Iconic songwriter and artist Daniel Johnston has passed away after a heart attack, the Austin Chronicle confirmed today via his manager Jeff Tartakov. He was 58.
Tartakov shared this statement with SPIN upon the news of Johnston’s death:
“We’ve been struggling for several years with Daniel’s health, and his frequent and lengthy stays in hospitals dampened his creative efforts, but throughout he continued to draw and write songs,” the artist’s brother, Dick Johnston told Spin in and email. “We had hoped to get back to a point where he was stable and could enjoy things like touring. He had just returned from a recent hospital stay and seemed (and looked) better than I’d seen him in a good while. So this was something of a surprise.”
Johnston was born in Sacramento in 1961. His musical aspirations started in the late 1970s after he purchased a boombox and began recording his songs written on piano and chord organ. This makeshift production style would give way to the lo-fi aesthetics and sound that would mark his prolific career – Johnston would become something of a figurehead in the “lo-fi movement.” His debut album Songs of Pain and its follow-up More Songs of Pain were recorded completely on a tape recorder.
After moving to Austin, Texas, Johnston’s music began to garner attention from fans and press thanks in part to Johnston’s proclivity to hand out tapes. While he gained some exposure through features on MTV in the mid-80s, his biggest breakthrough to the public conscious came when Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain would frequently wear a t-shirt adorned with the cover of Johnston’s album Hi, How Are You – given to Cobain by journalist Everett True.
At the time, Johnston was a resident in a mental hospital following a manic psychotic episode in which he pulled the keys out of a plane piloted by his father – he and his father escaped the crash with minor injuries. Nevertheless, a major-label bidding war began to sign Johnston. He would sign to Atlantic in 1994 and subsequently dropped in 1996. Johnston continued to write and record music up through 2012 with the release of what would become his final album Space Ducks – a soundtrack for Johnston’s comic book Space Ducks: An Infinite Comic Book of Musical Greatness – and included contributions from Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Eleanor Friedberger, Deer Tick, Fruit Bats, and Lavender Diamond.
Johnston was the subject of the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which told his life story up until that point and vividly depicted his bipolar disorder. The film was met with critical acclaim and was awarded the Documentary Directing Award at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. In 2017, Johnston announced his retirement from live performances with a final short tour.
As we remember Johnston’s life, revisit some of our favorite selections from his immensely powerful and prolific career below.
In the years I've been doing this series we've talked about Daniel Johnston a couple times, and we've talked about Shimmy Disc many (many, many) times - so isn't it about time we hit both in one post? 1990 was the massively prolific singer-songwriter's first album not to appear under the Stress l...
If you're only aware of one Daniel Johnston album, Hi, How Are You is probably that one album - whether you've heard it, heard of it, or seen its cover image on a t-shirt worn by Kurt Cobain. As far as I can tell this was the first of his cassettes to receive wide release as an LP (five years aft...