On Tuesday night cult singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston died of a suspected heart attack at his home in Waller, Texas at the age of 58. Johnston's health had deteriorated in recent years, retiring from live music after one last tour in 2017.
The epitome of a beloved cult musician, Johnston will be dearly missed by fans and fellow musicians across the world.
Born in California in ’61, Daniel Johnston’s musical journey starts sometime back in the late 70’s where he would commit his songs to tape via a 59 dollar boombox. In the early 80’s Johnston would record his debut album, Songs of Pain, in his parent’s basement in West Virginia.
As an artist Johnston was equally distinctive; an often bright, cartoonish style and uninhibited approach that became synonymous with the music.
He went on to record around 18 albums, cementing his innocent and idiosyncratic sound with the likes of Hi, How Are You?, Artistic Vice and Lost and Found. That’s without mentioning numerous side-projects and collaborations. As back-catalogues go it’s quite overwhelming, Johnston remaining prolific through much of his career.
He recorded songs with Jad Fair (Half Japanese), Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse) and Yo La Tengo and inspired everyone from Tom Waits and Karen O to Lana Del Rey and Sonic Youth. He was a huge influence on New York singer-songwriter and comic book artist Jeffrey Lewis, Wymeswold indie rockers The Wave Pictures and countless others who were captivated by his unique and ultimately inimitable sound.
Johnston was an artist and a songwriter that seemed to leave a deep, indelible impression on his admirers. Kurt Cobain perhaps being one of Johnston’s most famous and enthusiastic fans would wear his Hi, How Are You? t-shirt with pride, list 1983’s Yip/Jump Music as one of his favourite albums and call Johnston “the best songwriter on Earth”.
Some of the scenes in the wonderful The Devil and Daniel Johnston documentary highlighted Johnston’s struggles with his mental health, having been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Music was always a constant and a true passion though, the sort of artist you simply can’t imagine without a guitar in their hand and a song in their heart.
Beautifully wonky songs enthused with love, pain and fun alongside an almost childlike quality that made them so endearing. Johnston was a huge fan of The Beatles, his songs embracing melody as well as an unconventional, rough-and-ready approach that would come to define ‘lo-fi’. A real one-off, Johnston may have been troubled but he brought a lot of joy into the world. RIP Daniel.
“There’s a heaven and there’s a star for you” Hey Joe, Daniel Johnston.
Photo from the cover of Daniel Johnston album 1990.