Daniel Johnston was a cult figure in his own right, but he never achieved mainstream celebrity.
However, musicians such as Kurt Cobain, Beck, Butthole Surfers, and Sonic Youth considered him a great artist.
We discovered why the best alternative musicians gave him so much respect.
Let’s hit it!
The Story of Daniel Johnston
Daniel Johnston was a musician, and visual artist considered significant in outsider, lo-fi, and alternative music scenes. He developed a cult status in the 1980s by handing out his homemade cassettes to friends and strangers while working at an Austin, Texas, McDonald’s.
He was also a renowned visual artist, with international galleries displaying his work.
Daniel Johnston was born on January 22, 1961, in Sacramento, California, but grew up in New Cumberland, West Virginia. His father, William Johnston, was an Air Force pilot, and he and his wife were fundamentalist Christians. Johnston was the youngest of five children and started playing music in the 1970s, recording on a Sanyo boombox.
Daniel sang and played piano and the chord organ. After graduating high school in West Virginia, he attended Abilene Christian University in West Texas but eventually dropped out. Johnston then got a job at McDonald’s and started handing out his music tapes to friends and strangers.
He began to play much anticipated live shows, and in 1985, MTV featured him on The Cutting Edge. At this time, he signed a recording contract and went to NYC with producer Mark Kramer to record his album 1990.
Mental Health Diagnosis
Johnston had struggled with mental issues for years and, in 1986, suffered a severe mental breakdown. He was heavily medicated and had to live with his parents. While Johnston was ill, his manager, Jeff Tartakov, was busy trying to create relationships with other musical acts.
Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth invited him to NY to do some recordings. Johnston did manage to record some of his concerts and music, but he had a severe breakdown during his time there, partly because of not taking his medication.
In 1990 Johnston was flying in a small, private plane piloted by his father. He had a psychotic break and, believing himself to be Casper the Ghost, pulled the keys out of the airplane and threw them out the window.
Fortunately, his father was a former US Air Force pilot and safely landed them with minimal injuries. After this incident, Johnston was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Is Daniel Johnston Still Alive?
Johnston died on September 11, 2019, in Waller, TX, at 58. He had been in increasingly fragile mental and physical health for several years. Daniel had been in the hospital to treat kidney problems and went home after treatment. He suffered a heart attack that night.
Daniel Johnston’s Music
Johnston started writing and performing music from a young age. Reportedly he began writing to impress a girl and other friends. However, it became a way for him to channel his emotional life and process some of his mental disorders.
His work was primarily on home recordings which he handed out to friends and strangers alike. Daniel Johnston ascended into cult status when fans noticed Kurt Cobain wearing a t-shirt with Johnston’s artwork on it. The shirt showed a picture of a googly-eyed frog, and the caption read, “Hi, How Are you? The Unfinished Album.”
People widely consider True Love Will Find You in the End his signature song. Critics often describe Johnston’s music as stripped down and bare, which this song exemplifies. His lyrics are authentic and heartfelt, simple, and straight to the point.
The tune has a melancholy sound that echoes the lyrics.
True love will find you in the end
This is a promise with a catch
Only if you’re looking can it find you
Cause true love is searching too
Don’t be sad/I know you will
These lyrics strike a deep chord with anyone who’s known true loneliness.
One of the reasons Johnston’s music resonated with so many people is his deeply honest and straightforward lyrics. His song, Life in Vain, is an excellent example of his sense of desperation and loneliness tempered with rays of hope.
Don’t wanna be free of hope
And I’m at the end of my rope
It’s so tough to be alive
When I feel like the living dead
I’m living my life in vain
Daniel Johnston’s Visual Art
Johnston was also a self-taught artist. He loved pop culture, monster movies, and comic books. He taught himself to draw by pouring over Marvel comic strips and copying the characters.
He even attended art school briefly. All his music had self-drawn labels, including his famous frog cover of Hi, How Are You. Johnston additionally painted it as a mural on the Austin Sound Exchange wall, which still stands today.
His artwork has been in galleries such as London’s Aquarium Gallery, New York’s Clementine Gallery, and the Verge Gallery in Sacramento.
In 2012, Daniel created a comic book called Space Ducks – An Infinite Comic Book of Musical Greatness. He also collaborated with the skateboarding company Supreme on clothing and accessories collections, showcasing his artwork.
Was There a Movie About Daniel Johnston?
Johnston has had not one but two movies made about him! One was a full-length documentary about his life and art. The second was a short documentary focused on his mental illness and how it affected his creativity.
The Devil and Daniel Webster is a 1.5-hour documentary released in 2005, written and directed by Jeff Feuerzeig. It looks at Johnston’s life, from his childhood to his death in 2019. The film attempts to honor his creativity and artistry while also exploring how his mental illness informed his music and art.
Hi, How Are You Daniel Johnston is a documentary short released in 2015. Gabriel Sunday directed it, and singers Lana Del Rey and Mac Miller were executive producers. This psychedelic short aimed to “bring the audience inside the artist’s schizophrenic head with that location acting as a cage-like home for his creative processes.”
The film was funded through Kickstarter, with both Miller and Del Rey also financially contributing. It won the Bohemian Rhapsody Award for Sunday at the Sydney Underground Film Festival.
Where Can I See Daniel Johnston’s Art?
Johnston’s art and music live on today. His music is on YouTube and other streaming services, and his art is available in various formats.
“Hi, How Are You?” Book
This is the illustrated biography of Daniel Johnston, complete with rare childhood photos, original artwork, interviews with the people in his life, and an up-to-date discography. Unfortunately, the book is currently out of print, but it’s possible to find used copies online or in bookstores.
New Batman Comic Book
In 2022 DC’s Batman Comic Book Series, Batman #121, showcased three limited edition covers with art by Johnston. They feature his uniquely quirky renditions of Batman, Superman, and their new god, Orion. The covers were available on March 1, 2022, by Austin Books and Comics.
Murals in Austin, Texas
Johnston’s famous Jeremiah the frog mural is still up in Austin at the site of the now-defunct Austin Sound Stage. Despite turnover to different owners, the city deemed it an artistic treasure to preserve.
Austin also displays a Daniel Johnston “I Live My Broken Dreams” mural. It was commissioned as part of his posthumous retrospective and includes many of his most famous characters.
Johnson’s artwork is also available as t-shirts from his website that friends and family continue to maintain.
In addition, we have some of his art in our personal collection, which you can see at Outsider Folk Art on Instagram. Celebrating folk and outsider artists, the gallery gives voice to rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artisans. We’ll also offer pop-up shows and collaborations with small museums, so be sure to follow us to discover the where and when.
Never Be Free of Hope
Daniel Johnston was a prolific artist, musician, and composer. He spent his life battling severe mental illness the only way he knew, with honesty, humor, and creativity.
Johnston became one of the most celebrated lo-fi outsider musicians ever. Yes. His life was difficult and painful, but he never lost his zeal for it or the hope that it could get better.
What do you think about Daniel Johnston’s art? Let us know in the comments!