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Daniel Johnston, Famed Cult Singer-Songwriter, Dies at Age 58

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Tony Maples Photography


Daniel Johnston, a singer-songwriter and visual artist with a loyal cult following, has passed away as a result of a heart attack at the age of 58. His passing was confirmed by Jeff Tartakov, his former manager, via The Austin Chronicle. Johnston was renowned as a creative musician, having recorded a number of albums, first and foremost on homemade cassettes. His style was known by followers as being simple and sincere, and his music, described as being “childlike,” was admired and proved to be of great influence.

Johnston was born in Sacramento, California, and grew up in West Virginia, but his education and musical talents intersected in high school, where he started recording vocals, piano, and chord organ. He dropped out of Abilene Christian University in West Texas after having attended only a few short weeks, and later enrolled at Kent State University for its art program. It was during his time there when recorded “Songs of Pain,” which was his first LP, over the course of 1980/1981. After two years at this institution of higher learning, he again dropped out, moving to Austin, in the Texas Hill Country. After that, he grew a following through handing out his own cassettes to people passing by, and his localized success got him onto MTV’s “The Cutting Edge” in 1985.

Video: YouTube/Veras Y. Fawaz

The video of Daniel Johnston singing his song entitled “True Love Will Find You In The End,” has been viewed nearly 3 million times.

Johnston was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1988 following the recording of his 11th album, and placed in a mental hospital following an appearance at an Austin music festival in 1990. In a time when Johnston’s mental health was deteriorating, his music underwent a surge of popularity resulting from singer Kurt Cobain wearing a T-shirt with artwork from Johnston’s “Hi, How Are You” album. A label bidding war started, from which Johnston signed with Atlantic, which ended up dropping him in 1996. However, by then, he had recorded his album called “Fun,” and continued to work with musicians of high profile. Johnston released a two-disc compilation of covers of his songs in 2004, entitled “The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered,” and featuring such artists as Beck, Tom Waits, TV on the Radio, Jad Fair, Bright Eyes, Death Cab for Cutie, Sparklehorse, and others.

In 2005, a documentary was released about his life, directed by Jeff Feuerzieg and titled “The Devil and Daniel Johnston.” It was at this time Johnston formed Eternal Yip Eye Music, his own label under which he released “Space Ducks: Soundtrack,” as his last album in 2012. He began a final tour in July 2017 and was honored by the city of Austin in 2018, which named January 22nd as “Hi, How Are You” Day.