“Keeping him healthy has been the struggle and when he’s not well, you deal with a different person,” Johnston’s brother Dick said in an interview Wednesday. Johnston had been hospitalized last week with a kidney malfunction, his brother said, and returned home on Tuesday. “He was lucid and in good spirits,” Dick said. “As good as I’ve seen him in years. The [ankle] swelling was down and the problem looked good. He was happy to be home.”
On Tuesday night at approximately 8:30 p.m., a caretaker went to check on Johnston, but the musician declined to see them. His body was discovered in his room on Wednesday morning, according to his brother. No autopsy will be conducted.
The singer 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.” On his best songs, his voice ached with earnestness and longing, features that attracted a number of high-profile fans. Cobain (who stated in interviews that Johnston was among the “greatest” songwriters) notably wore a T-shirt repping Johnston’s Hi, How Are You album to the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, and artists including Flaming Lips, Death Cab for Cutie, Bright Eyes, and Beck have all covered his songs.
“There are not enough words I can say about the important and vitality of Daniel Johnston’s musical spirit,” Zola Jesus wrote on Twitter. “He was a huge inspiration to me, to follow my creative impulses no matter how messy or simple.”
“Some people really liked me, and other people were making fun of me they thought I was a freak show,” Johnston told Rolling Stone in 1994. “I was just all wrapped up in the middle of it like a total psychopath. Not like a killer or anything. More like a way-out teddy bear. … And if people were making fun of me, if they have a good time making fun of me, then that’s just as good, really. I’m entertaining them. Maybe I’m more of a comedian than they know.”
The 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston brought his music and story, including a sequence about how Johnston shockingly threw the key to a two-seat plane he was in out the window, to a wider audience.
“Well, it sure was embarrassing,” Johnston told the Chronicle of the film in 2005. “Every terrible dilemma, every fabled mistake. Nothing I can do about it now, though. I wish they’d added a laugh track to it, because it sure is funny.”
Johnston was born the youngest of five children on January 22nd, 1961 in Sacramento, California. His family relocated to New Cumberland, West Virginia, where Daniel fell in love with the Beatles and other rock musicians. He made his first album, Songs of Pain, in 1980, and got his commercial breakthrough three years later with Hi, How Are You, which came out on the indie label Homestead.
“When I was growing up, after church, everybody shook hands and would say, ‘Hi. How are you?'” Johnston told The Chronicle last year. “I always heard it, even at the funeral home when there was some dead person who died of old age. The undertaker said to me, and I was just a little boy, ‘Hi. How are you?’ That’s how that started.”
Around this time, Johnston moved to Texas and lived with family. He would hand out tapes of his music for free around Austin and eventually got enough buzz that MTV made a feature on him. The exposure brought him to the attention of artists on the college-rock circuit like the Dead Milkmen, Mike Watt, Sonic Youth, and the Butthole Surfers. The Lyon Opera Ballet staged a 25-minute piece set to songs from his Yip/Jump Music album in 1992, and galleries around the world sought out his artwork to display.
Johnston signed to major label Atlantic in 1994 and issued Fun, which found him collaborating with the Butthole Surfers’ Paul Leary. It sold around 12,000 copies, which wasn’t enough to keep him in the majors. Over the years, he also collaborated with Half Japanese’s Jad Fair, Yo La Tengo, Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse and Okkervil River, among others; many of those artists, plus Flaming Lips, Beck, Waits and more, contributed to a tribute album to Johnston in 2004.
His last album, Space Ducks, came out in 2010. In 2015, Lana Del Rey covered Johnston’s “Some Things Last a Long Time” for a 15-minute short film about the indie legend; Del Rey and Mac Miller both donated $10,000 to a Kickstarter campaign for the film’s production. “I guess the one thing I hoped is that he understood that while he’s home alone doing his art still — he says he writes every day — that he knows that he really did make a difference in people’s lives,” Del Rey said of Johnston. “He made a difference in mine.”
Johnston announced in the summer of 2017 that he would be embarking on a final tour, with members of Wilco, Built to Spill, and Fugazi serving as his backing band. “I owe Daniel a lot as an inspiration to me,” Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy told The New York Times that year. “Daniel has managed to create in spite of his mental illness, not because of it. He’s been honest in his portrayal of what he’s been struggling with without overtly drawing attention to it.”
In the same Times article, Johnston was surprised to hear that he was going on a final tour and said that he could not stop writing music. “If I did stop, there could be nothing,” he said. “Maybe everything would stop. So I won’t stop. I’ve got to keep it going.”
Johnston’s brother said in the past two years since the death of their father Bill, a massive trove of unreleased recordings and documents that were left in their father’s home have been found, including letters Johnston’s father wrote that shed new light on the singer’s mental illnesses. “His struggle was always more serious than I was sensitive to,” Dick said.
“There are as many unpublished songs as there are published,” he added. “We’ll be spending a long time sorting out what he’s left behind. We have lots more to share.”
Additional reporting by Jason Newman
Daniel Johnston – “True Love Will Find You in the End”
Daniel Johnston – “Life in Vain”
Daniel Johnston – “Walking the Cow”