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Daniel Johnston, Austin singer-songwriting icon, has died at 58

Singer Daniel Johnston dies
Austin singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston dies 01:35

Daniel Johnston, the Texas singer-songwriter and artist who developed a cult following and inspired a documentary film, died Wednesday, his family confirmed. He was 58. 

According to a statement issued by his family, Johnston died of natural causes Wednesday morning at his Houston-area home. His brother, Dick Johnston, said Daniel had been plagued for years with health issues. 

He was released from the hospital Tuesday after being treated with kidney problems, his brother told The New York Times

Musicians such as Kurt Cobain and Tom Waits, as well as "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening, are among those who have expressed a fondness for Johnston's work. 

"Not only was Daniel Johnston a legendary musician and artist who so authentically embodied Austin's soul and spirit, he also inspired many in our community to fight stigma associated with #mentalhealth issues," Austin Mayor Steve Adler tweeted.

The 2005 South By South West Music Festival
Daniel Johnston performs SXSW Music Festival on March 16, 2005, in Austin. Jana Birchum / Getty

Hours after his death, flowers and Johnston's lyrics were taped to the "Hi, How Are You" mural in Austin, CBS Austin affiliate KEYE reports

University of Texas student Alistair Keggen paid his respects by leaving flowers and listening to his music. "You can't listen to a Daniel Johnston song and not feel something," Keggen told KEYE.

Born to what he described as a fundamentalist Christian family, Johnston said he was inspired starting at an early age by artists such as the Beatles, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Bob Dylan, David Bromberg, Queen, Neil Young and the Sex Pistols, according to his website. He started playing music at an early age, and he and his friends began recording tapes together when he was a teenager. 

He then began what he described as a "prolific" period in his career as he recorded in his parents' cellar while rarely attending classes at an art program at Kent State. The tapes he made included "Songs of Pain" and "More Songs of Pain."

He moved to Texas in 1983, first living in Houston and then San Marcos. While working at a carnival, he traveled to Austin — at the time the center of underground cool — and decided to stay. He continued to give out his tapes for free and record stores began selling them, which eventually got the attention of MTV's "Cutting Edge."

Obit Daniel Johnston
Bailey Bailey hugs the frog-like creature known as "Jeremiah the Innocent" at the "Hi, How Are You" mural created by musician and artist Daniel Johnston on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019, in Austin, Texas.  Nick Wagner / AP

His songs often contained innocent pleas for love and bore titles such as "Life in Vain," ''True Love Will Find You in the End" and "Walking the Cow."  

Johnston's struggles with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia formed the heart of the Oscar-nominated 2005 documentary "The Devil and Daniel Johnston." 

The documentary's filmmaker, Jeff Feuerzeig, told KEYE Johnston was "the greatest songwriter of my generation."

Feuerzeig said he first discovered Johnston in the '80s through underground cassette tapes sent from a P.O. Box in Austin. Through the "hissy" sound of the tape, Feuerzeig said he could tell Johnston was "literally at the level of Bob Dylan or Lou Reed" as a songwriter.

Feurezeig said Johnston was "very open" about his mental illness. "Back in the years in the '80s, when it was not a subject people were free to talk about — I think he's broken down a lot of those barriers because a lot of people suffer from this," Feuerzeig said.

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