Underground-music cult hero Daniel Johnston—whose genius has been trumpeted by artists as diverse as Kurt Cobain, Tom Waits, Beck, and TV on the Radio—has died after suffering a heart attack in his hometown of Austin, Texas. He was 58.
After years of toiling in obscurity, often handing out homemade cassettes on the street, the Austin-based singer-songwriter began attracting a following in the late '80s and early '90s. Simple but devastatingly powerful songs like "True Love Will Find You in the End", "Mind Movies", and "Life in Vain" would eventually have a huge influence on the outsider-art movement known today as lo-fi.
Johnston was born in Sacramento, and raised in Cumberbland, West Virginia, where he started making rudimentary music on piano and keyboards while in high school. He recorded his first full-length, Songs of Pain, while taking art courses at Kent State University.
Relocating to Austin after dropping out, Johnston began building an underground buzz for relentlessly promoting himself with his cassette tapes. An appearance on MTV's Cutting Edge would lead to him working with Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo a couple of years later in New York.
Johnston found himself thrust into the mainstream when Cobain started wearing T-shirts sporting the artwork for his Hi, How Are You. That would lead, improbably, to a deal with high-profile major Atlantic Records, and a 1994 record titled Fun that was produced by Butthole Surfers guitarist Paul Leary.
The singer had health issues for most of his life, including being diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1990. Over the years he frequently spent periods of time in hospitals for mental-health issues. The magnitude of his struggles were perhaps made clearest in 1990 when, after playing an Austin music festival show, he was headed back to West Virginia on a two-seater private plane piloted by his father. Convinced that he was Casper the Friendly Ghost, Johnston grabbed the keys out of the plane's ignition and threw them out the window. His father crash-landed the plane with both surviving, but Johnston was forced against his will into a hospital for evaluation.
In recent years Johnston's mental health continued to deteriorate, leading him to stop touring after a farewell string of dates in 2017. Acts that played in his backing band in various cities included Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, Built to Spill, and New Orleans' Preservation All-Stars.
A new generation discovered the considerable genius of Johnston last year, when his "The Story of an Artist" was used in an Apple commercial.
His life story is also told in the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
Here's Daniel Johnston doing "Life in Vain" with Glen Hansard. Make sure you've got the Kleenex handy, and not just when he sings "It's so tough to be alive."
Here's what Johnston's fellow artists and fans are saying to celebrate his life.