Bent by nature

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 nave, 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).

Johnston would come to Glass Eye shows and give McCarty tapes of his crude home recordings, and after enough persistence he convinced her to give him an opening slot at a Glass Eye show. Figuring she'd better find out what she had gotten herself into, McCarty played one of the tapes and found herself transfixed by what she heard--not just the way one would stop and stare at a gruesome traffic accident, but as though she had heard a voice of great and profound revelation. Soon enough, Glass Eye--and several other Austin bands--were adding Johnston's songs to their own live set lists, even inviting him onstage for protracted audience-participation singalongs.

"The first time I ever heard the tape I was blown away," McCarty recalls. "I said, 'This man is a genius, this is incredible songwriting.' And I think songwriters who know the territory of writing and what's a good song, regardless of how it's performed or arranged, are much quicker to pick up on Daniel's incredible talent. A large part of his fan base is musicians and writers because they can put on a song like 'Walking the Cow,' that's done on a cheap organ and recorded on a jambox and sung like a little kid, and say, 'Oh, my God, what an incredible song.' Whereas someone like my mom or a lot of music listeners would say, 'This is creepy awful shit. I hate this.'"

McCarty felt, at the very least, that if she recorded some of Johnston's material, she might make it accessible to those who were quick to dismiss him as singularly untalented. She thought that if she could record his material as she heard it, then it might validate his worth to an audience outside of a handful of musicians and Austinites who acknowledged his presence because, well, everyone else said he was good. And she had one other reason for wanting to record his songs: when she conceived the project in the late '80s, Johnston was in a mental hospital, some thought for good, "and I thought these songs need to be heard," she proclaims.

She recorded a vocals-and-guitar-only version of "Living Life" for a Bar None Records sampler in 1989 and approached the label with a few others, hoping to convince them to let her release a full album's worth of Johnston's material. The label balked--primarily, McCarty figures, because the quality of her own records was so awful--but when Glass Eye broke up suddenly and unexpectedly in 1993 because Marcus and Beattie had grown frustrated by a decade of limited success, she resumed the project, figuring at least she had something to keep her busy aside from her day job busing tables. (Glass Eye is planning, however, to release its fifth and final album, completed before the breakup, sometime next year.)

Recording began at a friend's home studio in July 1993 and took place over the next nine months--with a four-month gap somewhere in there because of flu that became a sinus infection that became a phlegm nightmare. Recorded with her own money and with the help of such friends as Beattie, Marcus, Lyle Lovett's bassist John Hagan, the Bad Livers' tuba-playing bassist Mark Rubin, and a handful of other musician pals, Dead Dog's Eyeball is the glorious result of a project born of utmost affection and respect.

"When I listened to Hi, How Are You the first time, I listened to about one minute of the first song, and I sat there slack-jawed," McCarty says. "It was like, 'My God, this man is a genius, he's just incredible.' A lot of what I liked about it was the realness of it, the childlike quality of it."

McCarty, in turn, hasn't changed a word or note of Johnston's material, not even correcting mispronunciations or timing inconsistencies. For a song like "Walking the Cow," she has taken the original organ solo in the middle and transcribed it to a fuller string sound; same goes for "Desperate Man Blues," which now sounds like an oddly timed Patsy Cline song. And in the end, Dead Dog's Eyeball is almost like a brilliantly written love note to Johnston and his songs--totally without pretense or artifice, affectionate but never sickly sweet, capturing the tiniest emotions in just a few simple words.  

Kathy McCarty performs December 3 at Poor David's Pub.

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