.”

For some, the world is framed by a different lens, but artists like Daniel Johnston allow us the opportunity to step inside that frame, wander around his strange and inspiring mind to see just how wide the scope of life can be. Celebrate the life and music of this unique artist with This Is Daniel Johnston on Spotify:

Listen to the Daniel Johnston Essentials on Apple Music:

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