Daniel Johnston, Folk Songwriter with a Cult Following, Dies at 58

Carla Harmon
September 12, 2019

According to Johnston's former manager Jeff Tartakov, as reported by the Chronicle, Johnston suffered a heart attack.

Born Jan. 22, 1961 in Sacramento, Calif., Johnston was a musician's musician, whose guileless lyrics found significant fans who brought his songs to a wider audience.

Johnston released 17 albums amid his battles with mental illness, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Tom Waits, Yo La Tengo, Bright Eyes and many other bands covered Johnston's achingly honest songs of alienation. His best known is perhaps Hi, How Are You, a music cassette recorded in 1983, which Johnston referred to as "the unfinished album".

The shows began with a screening of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, victor of the Documentary Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival. He had an extensive discography and released his music primarily on homemade cassette tapes that he passed out to people, a method which landed him an appearance on MTV series The Cutting Edge in 1985. After this episode, Johnston was involuntarily committed to a mental hospital.

After ultimately signing with Atlantic Records, Johnston was dropped when his music fared poorly commercially. Yet, Johnston still maintained a rep as a lo-fi overlord, even releasing a "duets" album of sorts in 2004, the double-disc "The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered" where Beck, TV on the Radio, and Death Cab for Cutie made the most of his scattered songwriting. He embarked on a final tour before retiring from public performances in 2017. In a New York Times profile, he denied believing that it would be his swan song. In the previous year, his mental health also worsened. The project is named for one of Johnston's albums. He was already a draw in the Austin scene when he travelled to NY in 1988 to record an album called 1990 with producer Mark Kramer alongside Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley.

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