Bent by nature

On Dead Dog's Eyeball, Kathy McCarty breathes life into Daniel Johnston's songs

The crowd ruined the concert. Had the few hundred invited guests paid attention, had they set down their drinks and shut their mouths, they might have heard the beautiful, poignant words the woman on stage was singing--"Hold me like a mother would," she beckoned in a voice both tender and tough, "like I always knew someone should"--but instead the roar of conversation smothered the performance. One had to stand just a few feet from the stage to hear Kathy McCarty--and for her to hear the tiny smattering of applause that followed each song.

McCarty, performing only the songs of Austin's tragically demented songwriter Daniel Johnston, was the headline performer at the opening of the Dark Room in Deep Ellum a few weeks ago, brought in by the illuminati at Interview magazine who thought her hip enough to usher in the opening of a club in which she'll likely never set foot. But within moments of her taking the stage at Trees for the concert portion of the evening, she was reduced to a party band, a doormat over which the "scenemakers" (as if) trampled on their way to the free drinks. (Josh Alan and Andy Timmons suffered a similar fate at the Dark Room earlier in the evening, only they had to compete with free food, as well.)

But since converting the heathens was out of the question that night, focus instead on the voice from the pulpit: McCarty--backed by a band that included drummer Scott Marcus and Brian Beattie, two of McCarty's former bandmates in the now-defunct Austin band Glass Eye--took the stage looking like a glamorous Hausfrau, a guitar slung over a floral print dress that looked several decades removed from fashion. And for little more than an hour, she breathed life into Johnston's na•ve, desperate, sad lyrics--colored in between the lines Johnston had written, imbuing them with various shades of blue.

On stage and on album, the difference between Johnston's sparse originals and McCarty's fleshed-out covers is the difference between someone recounting a dream and experiencing that dream for yourself.

A couple of months ago, McCarty released Dead Dog's Eyeball: Songs of Daniel Johnston, a project she's been considering and working on for several years. And it's one of the best records ever to come out of Texas, a near-masterpiece that bridges the gap between Pet Sounds, Abbey Road, Randy Newman's 12 Songs, and her earlier and best work with Glass Eye--somewhere between stylized art-school project and organic pop songcraft gone wild. All at once it's wrenchingly beautiful ("Living Life," "Golly Gee"), achingly sad ("I Had a Dream"), buoyantly catchy ("Rocket Ship," "Oh No!"), and unexpectedly quirky (a ticking clock provides the rhythm to "I Am A Baby," a faucet provides the melody for "Running Water").

The record assumes a thousand shapes, conforms to no one genre, and adheres surprisingly to Johnston's original songs. Johnston, in fact, is not the most natural performer; when he sings his words--strangles them, really, so violently out of key he sounds like a teenager whose voice is changing that instant--he must force them out, as though contained within each syllable is a demon he needs to exorcise.

But the music contained on his self-released tapes (more than a dozen in all, including Hi, How Are You, Yip/Jump Music, Songs of Pain, and Continued Story) hints at a singular genius born of madness, half-played melodies often performed on homemade instruments or children's' toys. He is no musical idiot savant, as some would perceive him, nor is he only a cultist's hero (his works have been covered by the Dead Milkmen, fIREHOSE, and Sonic Youth, and Jad Fair and Kurt Cobain were among his biggest fans). Rather, he's just a guy for whom music is the last link between sanity and being forever committed to those mental asylums he's bounced in and out of for more than a decade.

"Daniel's a very vibrant personality," McCarty says. "He has kind of like a lot of personal power when you're sitting around talking to him and stuff. I remember when Glass Eye was hanging out with Daniel a lot, we started mispronouncing words he did because we liked the way they sounded. It's very easy for him to impress his personality on other people."

McCarty first met Johnston during the early years of Glass Eye, a band that came of age at a time when Austin was considered the next hotbed of American indie music (or so said MTV, which came to town in the summer of 1985 to film a segment for its "Cutting Edge" program). Doctors' Mob, Wild Seeds, True Believers, Texas Instruments, the Butthole Surfers, Zeitgeist (later the Reivers), Glass Eye--in the mid- to late '80s, no other town boasted such an eclectic array of talent, bands that should have been bigger than one Texas city that couldn't decide if it was a small town that wanted to big or a big city that wanted to remain small.

Among their ranks, Glass Eye seemed the anomaly: most of the lot sounded as though they were from Texas, country and blues ingrained into the rock and folk of bands like Wild Seeds and True Believers and even the Buttholes. On albums like Huge, Bent by Nature, and Hello, Young Lovers, Glass Eye came off more like a cross between bohemian traditionalists and no-wave holdovers, displaced by time (covers from Paul Simon and Randy Newman songs were often interspersed throughout sets at Liberty Lunch or the Beach) and execution (McCarty's spare guitar licks were augmented by Stella Weir's accordion and keyboard playing, a rarity among the guitar-heavy Austin bands of the period).

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