Daniel Johnston, icon of lo-fi and alternative music, died Tuesday night of a heart attack. Johnston’s death was reported by The Austin Chronicle, as confirmed by his former manager Jeff Tartakov. He was 58.
As a recording artist, Johnston was most well-known for his sparse, self-produced albums and singles, often consisting of little but his voice and a guitar or a chord organ, with no professional audio buffering. His no-frills production was matched with similarly straightforward songwriting, and Johnston’s pinched, excitable and immediately recognizable voice, which gave his music a singular resonance — and also essentially guaranteed he would never be a radio star.
Indeed, Johnston was never particularly commercially successful as a recording artist, but he managed to build a significant cult fanbase over the course of his 30-plus-year-career — beginning in the early ’80s, and taking off after he moved to Austin, where he amassed a local following. He also found renown as a visual artist, eventually being commissioned to re-create his cover artwork from 1983’s Hi, How Are You as a mural outside an Austin record store.
Despite his own lack of crossover success, Johnston did end up intersecting with and influencing the music mainstream several times throughout his career. His music has been covered by such well-known artists as Beck, Bright Eyes, Death Cab for Cutie and even Lana Del Rey, who (along with rapper Mac Miller) also co-executive produced a documentary short about the singer-songwriter, 2015’s Hi, How Are You Daniel Johnston? Most famously, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain wore a T-shirt with the Hi, How Are You cover on it at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, and then namechecked the record in a SPIN cover story the next year. The co-sign from the generation-defining rock star led to a bidding war to sign Johnston — ultimately won by Atlantic, who released his 1994 album Fun and then dropped him after the set failed to chart.
As well known as Johnston was for his music, however, his mental health struggles became just as big a part of his story. In 1990, he was involuntarily committed to a mental hospital after a psychotic episode resulted in him crashing the helicopter he was flying in with his father — and was still in the hospital when Atlantic pursued a record deal with him. (“He’s an insane person,” is how Cobain begins his description of Johnston in the ’93 SPIN profile.) His struggles with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia were addressed in the 2005 documentary on his life The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
Johnston’s final performances came in 2017, with a retirement mini-tour that also included acclaimed artists influenced by the singer-songwriter (Jeff Tweedy & Friends, Built to Spill, Modern Baseball) as his one-off backing bands. The Austin Chronicle reports that Johnston’s health had “worsened significantly in recent years,” resulting in several necessary hospitalizations.
“Few people have approached arts with as much rawness and pure emotion than a Daniel Johnston,” Miller told The Hollywood Reporter in 2013. “Few people deserve to have a legendary legacy. Dan is one of them.”
“He’s a genius,” Del Rey told THR in 2013. “And more human beings have to know about his crazy good songs and talent. His spirit is golden.”