Daniel Johnston at the Printemps de Bourges in 2010. – ALAIN JOCARD / AFP

A cult object in alternative rock, American singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston died Wednesday at the age of 58, said his brother and manager Dick Johnston. He has built in almost 40 years a unique poetic universe, inhabited by child utopias, the difficulty of communicating and lost love.

The enigmatic singer-songwriter and visual artist has been going back and forth to the hospital in recent months for kidney problems, Dick Johnston said, but his death was "unexpected." "Just yesterday, his morale was good (…) he looked and felt really good," he said.

The Beatles, the comic book superhero Captain Casper, the ghost or King Kong were among the recurring heroes of his often pop-country compositions, combining brilliant melodic and dramatic power. Marked by both a puritanical education and "pop culture," Daniel Johnston fought for years against a manic-depressive syndrome, with a look both acute and naive about the world through small stories often tragic, but devoid of cynicism, which evoked a diary.

On the front of the alternative scene in 1985

Born in 1961 in Sacramento (California), passionate from an early age by drawing, but also piano, then guitar, he records his own compositions on tapes from adolescence that he exchanges with other musician friends . After high school, he spends a lot of his time drawing, developing a style very close to comics, and composing.

Of Never relaxed, at Phantom of my own opera Passing by Like a monkey in a zoo, the artisanal character of the cassettes entitled Songs of Pain, produced in 1980 (and recently reissued in CD), highlights a unique sense of melody and writing.

In 1983, the musician followed for several months a traveling carnival, before moving to Austin, Texas, where his cassettes Hi how are you ? and Yip / Jump Music (whose songs Speeding Motorcycle and Casper, the friendly ghost) make it a local celebrity. In 1985, his strange thin voice and unmistakable piano touch, with impromptu changes of tempo, are propelled to the forefront of the alternative scene as a result of a report from the MTV channel.

Admired by Sonic Youth and Kurt Cobain

Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, The Pastels and Kurt Cobain will be among his many admirers. Twenty of them (Teenage Fan Club, Beck, Mercury Rev, Calvin Johnson …) pay tribute in a double album covers in 2004.

After several stays in mental hospitals in the late 80s, Daniel Johnston is welcomed by the independent label Shimmy Disc, which opens the doors of the international scene. Daniel Johnston records with Jad Fair, singer and guitarist of Half-Japanese (It's Spooky), then two studio albums, 1990 and Artistic Vice (1992). His rating with criticism allows him to sign in 1994 with the "major" Atlantic, which publishes the upsetting fun.

After a long time again disturbed by his health problems, Johnston returns in 2001 with the album Rejected Unknown, then in 2003, with Fear Yourself. Two years ago, the artist toured, which will have been his last.


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