Daniel Johnston, the beloved singer-songwriter who battled with mental health issues through his life, has died. His former manager Jeff Tartakov confirmed to The Austin Chronicle that he died at home on Tuesday night. He was 58 years old.
Johnston was a cult figure who produced several albums. These included self-released albums such as More Songs of Pain (1983), Yip/Jump Music (1983), and Hi, How Are You (1983). He attracted a following during the early years of his career in Austin in the ’80s by handing out home-made tapes to people.
How did Daniel Johnston die?
Jeff Tartakov confirmed to The Austin Chronicle that Johnston died overnight on Tuesday “following a presumed heart attack.”
His brother Dick Johnston told NPR that his brother was released from the hospital on Tuesday after being treated for “kidney issues.” He said that Daniel seemed unwell after he returned home. He was found dead on Wednesday morning at his home in Waller, Texas.
However, a statement by his family said that he died of “natural causes.”
“The Johnston family is deeply saddened to announce the death of their brother, Daniel Johnston. He passed away from natural causes this morning at his home outside of Houston, Texas.”
Johnston’s death came after suffering a health decline in recent years. His sister Margy confirmed to The Austin Chronicle last year that he suffered a fall and was struggling with health issues. She said he spent time in a hospital and doctors had to make adjustments to his medication.
Who was Daniel Johnston?
Johnston was born in 1961 to Mable and Bill Johnston in Sacramento. He was the youngest of five siblings. Texas Monthly described his parents as “fundamentalist Christian, members of the Church of Christ.”
His family moved to New Cumberland in West Virginia. His father, an engineer who served in the U.S. Air Force as a fighter pilot in World War II, got a job with the motor oil company Quaker State.
According to The Austin Chronicle, Johnston attended Kent State University but dropped out after his girlfriend left him to marry an undertaker. He drifted around for some time after dropping out of college and finally ended up in Austin in the early ’80s.
In Austin, he released his first album, Songs of Pain, in 1981 and started his label Eternal Yip Eye Music.
He is known to his fans for songs such as Walking the Cow from his 1983 album Hi How Are You, and True Love Will Find You in the End from his 1984 album Retired Boxer. He is also known for his song Life in Vain from his 1994 album Fun.
Johnston suffered mental health issues and was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder during the early years of his career in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
His struggle with schizophrenia and manic-depression was the subject of the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
While traveling to an event in Austin in 1990, he suffered a sudden violent psychotic episode mid-flight and almost crashed the plane piloted by his father. He was committed to a mental institution for some years. But despite his mental health issues, he went on to release another album in 1994, titled Fun, under Atlantic Records label.
His mental health struggles became entangled with the myth surrounding his artistic personality, and he poured the pain of his suffering into his music.
His heartrending lyrics focused on the themes of loneliness and unrequited love. His fans included famous artists such as Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, Flaming Lips, Yo La Tengo, and Tom Waits. Many of his famous fans, including groups such as Pearl Jam and Death Cab for Cutie, made him famous by covering his lo-fi songs.
Johnston was also known as a visual artist and cartoonist. As a visual artist he was best known as the creator of the famous Hi, How Are You frog mural (“Jeremiah the Innocent”) near the University of Texas at 21st and Guadalupe streets.