Daniel Johnston, cult US singer-songwriter, dies at 58

Jana Birchum, Getty, AFP | Daniel Johnston performs during the 2005 South By South West Music Festival at The Austin Music Hall in Texas.

Daniel Johnston, the beloved offbeat musician and visual artist whom Kurt Cobain once described as "the best songwriter on earth”, has died aged 58.


Johnston, who had been plagued for years with mental illness, died of natural causes Wednesday morning at his Houston-area home, his family said in a statement.

The enigmatic singer-songwriter had been in and out of hospital in recent months for issues linked to his kidneys, his brother Dick Johnston told AFP.

In between stints in psychiatric care for severe manic depression, Johnston produced decades' worth of homemade recordings in which he pours out stories of personal pain and unrequited love set to classic, Beatles-inspired pop.

Two years ago, the artist, who composed on piano and traditionally performed on guitar, embarked on a tour that would be his last.

He put aside instruments to sing with bands like Fugazi that have taken inspiration from him and picked out set lists from Johnston's vast repertoire.

High-profile guests were not new for Johnston, whose songs have been covered by major acts like Pearl Jam, Tom Waits and Beck.

His career enjoyed a major boost when Kurt Cobain appeared on MTV in one of Johnston's T-shirts, leading to a surge of interest in the outsider artist.

News of his death prompted an outpouring of tributes, with actor Elijah Wood mourning “a gentle, beautiful treasure”.

Story of an artist

Born in Sacramento, California on January 22, 1961, Johnston was raised in West Virginia. He became a mainstay of the underground rock circles in Texas' capital Austin in the early 1980s, offering up homemade cassettes to his friends and customers at his McDonald's day job.

The Austin City Limits music festival paid tribute to Johnston, saying the city known for its eclectic music had "lost a giant today".

Johnston began gaining the attention of people in the music industry with songs like "Speeding Motorcycle" and "Don't Play Cards with Satan" for poignant lyrics as well as eclectic art on his tapes.

Other cult tracks include “Funeral Home”, “The Story of an Artist” and the hauntingly beautiful “True Love Will Find You in the End”.

A prolific sketcher, Johnston also found growing interest in his paintings, with the latest exhibition of his work taking place this month in Tokyo.

At his final New York performance in 2017, he took the stage to a standing ovation after a screening of "The Devil and Daniel Johnsto,", the award-winning 2005 documentary on his troubled but prodigiously creative life.

That show was significantly less eventful than his first major trip to the metropolis in 1988.

Invited to record with alternative rockers Sonic Youth, Johnston punched the band's drummer Steve Shelley and was forced to go to hospital – only to escape and show up as an opening act at famed underground club CBGB.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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