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Daniel Johnston, Enigmatic Singer-Songwriter, Is Dead at 58


Daniel Johnston, a singer-songwriter and visual artist whose childlike, haunted songs brought him acclaim as one of America’s most gifted outsider voices, died in his home in Waller, Tex., outside Houston. He was 58.

His brother and manager, Dick, said in an interview that Mr. Johnston was found on Wednesday morning and had probably died overnight.

Mr. Johnston had been released from the hospital on Tuesday, after being treated for kidney issues. “He was still productive, writing songs and drawing, and was just annoyed by his health more than anything,” his brother said. “It was just one thing after another.”

In a career that was filled with stops and starts, Mr. Johnston became something of a man-child celebrity of the artistic underground, earning the admiration of rock stars like Kurt Cobain and Tom Waits as well as comparisons to William Blake. His cartoon drawings — frequently inspired by characters like Casper the Friendly Ghost — were included in the Whitney Biennial exhibition in 2006.

Yet Mr. Johnston had been dogged by mental health problems that stunted his career and periodically hospitalized him. In recent years he had largely been confined to his family’s home.

Yet in 2017, as he prepared for his final tour despite failing health, Mr. Johnston remained dedicated to his art: “I can’t stop writing,” he said. “If I did stop, there could be nothing. Maybe everything would stop. So I won’t stop. I’ve got to keep it going.”

Mr. Johnston was mourned online by creators across mediums and generations, including Beck, Judd Apatow and John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats. The electronic musician and songwriter Zola Jesus wrote on Twitter: “there are not enough words i can say about the important and vitality of daniel johnston’s musical spirit. he was a huge inspiration to me, to follow my creative impulses no matter how messy or simple.”

Daniel Johnston was born on Jan. 22, 1961, in Sacramento, Calif., the youngest of five children in a Christian fundamentalist household. At a young age, he moved with his family to West Virginia, but by the early 1980s he was in the underground rock center of Austin, Tex., where he started handing out homemade cassettes to friends and customers from his job at a McDonald’s.

Mr. Johnston quickly gained the notice of fellow musicians and the music press, with songs like “Speeding Motorcycle” and “Don’t Play Cards With Satan” that had a poignant clarity yet gave glimpses of a fractured mind. He became almost as well known for the strange, cartoonish art that decorated the tapes. One, “Hi, How Are You?,” featured a froglike alien, and the image became his signature.

Throughout the 1980s, Mr. Johnston gradually climbed the rungs of the indie-rock world. He appeared on MTV in 1985. Three years later he came to New York, where he mixed with the bands Sonic Youth and Galaxie 500, but ended up in Bellevue Hospital after he assaulted Steve Shelley, Sonic Youth’s drummer. (Upon his release, Mr. Johnston went straight to CBGB to perform.)

In 1991, he made a joint album with Jad Fair of the band Half Japanese, who had cultivated a similar reputation as an eccentric. But by comparison, the rock guide Trouser Press noted, Mr. Fair “seems about as offbeat as an insurance salesman,” as Mr. Johnston muttered “poor you, no one understands you” in a warped, ghostlike voice.

In the music industry’s alternative-rock gold rush of the 1990s, he was briefly signed to Atlantic Records, but his sole major-label album, “Fun,” released in 1994, was a flop.

He was the subject of a 2005 documentary by Jeff Feuerzeig, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” which won the documentary directing award at that year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Besides his brother Dick, he is survived by three sisters, Margy Johnston, Sally Reid and Cindy Brewer.

Joe Coscarelli contributed reporting.


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