Daniel Johnston, cult US indie songwriter, dies aged 58

Manager confirms Johnston, whose naive songwriting was beloved of Kurt Cobain, died of a heart attack

Daniel Johnston, an eccentric, enduring and much beloved figure in the US indie rock scene, has died aged 58 following a heart attack. The news was confirmed by his manager Jeff Tartakov.

Numerous cultural figures have paid tribute to the cult songwriter – once a favourite of Kurt Cobain – including Beck, Judd Apatow and Ezra Furman, who described him as “one of my best teachers”. Actor Elijah Wood wrote: “What a gentle, beautiful treasure. So sad to hear you’ve left us.”

Born in California in 1961 and raised in West Virginia, Johnston became known as a songwriter after moving to Austin, Texas. His popularity grew in the city after he started handing out tapes of his affectingly naive songwriting to people in the street, and began recording numerous albums. Cobain’s patronage prompted a bidding war to sign him, and he eventually signed to major label Atlantic in 1994, though mainstream success eluded him.

In the early 1990s, he suffered a manic psychotic episode during a plane flight, when, believing he was the cartoon character Casper the Friendly Ghost, he threw the ignition keys for the plane out of its window – he and his father escaped with minor injuries following the subsequent crash. It prompted one of many spells in psychiatric institutions, and he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Over the years he also suffered from diabetes, kidney infections and hydrocephalus; last year he was hospitalised following a fall.

His eccentricity was legendary – he refused to sign with Elektra because they also employed Metallica, whom Johnston regarded as satanic; he ran away from home as a teenager on a moped to join a travelling carnival; he was arrested for graffiti-ing the Statue of Liberty with hundreds of Christian fish symbols. But as another admirer, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, said in 2017: “Daniel has 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.”

His health issues contributed to a long break from album releases beginning in the mid-1990s, but he returned in 2001 with Rejected Unknown and maintained a steady release schedule since. 2004 saw the release of an album of cover versions of his work by performers including Tom Waits, Beck, Bright Eyes and TV On the Radio. His most recent album was 2012’s Space Ducks.

A documentary film, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, was released in 2006 and won the Director’s Award at the Sundance film festival; a biopic starring Johnston as himself was released in 2015, entitled Hi, How Are You Daniel Johnston?

Johnston was also known as an artist and comic-book writer, with his image of a happy frog under the words Hi, How Are You? – used on the cover of his 1983 album of the same name – turned into a popular mural in Austin; the city also named 22 January, Hi, How Are You? Day. In 2006, his artwork was featured in a major exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art.

Johnston recorded 17 albums in all, and last year said he had been recording material for a new LP “for years”.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
David Berman, acclaimed US indie songwriter, dies aged 52
No cause of death has been announced for songwriter and poet known for his projects Silver Jews and Purple Mountains, and his wry, witty lyrics

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

08, Aug, 2019 @5:54 AM

Article image
Richard Swift, indie-rock songwriter and producer, dies aged 41
The singer-songwriter, who worked with the Shins, the Black Keys and the Pretenders, had been suffering from a ‘serious medical condition’

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

03, Jul, 2018 @4:22 PM

Article image
Stewart Lupton, frontman of indie rockers Jonathan Fire*Eater, dies aged 43
The cult New York band, driven by Lupton’s ‘gut-wrenching genius’, influenced Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

29, May, 2018 @9:13 AM

Article image
Daniel Johnston had the biggest heart in indie rock – and magical songs
Over many years of knowing Johnston, I discovered a man who was unpredictable and charming – and who valued true love and art more than almost anyone

Everett True

12, Sep, 2019 @12:57 PM

Article image
Greg Gilbert, frontman with indie band Delays, dies aged 44
Singer, whose band reached UK Top 20 with debut 2004 album, had documented illness due to bowel cancer in visual art and poetry

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

30, Sep, 2021 @7:44 PM

Article image
Tim Smith, frontman of cult band Cardiacs, dies aged 59
Smith, who fronted unique prog-punk group, had long-term health difficulties after a heart attack and stroke in 2008

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

22, Jul, 2020 @10:54 AM

Article image
Singer-songwriter Jason Molina dies aged 39

Alt-rock musician known for his work with Magnolia Electric Co and Songs:Ohia died from alcohol-related organ failure

Michael Hann

19, Mar, 2013 @12:58 PM

Article image
Kevin Garcia, Grandaddy bassist and co-founder, dies aged 41
Musician’s sudden death comes only weeks after acclaim for the band’s first album in over a decade

Guardian music

03, May, 2017 @7:46 AM

Article image
Cult heroes: Tindersticks – downtrodden poets of scabrous indie cabaret
Nottingham’s ramshackle purveyors of off-kilter songs about poverty, violence, filth and ruination went from hungry to comfortable and back again

Mark Beaumont

28, Jun, 2016 @10:55 AM

Article image
Allee Willis, songwriter behind Friends theme tune, dies aged 72
Willis penned hits for Earth, Wind & Fire, and wrote score for musical The Color Purple

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

25, Dec, 2019 @10:12 AM