Daniel Johnston is dead. That is the stark reality. He died yesterday in Austin, Texas at the age of 58, reportedly from a heart attack. His health had apparently been deteriorating in recent years. His brother told the New York Times that Daniel had been treated for kidney issues shortly before his death. These are the bald facts.
The announcement of the passing of the cult American indie-songwriter is deeply saddening news for all who knew, or knew of him (for those who didn’t it was Daniel Johnston’s song ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’ that provided the accompanying music for the recent UK TV ad for the Dog’s Trust welfare charity, albeit sung by Charlie Harper), though it may have come as little surprise. He was not someone, you suspect, who was built to last.
A diagnosed bipolar schizophrenic, the vagaries of Daniel Johnston’s mental health had plagued him for most of his adult life. I had the great honour and privilege of seeing him play on two separate occasions; initially in the rather incongruous surroundings of Manchester’s Comedy Club in 2007 and then three years later at the Matt Groening curated ATP Festival at Minehead Butlin’s. In both instances, the experiences were akin to watching a high-wire artist performing without a net. You were never sure if Johnston would get to the end of a song, let along his set. His vulnerability was apparent for all to see. But he did reach the end of both sets in what were clearly huge triumphs of great determination and the simple eloquence and sheer beauty of his songs shone through. As many commentators have already noted today, his music was created despite his mental illness, not because of it.
And it is for his talent and music we shall remember Daniel Johnston. Sat here listening to Is And Always Was (his 17th and final studio album from 2009) I am struck not just by the relative positivity of these tunes when compared with some of his earlier material, but the man’s incredible ear for a gorgeous melody. This is a very sad day indeed.
Photos: Simon Godley. Daniel Johnston pictured at the ATP Festival, Butlin’s Holiday Resort, Minehead, on the 9th of May 2010.
Listen here to the definitive version of ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’