Daniel Johnston, Acclaimed Singer-Songwriter, Dies At 58

Sep 11, 2019
Originally published on September 12, 2019 12:05 pm

The outsider singer, songwriter and visual artist Daniel Johnston has died. His death was confirmed to NPR by his brother, Dick Johnston, who said that Daniel had just been released on Tuesday from a hospital, where he had been treated for kidney issues. Dick Johnston said that Tuesday night, Daniel had seemed well, but he was found dead at his home in Waller, Texas, near Houston, Wednesday morning. He was 58 years old.

His sister, Margy Johnston, told the Austin Chronicle in 2018 that he had been physically unwell in recent years; in a 2017 profile, The New York Times reported that he had struggled with diabetes, a kidney infection and hydrocephalus, in addition to the manic depression and schizophrenia that he bore for most of his adult life.

Born Jan. 22, 1961, in Sacramento, Calif., Johnston was a musician's musician, whose guileless lyrics about love and isolation found significant fans who brought his singular songs to a wider audience. Tom Waits, Yo La Tengo, Bright Eyes and many other bands covered Johnston's achingly sincere songs of alienation. Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips said, of his music, "There's definitely some absolutely pure, emotional thing that happens in his songs." Kurt Cobain wore a T-shirt featuring the art from Johnston's 1983 cassette Hi, How Are You.


He was beloved as a visual artist and cartoonist too: In 2006, the Whitney Museum of American Art chose him for its famed Biennial.

In 2005, he was the subject of a documentary, the Jeff Feuerzeig-directed The Devil and Daniel Johnston, that traced his art-making and his significant struggles; the film won the documentary directing award at the Sundance Film Festival that year.


Dick Johnston also told NPR on Wednesday that the family has been working with director Jason Nodler to create a biographical film of Daniel Johnston's life, based on the stage work Speeding Motorcycle, which Nodler directed and which is based on Johnston's songs. "It's so sad that he won't get to see it," Dick Johnston said.

As news of his death spread, many musicians and artists have taken to social media to pay tribute to Johnston. "There are not enough words I can say about the ... vitality of Daniel Johnston's musical spirit," Zola Jesus wrote on Twitter. "He was a huge inspiration to me, to follow my creative impulses no matter how messy or simple."

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We're now going to honor an influential, beloved and always surprising musician Daniel Johnston. He died at the age 58 at his home near Houston. Here's NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Daniel Johnston was an unlikely musical hero.


DANIEL JOHNSTON: (Singing) I'm the ghost that came before I came to haunting at your door. I just can't make it without your love.

TSIOULCAS: Early on, Daniel Johnston handed out homemade cassettes recorded on a boombox at the McDonald's where he worked, and word quickly spread. By the late 1980s, he was recording with members of Sonic Youth. Johnston was a musician's musician whose open, simple lyrics won him many fans. He often sang about his pursuit of love and sense of deep isolation in a way that cracked open pure emotion. His songs were covered by the likes of Tom Waits, Beck, Wilco and, here, Yo La Tengo, who brought his music to a wider audience.


YO LA TENGO: (Singing) Speeding motorcycle, don't you drive recklessly.

TSIOULCAS: And Johnston was a notable visual artist, too. He was chosen for the Whitney Biennial in New York in 2006. A wall mural of his depicting a friendly frog-like creature under the words - hi, how are you? - has become an attraction in Austin, Texas.

Daniel Johnston was found dead at his home Wednesday morning. He had been physically unwell in recent years. As his fans knew, he struggled with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia for most of his life. In 2005, Johnston was the subject of a documentary called "The Devil And Daniel Johnston" that traced his art-making and his significant struggles. The film won the documentary directing award at Sundance that year.


JOHNSTON: Hi. My name is Daniel Johnston. And this is the name of my tape, and it's "Hi How Are You." And I - I was having a nervous breakdown when I recorded it.

TSIOULCAS: Despite his challenges, Johnston sang true love will find you in the end.

Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.


JOHNSTON: (Singing) True love will find you in the end. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.