Influential Outsider artist, Daniel Johnston, Dies at 58

Andrew Gilkey, World News Editor

Photo from Associated Press
People pay their respects at the “Hi, How Are You” mural created by musician and artist Daniel Johnston on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019, in Austin, Texas.

“The Cutting Edge,” an MTV program covering fresh music scenes in the U.S., travelled to Austin, Texas, to cover the burgeoning New Sincerity music scene. Glass Eyes, Wild Seeds and other post-punk acts lost to time were on the docket, as well as a solo act that gained notoriety from handing out mixtapes through a McDonald’s drive-through window. He was an undiagnosed schizophrenic, living at his parents’ home and was recording a few small projects off a $60 boombox. However, this brief gasp of attention would place the part-time fast food employee in the musical ranks of Kurt Cobain and Frank Ocean.

Daniel Johnston died on Sept. 11 from a suspected heart attack, after being released from the hospital the night before. He was 58-years-old. Johnston had been in poor health for quite some time and had been admitted to a hospital for kidney troubles, a Rolling Stone interview with Dainel’s brother Dick Johsnton The Johnston family released this statement: “He inspired countless fans, artists, and songwriters with his message that no matter how dark the day, ‘the sun shines down on me’ and ‘true love will find you in the end.’”

Johnston was famous for his deeply personal, eccentric and kitschy instrumentation as well as his childish voice. At the time of his death, Johnston had 21 separate albums, most of which were entirely self-produced through Yip Eye Records. 

Podcaster and producer Marcus Parks of the Last Podcast Network recalled, seeing Johsnton perform in Austin on  his weekly podcast. “I had never seen anything like it in my entire life. It was such a strange affecting personal performance. It was amazingly raw.”

In 1990, Johnston grabbed headlines. Following a music festival performance in Austin, TX, Bill Johnston, Daniel’s  father and former U.S. Airforce pilot, was forced to crash land his plane during a  flight to West Virginia. Daniel had suffered a manic episode and thrown the plane keys out of the cockpit Johnston’s father described the available landing area as “nothing but trees,” in an interview with The Guardian about the incident. The plane was destroyed. Neither Dnaile or Bill Johnston were seriously injured but Daniel would be committed to a psychiatric ward after the accident.

According to “Rolling Stone” several renowned record labels approached Johnston for the rights to his music while he was staying in the facility. Pitchfork states that Elektra Records was rejected by Johnston for its association with the, in Johnston’s mind, “satanic” Metallica, Atlantic records won out, but the deal withered after the commercial failure of his 1996 album“Fun” and Johnston was forced to self-produce the rest of his projects. Though the 90s was a trying time for Johnston, Cobain would declare his 1993 album “Yip/Jump Music” as the best of the year.

Johnston’s influence strengthened as time progressed, with him periodically resurfacing in the public consciousness usually caused by a fellow musician citing them as in inspiration. Many musicians have cited him as an influence, including Mac Miller, Beck and Bright Eyes. Zola Jesus wrote on Twitter, “There are not enough words that I can say about the importance and vitality of Daniel Johnston’s musical spirit.” 

Johnston was buried on Sept. 21. A memorial concert was held afterwards that was attended by friends, family and former bandmates. 

Editor’s Note: Information from Zola Jesus’s Twitter, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone Austin360 and The Guardian was used in this article.