True Love Will Find You In the End: R.I.P. lo-fi cassette king & outsider artist Daniel Johnston

By on September 11, 2019

We’ve just learned that Daniel Johnston, the Austin, Texas-based outsider artist — let’s also add singer, songwriter and gifted and galleried illustrator and painter to that list — has died after suffering a heart attack on Tuesday night, September 10, 2019. He was 58 years old.

The news was confirmed by Johnston’s former manager, Jeff Tartakov.

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According to Rolling Stone‘s Kory Grow, Johnston “will best be remembered for his warbly, high tenor and simplistic ruminations on love and life on songs like ‘Life in Vain,’ ‘True Love Will Find You in the End,’ and ‘Walking the Cow.'”

Pitchfork‘s Braudie Blais-Billie wrote today that “his simple, sincere, and childlike music was revered and highly influential.”

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Daniel Johnston was born January 22, 1961, in Sacramento, California, but he was mostly raised in New Cumberland, West Virginia.

He went to school at a satellite campus of Kent State, where he studied art and bonded with like-minded souls, and he was soon recording his first songs on cassette tapes.

It was during this time that he fell in love with a woman who later left him to marry an undertaker. Despondent about their break-up, Johnston dropped out of college and moved down to Houston, where he lived with his brother, but he eventually ended up in Austin, Texas, in the early Eighties.

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Johnston began passing out his homemade lo-fi cassettes to friends and people he met.

In July of 1985, MTV’s “Cutting Edge” program featured Johnston, after which he became a nationally-known outsider musician.

He has released at least seventeen full-length albums of original music, including three home-recorded tapes from 1983: More Songs of Pain, Yip/Jump Music, and Hi, How Are You.

His songs were championed by Kurt Cobain, who wore his Daniel Johnston T-shirt all the time, including to 1992’s MTV Video Music Awards.

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Some of his songs have occasionally been covered by artists as varied as Tom Waits, Yo La Tengo (“Speeding Motorcycle”), the Dead Milkmen (“Rocket Ship”), the Flaming Lips, Death Cab For Cutie, Beck, and Bright Eyes, among others.

Members of Sonic Youth played on Johnston’s Kramer-produced 1990 album, which was released on Shimmy-Disc.

Johnston also painted Austin’s famous “Hi! How Are You” frog mural on the Drag, a stretch of Guadalupe Street that runs along the western edge of the University of Texas campus in Austin.

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Daniel Johnston at his home in Waller, Texas, in 2015 (photo by Todd V. Wolfson, courtesy of the Austin Chronicle)

His ongoing trials with schizophrenia and manic-depression — at one point he was institutionalized, and after he was released he began living at his parents home in Austin — were explored in the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Jeff Feuerzeig and Henry S. Rosenthal’s documentary, which premiered at Sundance in 2005 before playing SXSW.

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According to the Austin Chronicle,

“Johnston’s physical health worsened significantly in recent years. Last year, his sister Margy Johnston told the Chronicle that Daniel had recently endured a rough go that included falling, hospitalization, and frequent adjustments to his medication. In January, while famous fans like the Flaming Lips and Yo La Tengo were covering his songs at ACL Live at the Moody Theater for the second annual Hi, How Are You Day, Daniel landed in the hospital again.”

“The Johnston family is deeply saddened to announce the death of their brother, Daniel Johnston,” his family said in a statement. “He passed away from natural causes this morning at his home outside of Houston, Texas.” (Johnston had been living in Waller, TX, located about halfway between Austin and Houston).

(All uncredited photos were found on Johnston’s Facebook page).

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R.I.P. Daniel Johnston, safe travels and thanks for all the great songs.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.