Daniel Johnston, who died of a heart attack yesterday at the age of 58, was almost the definition of a cult artist: An eccentric singer-songwriter who struggled with mental illness for most of his life, but whose rough-hewn songs had a melodic simplicity, directness and sense of happiness — and, at times, menace — that transcended their lo-fi setting (his early material was often recorded to cassette). While he had been revered in the alt-rock community since he first emerged in the ‘80s — Kurt Cobain frequently wore a Johnston t-shirt, and his songs were covered by Tom Waits, Wilco, Lana Del Rey, Karen O and many others — the extent of his popularity and influence became apparent in the hours after his death was announced yesterday: tributes poured in from figures ranging from Beck to Judd Apatow and Elijah Wood.
And Wednesday night in Houston, in Johnston’s home state of Texas, the National incorporated the late songwriter’s “Devil Town” into their own song “Not in Kansas,” from their latest album “I Am Easy to Find.” While Johnston no longer lived in Austin, where he had established a base for much of his music career, he was a revered enough figure in the city that it had designated an annual “Hi, How Are You? Day” in his honor, on his birthday.
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