Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

R.I.P. singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston

Illustration for article titled R.I.P. singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston
Photo: Jana Birchum (Getty Images)

Daniel Johnston has died. A hero of the world of outsider art; a frequently-dubbed “genius” who pointedly hated “the g-word”; a performer whose naked, guileless emotionality was both his greatest artistic strength, and a symptom of his life’s most disruptive traits, Johnson reportedly died on Tuesday night.

To talk about Daniel Johnston’s life and career is to either talk around, or through, the specter of mental illness, which dominated both his life and his art. Diagnosed with both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Johnston’s life was marked, with a periodic frequency familiar with anyone who’s lived in close proximity to either disease, with a long series of peaks and valleys, often intimately linked as new thrills and stresses loomed. New albums—heralded by numerous big-name musicians happy to count him among their peers, like The Flaming Lips, Tom Waits, and, perhaps most famously, Kurt Cobain—led to increased scrutiny, led to increased symptoms, led to long stints of hospitalization, sedation, and instability. Johnston never “stopped” making music, or art, but every push toward mainstream success or label recognition was inevitably derailed by the connected circumstances of his life.

And yet, the music persisted: Strange, passionate, and so nakedly emotional that listening to it can feel like an act of aggression on the part of the singer, and an act of voyeurism for the receiver. Devoid of irony, Johnston sang the world the way that 13-year-olds see it—and not just because his high, slightly wavering voice was so frequently described as “child-like” in frequently raving reviews. Isolation, depression, and especially unrequited love mark the entire span of his discography, from the cassette tapes he used to hand out on the streets of Austin—including his most enduringly lonely love letter, Hi, How Are You—all the way up to more recent releases like 2012's Space Ducks. (All, with the exception of 1994's disastrous Fun—the product of a much-sought-after, much-chafed-against deal with Atlantic—released either independently, or with the help of tiny indie labels.)


In numerous profiles—several of them glowingly published by The Austin Chronicle over the years—much is made of Johnston’s desire for pop or rock stardom. He was a peculiar kind of self-made man, pouring his heart into tiny cassette tapes and then distributing it freely to anyone who’d take it. (According to one of those same profiles, before he finally scrounged up the money for a tape dubber, Johnston had to record each copy of his early albums directly onto a blank tape, playing out each song one by one.) It’s not clear what he would have made of the gushing tributes certain to flood the world of music criticism this week, as the—often far more successful—artists he touched and influenced talk about the ways his music made them feel: Fascinated, a little uncomfortable, but above-all-else, seen.

It was probably inevitable that Daniel Johnston the story would one day eclipse Daniel Johnston the man; his music sometimes feels like the raw, concentrated material that other performers distill into more commercially palatable tunes. And his legacy was never more compelling than when being told by someone else, as in 2005's The Devil And Daniel Johnston. Jeff Feuerzeig’s film is generally an argument on Johnston’s behalf, but it doesn’t flinch away from how difficult his mental illness made his life, both for himself, and the people around him. And yet that same legacy has extended its tendrils out into the real world, to do good if, not on his behalf, then on behalf of the feelings his music evoked in others. Austin recently celebrated its second Hi, How Are You? Day—inspired by the “Innocent Frog” mural Johnson painted, 27 years ago, on the side of the city’s Sound Exchange record store. The day (and movement) are designed to spark new conversations about mental health and care.

Per The Austin Chronicle, Johnston’s former manager Jeff Tartakov confirmed that Johnston suffered a heart attack on Tuesday night. He was 58.