Cult Indie Rock Artist Daniel Johnston Has Passed Away


Prodigious indie rock musician and famed artist Daniel Johnston has passed away at 58 due to a heart attack, his manager Jeff Tartakov shared.

Few songwriters and artists have impacted the cultural realm as much as Johnston has. Beginning his aural career in the early ‘80s, Johnston produced 19 studio albums, becoming a cult sensation through his often direct and childlike delivery that influenced the likes of Kurt Cobain, Tom Waits, Pearl Jam, Modest Mouse, Beck, and more. His music graced some of films’ most youthfully upfront depictions on-screen, contributing to Larry Clark and Harmony Korine’s 1995 film, Kids, as well as starring in the critically acclaimed documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston. On top of his expansive musical career, Johnston was also known as an extraordinary artist, finding his illustrations emblazoning the walls of London’s Aquarium Gallery, New York’s Clementine Gallery and Sacramento’s Verge Gallery to name a few; and also a range of notable fashion pieces, teaming up alongside Vans for an exclusive shoe capsule, as well as sacai for a special-edition t-shirt.

Born in 1961, Johnston was raised in West Virginia by parents who worked blue-collar jobs, later beginning his musical career in the late ‘70s by means of recording music on a cheap boombox. It was then that Johnston began working at McDonald’s, passing out his various homemade demo tapes to customers while working. It wasn’t until Cobain had worn a T-shirt featuring artwork during a 1985 episode of MTV’s The Cutting Edge that he had found a more mainstream audience. In many senses, it catapulted him into cult stardom, later finding himself playing at Austin’s Woodshock music festival that same year. It was here that many fans found his music, becoming infatuated by Johnston’s poignant lyricism and poetic writing style. However, Johnston’s life wasn’t absent from hardship.

During the ‘90s Johnston and his father were involved in an airplane accident, whereby a manic episode that led him into believing he was Casper the Friendly Ghost, prompting him to throw the plane’s keys out of the window. Both were left with minor injuries, but he was later diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, finding himself in various institutions for lengthy stays. But through-and-through, Johnston’s artistry and the purity that followed with it, never left. He continued on to carve out one of the most influential legacies to ever grace the arts. As Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy aptly shared back in 2017, Johnston “managed to create in spite of his mental illness, not because of it, he’s been honest in his portrayal of what he’s been struggling with, without overtly drawing attention to it.”

On top of a musician and artist, he was also a comic-book writer, further infusing the same album artwork from 1983’s Hi, How Are You into his works. Before his passing last year, he noted he had been working on new music material for a new LP “for years.” His most recent art exhibition was hosted in Tokyo last month.


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