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Daniel Johnston performing on November 9, 2008.

Daniel Johnston (1961–2019)

Singer-songwriter and artist Daniel Johnston, known for his candid lyrics and winsome Magic Marker cartoons, was found dead of a presumed heart attack on Wednesday at his home in Waller, Texas, at age fifty-eight. Johnston rose to indie-rock fame in the early ’80s by handing out tapes recorded at home and illustrated by hand, becoming a beloved inspiration for further generations of bedroom-pop practitioners.

Born into a Christian fundamentalist family in Sacramento, California, in 1961, Johnston moved to Austin, Texas, around 1983 after encountering the city during a five-month stint as a traveling carny. In Austin, he cleared tables at a local McDonald’s and harbored dreams of becoming a rock star. Johnston established himself in the city’s music scene with what Martha Schwendener described, in Artforum’s Summer 2006 issue, as “a series of self-distributed lo-fi audiocassettes filled with songs that sounded like a cross between vintage blues, music made for children, and Bob Dylan as interpreted by Edith Bunker.” The cover of his 1983 tape Hi, How Are You? featured a frog-like Magic Marker cartoon character, “Jeremiah the Innocent,” that quickly became a well-known avatar of Johnston’s boyish, plaintive style. Ten years later, an Austin record store commissioned Johnston to paint a mural of Jeremiah that survives to this day.

In 1985, Johnston’s live musical appearance on the MTV show The Cutting Edge introduced his work to a wider audience that included Kurt Cobain, Mike Watt of Minutemen, and the members of Sonic Youth. All the while, Johnston dealt with escalating mental health issues; after being committed for the first time in the winter of 1986, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia two years later, when an attempt to “cast out” a woman’s “demons” became an attack that ended in the victim jumping out of a window and breaking several bones. Though his illness worsened in the last years of the ’80s, Johnston recorded a collaborative record, his eleventh, with fellow indie-outsider Jad Fair of Half Japanese, titled It’s Spooky, in 1989. His only major label release, 1994’s Fun, proved a commercial flop, which led to Atlantic Records dropping him from its roster in 1996.

Jeff Feuerzig’s 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, an exploration of Johnston’s life and struggles with schizophrenia, won that year’s Documentary Directing award from Sundance. In 2006, curators Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne included Johnston’s drawings in their edition of the Whitney Biennial. Johnston’s final performance occurred in Austin on January 22, 2018, on the occasion of the city’s first annual “Hi, How Are You” Day.

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