Singer/songwriter/visual artist Daniel Johnston passed away from a suspected heart attack on September 11 in Waller, Texas, at the age of 58. While he may not have been a household name, the man was a heavily influential cult icon.
Johnston was born in Sacramento, California, on January 22, 1961. He later relocated to Austin, where he thrived in the underground scene; he began distributing cassette tapes filled with his homemade music back in the '80s, inspiring such future stars as Kurt Cobain, Jeff Tweedy, and Lana Del Rey. (His iconic "Hi, How Are You" featuring cover art of the now-famous drawing of "Jeremiah, the Innocent" is a collector's classic.)
But he was also a man truly plagued with demons — he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Johnston spent many a day at psychiatric institutions. During one psychotic episode, he pulled the key out of a plane's ignition mid-flight and threw it out the window, causing it to crash. The only people on board, Johnston and his father, who was also the pilot, survived with minor injuries. (You can learn more about Johnston's dark moments in the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston.)
Though he was considered the pride of the Austin indie-music scene, many Houstonians gave him love throughout the years. After all, Houston is the place where Speeding Motorcycle, the 2006 rock opera based on Johnston's songs, premiered. (It was brought back earlier this year.) Redbud Gallery also put his artwork on display from time to time.
CultureMap asked industry professionals for their memories of Texas indie arts icon:
Mark C. Austin, manager (Say Girl Say, The Tontons): "I spent about a decade as a professional photographer, and I got referred from a local media member that a German magazine was looking for photos of Daniel. I didn't know the details of his living arrangements at the time, but it took a little effort to get through. You had to be approved to get to the family, and you had to be approved by the family to come out. So, I got to go out and do some photos with him, and I got along with him real well. And they opened the door for me to come out more and do more photos with him.
So, on a handful of occasions, I had to go and sit with him and chat and take photos. I even did a little video series that I did locally, and he ended up shooting it for me, as a friend. It's called Backseat Jukebox. That was kinda it. We hung out at ACL (Austin City Limits) when he played, and he did the art one year for the poster. I got to see him working on the poster that year — the official ACL poster. So, I wouldn't say we were, like, best buds or anything, but I had some really cool access to visit with him and take photos and distribute images of him over the years.
"A real cool guy, a super-sweet spirit. Obviously, he battled his health problems, whether they be mental or physical. But he was a real, great guy. Always easy to work with, always super-sweet. Didn't always remember me. ... But, it was a very interesting, backdoor insight into this unique man, and I always treasured the opportunities and — even now, in hindsight — I think fondly on those times that I got to hang out with somebody and do work with somebody that so many people treasured his art."
Michael Bell, production manager, South Coast Film & Video: "I'm not a particularly emotional human person, so I didn't really have 'all the feels' when I was a new dad. But I got the deepest rush of affection for my baby daughter, singing Daniel Johnston's 'True Love Will Find You in the End" to her. Later, we got to see him at Cactus Music.
Matthew Ramirez, freelance writer/graphic designer: "It's not a super-great story, but what the hell: I saw him at a Half Price Books off 1960 and Veterans Memorial in 2010, while home for the holidays. He was in the comic-book section and seemed approachable. I was a fan, and he was super-appreciative, then wished me a Merry Christmas. A golden moment."
Amanda Hart, labor organizer: "Maybe it's because his music is tied to so many of my early twenties, memories when I was really beginning to try and understand myself. Or maybe it's because I met him briefly and shared a kind exchange where we were both nervous, while I checked him out at Half Price Books. But this one hurt like the other ones quite haven't. I can't tell you how many nights were spent driving around Houston late at night and yelling along with him, 'Do yourself a favor and become your own savior," while more often than not crying.
"When I was ringing up his comic books and VHS tapes at HPB, I quietly and nervously said, 'Your music helped me through some really tough times. Thank you for sharing it.' He looked away, smiled, and nervously said back, 'Thank you, I really like your teeth,' which just made my day. He kindly signed this piece of receipt paper, which I kept on my desk while I was the editor of HCC's student newspaper. It's the only autograph I've kept or probably, honestly ever even asked for. Your kind, brilliant, misunderstood soul will certainly be missed."