The music world has come out in droves to express how cherished and powerful Daniel Johnston’s life story and art is.
The songwriter and visual artist, who wrote globally resonant, achingly beautiful songs, such as ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’ and ‘Walking The Cow’, died aged 58.
Johnston's family write in an official statement: “He passed away from natural causes this morning [11 September] at his home outside of Houston, Texas.”
His brother, Dick Johnston told SPIN in an email:
“We’ve been struggling for several years with Daniel’s health [...] We had hoped to get back to a point where he was stable and could enjoy things like touring. He had just returned from a recent hospital stay and seemed (and looked) better than I’d seen him in a good while. So this was something of a surprise.”
As we mourn the artist's passing, comfort can be drawn from the fact he has left behind one of the most inspiring collections of songs and visual art of all time, achieved whilst living with severe mental health issues.
The statement about his cause of death written by his family adds: “He inspired countless fans, artists, and songwriters with his message that no matter how dark the day that "the sun shines down on me" and "true love will find you in the end."
The touching words in his song ‘The Sun Shines Down On Me’ echo this beautiful point of view: “I'm walking down that empty road / But it ain't empty now / Because I'm on it.”
Johnston’s life story is perhaps best known through Jeff Feuerzeig's documentary The Devil And Daniel Johnston (2005), which places as emphasis on his mental health – he is quoted there in saying “I'm a manic depressive with grand illusions" – and how it informs his inimitable work.
The documentary tells of some key moments in his career; including how key indie rock legends took him under their wing and helped get him his first studio album, 1990. Released in 1988, the record features Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley. It also shows how, a few years later, Kurt Cobain played a role in getting him his first major label record.
From that late '80s scene, Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth has been among the first to leave a tribute. He writes: “The fragile brilliance of Dan’s early homemade cassette-albums such as Songs of Pain and Hi, How Are You really blew us away when we first heard them.”
It is indeed those early cassettes that have had the most profound resonance to this day, with Hi, How Are You certainly among the most shared of his work as a tribute to his life in the past few hours. Johnston’s 17 albums to his name, however, and a prolific touring legacy.
He played live up until recently. 2017 was the year he embarked on his “final tour”. He didn’t expect it to be, though. On his 57th Birthday (22 January 2018) Johnston made a surprise appearance at the Mohawk in Austin for the inaugural Hi, How Are You Day concert – a concert held to launch the Hi How Are You Project. He closed the set with ‘True Love Will Find You In The End.’ This would prove to be his final concert.
In addition to formalising his role in support for mental health struggles with his Hi How Are You Project, which aims to spark a conversation about wellbeing, his music alone is inarguably healing.
One of many tributes, which reflect the above quality, come from The Cribs, who write on Twitter: “So sad to hear about the passing of Daniel Johnston. He wrote at least two of my favourite songs of all time - “Hey Joe” and “Walking The Cow”. Listening to “Hi, How Are You?” on my old cassette radio whilst doing the washing up is my mental ‘happy place’.”
Liverpoool punks Queen Zee add on their social media: “Incredibly sad news, I always found comfort in how dedicated Johnston was to his own prolific nature, and despite mental problems, continued to create endless amounts of work. It certainly has helped me work through my own issues recently.”
Elsewhere, BMX Bandits' Duglas T. Stewart commended Johnston’s legacy on Twitter, whilst also sharing a picture sat in the company of Johnston: “Daniel is my all time favourite pop songwriter. His music captured so much with its honesty, humour, poignancy and great melodic heart.”
Ezra Furman also writes: “Daniel Johnston was one of my best teachers. I love his work and I’m so glad that it’s still here."
Beck, El-P, Louis Theroux, Beck, Thundercat, Jack Antonoff, Tim Burgess are among others to come out and express how touched they’ve been by his music.
The late, great Johnston was born 22 January 1961 in Sacramento, California but grew up in New Cumberland, West Virginia, where he started writing music after discovering The Beatles.
We can rest assured knowing his music and drawings will endure for generations. When an interview in The Devil And Daniel Johnston documentary suggests his work is up there with Robert Johnston’s, it’s a spine-tinglingly good point to make. His songs are utterly beguiling and we can thank him and anyone who supported him along the way in his career endlessly for that. RIP Daniel Johnston 1961 - 2019.