Daniel Johnston, musicʼs ultimate underdog, has passed away at 58.
Johnston, who is best known for his album Hi, How Are You and the cover art that adorns it, came into the scene in the mid ’80s after his home tapes caught the attention of MTV. Johnston has been compared to Brian Wilson due to the sheer volume of work, as well as a lifelong struggle with mental illness. His lo-fi approach to making albums consisted of obsessive recording sessions in the basement of his parents home using only a piano and simple chord organ recorded on a Sanyo boombox. Many of his songs seemed improvised, childlike, and often repeat in theme. Some of his recordings come from the interior of an insane asylum. The impact he had on the world of alternative music in the ’90s can never truly be measured or underestimated.
Born in Sacramento, California, and growing up in West Virginia, Johnston would lock himself in his parentsʼ basement and would obsessively record music. Many of his songs are about Laurie Allen, a love unrequited who Johnston obsessed about for most of his life. His dedication for recording was only matched by his obsession with handing out tapes of his music once he moved to Austin, Texas. The music scene in Austin was giddy about Johnstonʼs sound and his live shows became highly anticipated and well attended. The alternative music scene took notice and MTV made a feature on him on “The Cutting Edge” that exposed him to musicians such as Beck, The Flaming Lips, Sonic Youth, and Kurt Cobain.
Things hit rock bottom in 1990 when he and his father were flying in a two-seat aeroplane and Daniel, convinced he was Casper the Friendly Ghost, grabbed the keys from the ignition and dropped them out of the window mid-flight. His father, an experienced military pilot, was forced to crash-land the plane into a grouping of trees. This was only one of several times he was institutionalised over the course of his life and career.
He signed to Atlanticʼs music label in 1994, but fizzled out as he struggled with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. When Kurt Cobain was spotted wearing a t-shirt to promote Hi, How Are You in the early days of grunge the popularity of Johnstonʼs music rose. Despite Johnstonʼs mental illness, the music community stood by his side. In 2004 The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered, an album of musicians covering Johnstonʼs work, was released. On the album, artists such as Teenage Fanclub, TV on the Radio, Beck, Sparklehorse with The Flaming Lips, Tom Waits and others paid homage to his brilliant songwriting. In 2005 a documentary about Johnstonʼs life entitled “The Devil in Daniel Johnston” premiered at Sundance Film Festival and was awarded the Documentary Directing Award and again threw Daniel into the spotlight and the popularity of his music took off. Numerous documentaries and short films have been made about Johnston and his ability to make music under the weight of mental illness.
Aside from his music, Daniel was also a prolific fine artist whoʼs work was displayed all over the world. His art, like his music shined with brilliance amongst obsessive behavior and inspired people to rise above their limitations to create beauty.
Daniel Johnston passed away Wednesday morning of what is believed to be a heart attack. It seems oddly fitting that the man who once sang ‘True Love Will Find You in the End’ has apparently died of a broken heart.