The late singer-songwriter, Daniel Johnston, was a truly unique artist. A part of Austin ‘New Sincerity’ movement, his lo-fi/avant-pop style of music is instantly recognisable. Due to his brilliance as a songwriter and as an esteemed visual artist, he gained legions of fans over the years. Many of whom are also legends in their own right.
Johnston passed away owing to a suspected heart attack aged 58 in 2019. In the wake of his passing, a wide variety of people from across the creative disciplines and from different generations shared their sadness. These included Beck, Judd Apatow, John Darnielle and Jack Antonoff, to name just a few. It was a testament to Johnston’s pure and honest artistry that droves of our favourite creatives took to their socials to heed his brilliance.
Something of a cult hero, in life and in death, Johnston was one of those rare artists that was loved by the best in the business. Across his prolific career, he released 17 albums and could boast Sonic Youth, Tom Waits and even Elijah Wood as fans. Plagued by mental and physical illness for much of his adult life, his passing was deeply saddening, and he remains a sort of tragic character. An opaque yet endearing troubadour.
In the wake of his death, as is usually the case, it brought about a wave of listeners revisiting or discovering his work for the first time. This deep-dive back into the eccentric annals of Daniel Johnston also brought up the story of how he was first truly exposed to the world and how his career was properly launched.
Before Supreme collaborated with him, and before, Sacai used his iconic ‘Jeremiah the Innocent’ T-shirt for their SS 2017 catwalk, there was another self-professed ‘biggest fan’ of Johnston that had a critical impact on helping him get noticed outside of the devoted lo-fi subculture of the 1980s and ’90s.
This was none other than the late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. Famously, in 1993, Cobain listed Johnston’s fifth album Yip/Jump Music as one of his favourite albums in his journal. However, even more famously, in the early ’90s, after Nirvana had changed the musical landscape with their seminal second album, Nevermind, Cobain was frequently papped wearing the now iconic ‘Jeremiah the Innocent’ frog T-shirt featuring the artwork from Johnston’s revered 1983 album, Hi How Are You.
Given to Cobain by music journalist Everett True, his frequent donning of the T-shirt launched Johnston’s career. In addition to it gaining the lo-fi hero legions of new fans, it also kicked off a bidding war between major record labels. A mean feat for a fan simply wearing a shirt.
Another critical part of Johnston’s character was that he suffered from crippling mental health problems, and at points, had severe psychotic episodes, making him a danger to himself and those around him. The most notorious of which was in 1990 when he believed he was Casper the Friendly Ghost and pulled the key out of the jet his father was piloting on the way back from an Austin music festival. Luckily, his father was an ex-US Air Force pilot, and both of them were lucky to survive with minor injuries. Afterwards, he was involuntarily admitted to a mental hospital.
Fast forward a couple of years, and Johnston was in another clinic when the bidding war ensued. Showing his mental state at the time, he refused to sign to Elektra Records because Metallica were on the label, and he had convinced himself that they were evil Satanists possessed by the devil who wanted to hurt him. However, he eventually signed with Atlantic Records in February 1994 and released Fun, which was produced by Paul Leary of Butthole Surfers.
It shifted just 5,800 copies at the time, and in June 1996, Johnston was dropped by Atlantic. This wouldn’t matter, though, as it didn’t affect his prolific musical or visual artistry. Johnston would continue on his independent journey until retiring from live performances in 2017.
Although he has now passed away, he will continue to live on through his amazing work and the iconic T-shirt that Kurt Cobain so proudly wore.
Watch the short film, Hi, How Are You Daniel Johnston? below.