Austin, Texas • Daniel Johnston, who passed out cassette tapes of his songs to fellow Austin musicians in the 1980s and eventually became renowned worldwide as a songwriter, died early Wednesday morning in Houston, his manager Tom Gimbel confirmed Wednesday afternoon.
Johnston had been in the hospital with kidney issues but was released Tuesday night to the assisted living facility where he had been living recently. He was found unconscious there on Wednesday morning, Gimbel said.
A news release issued Wednesday afternoon attributed his death to “natural causes.” Gimbel noted that Johnston’s health “had been touch and go for awhile” with complications from diabetes and other issues.
Dick Johnston, Daniel’s older brother, said in a statement that “I always wanted Danny to feel like his own person, and in control of his own life. Since beginning to work and travel with him in about 2003, we gratefully were able to travel the entire globe for over a decade to get out before the fans. He was always, everywhere, warmly received and he at least knew he was well loved. Health issues have plagued us for years; I’m glad for the time we had.”
Johnston also made his mark on Austin with the iconic “Hi, How Are You” mural at 21st and Guadalupe streets. He created it in 1993 on the exterior wall of what was then the Sound Exchange record store. The frog-like character in the mural is known as “Jeremiah the Innocent.”
For years in the 1980s and ’90s, thanks to a timely clip on MTV, Johnston symbolized underground rock in Austin. His charming songs, no-fi recording style and devotion to distributing his unique music on cassette made him an iconic figure on the American margins.
“I just feel really privileged to have had the chance to work with him,” said Gimbel, speaking from Nashville, Tenn., where he’d just arrived for Wednesday evening’s Americana Music Awards. “I think he’s one of the greatest geniuses of our time.”