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

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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 Johnston was found on Wednesday morning and had likely 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, Johnson became something of a man-child celebrity of the artistic underground, earning the admiration of alternative-rock stars like Kurt Cobain and 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 Johnson had been dogged by mental health problems that stunted his career and periodically hospitalized him. In recent years he has largely been confined to his family’s home.

When he was asked whether he would travel to New York to see his work at the Whitney, he told The New York Times in 2006: “I’m not in any condition to go overseas. It would wipe me out.”

But in 2017, as he prepared for his final tour despite failing health, he 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.”

Johnson, who was born in Sacramento, Calif., and raised in West Virginia, emerged in the underground rock circles of Austin, Tex., in the early 1980s with homemade cassettes he handed out to friends and customers from his job at a McDonald’s. He quickly gained the notice of fellow musicians and the music press, with songs like “Hi, How Are You” and “Speeding Motorcycle” that had a poignant clarity yet gave glimpses of a fractured mind.

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,” 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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