Paying her debt

Kathy McCarty once shared a run-down house in South Austin with three other women. Two years ago, the owner of that house died, and the termite-ridden property was assessed at a mere $12,000. McCarty desperately wanted to buy it herself, but the stake was still too high for someone who could barely cover the minimum payments on her credit cards. Like many struggling musicians, she waits tables five nights a week at a fancy restaurant in order to pay off various debts. How much debt can a rock musician who eats Ramen noodles and wears junk-store clothing get into? This much: At the peak of her career, McCarty had a credit debt of $26,000, incurred while touring throughout the '80s with her never-made-it, now-defunct band Glass Eye. Most of the charges were for van repair.

So McCarty decided to take a gamble. One weekend in 1997, she flew to Los Angeles, paid for the whole trip, and set up two showcases in order to attract A&R notice, hoping to land a record contract. She also signed up to audition for Jeopardy. Such a proceeding was, she felt, her only hope of ever being given the quick influx of cash she needed to pay off those oppressive debts.

McCarty didn't make it to Jeopardy: Believe it or not, she was stumped on the practice quiz by a question whose answer was "Who is Celine Dion?" And no A&R dude walked up to her and offered her a recording contract either--although a bearded and bespectacled former rock critic came up to her shyly to rave about her music, confessing at the very end of the conversation that his name was Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons.

But unlike most deluded musicians who set up showcases in L.A. hoping for what ain't there, McCarty did--and still does--have some interest in her. After Glass Eye broke up in 1992, having released two EPs and three albums (including 1988's Bent by Nature and 1989's Hello Young Lovers, both still in print), she recorded a solo album called Dead Dog's Eyeball. The Hoboken, New Jersey-based indie Bar/None, Glass Eye's home, released it in 1994. The disc--and the subsequent Sorry Entertainer EP--contained nothing but covers of Daniel Johnston songs, and it received massive, universal acclaim from every possible quarter and was on nearly every critic's Top Ten list of the year.

In 1995, thanks in part to the buzz generated by that album, Geffen gave her a $5,000 demo deal, but never took up the option. Today, McCarty's still up for grabs, despite the fact that, in the interim, Lillith Fairies such as Paula Cole, Jewel, and Alanis Morissette have carved a huge sales-swath in a formerly hostile music industry.

Some people around McCarty attribute her lack of success to fear of failure, or self-sabotage. But McCarty denies that. "It's easy to look at almost any behavior and call it self-sabotaging if it didn't work," she says. "What I mean is, if I had gotten a record deal out of Dead Dog's Eyeball, then it would have seemed like a good move to make. But since I didn't, then maybe it was self-sabotaging of me to do a record of someone else's songs."

Locale--along with lack of personal income--is another detriment to McCarty's career progress. Glass Eye went into debt trying to stay on the road long enough to get popular, and McCarty is not willing to repeat that experiment, since few artists have fewer personal resources than she does. McCarty's family consists of her mother and a mentally ill brother, whose needs are a more important financial drain on the family's meager resources.

Still, given the plethora of folky female singer-songwriters in today's music world, Kathy McCarty's continued musical obscurity is so very puzzling. With her intense feminine perspective, fabulous voice, cred-ridden past, and acclaimed media profile, she would seem like a natural choice for a label to back. She writes complicated, deep songs, with pretty, folky melodies and weird twists and angles and fabulous imagery--the kind of stuff that haunts you and makes you hum and think at the same time. And McCarty is also a great and utterly unself-conscious performer: impassioned, charming, and likable, but not in any sense vain or perky.

I should add here that McCarty is one of my dearest friends. But I can't believe that's coloring my judgment of her music, not when I see the rabid faces of her fans, or read things other writers have said about her. And certainly not when I go to Austin each year for South by Southwest, attend her annual showcases there, and am once again reminded of her genius.

Currently, South by Southwest is one of the few places that an out-of-towner like me will ever see McCarty perform. She doesn't even play Austin, much less out of town. She doesn't even sell tapes at her rare shows, leaving audiences to enjoy only the echoes. Fact is, she can't afford to dupe the seven-song cassette she recorded from 1997 to '98, nor does she have much interest in finishing the half-recorded album Glass Eye abandoned in 1992. She wants to move forward, not keep looking back at what was, what should have been.

In some ways, Kathy McCarty's career trajectory is a blueprint for everything that's wrong with the music business today. Despite all the high-profile things she's done--among them appearing in Austin director Richard Linklater's Slackers and performing the opening and closing songs for Linklater's film Before Sunrise--she is seemingly invisible to L.A. eyes. The powers that be, supposedly intent on finding new talent, have been given every opportunity to hear and sign her. But because her tape is not being shopped to them by a lawyer, she is also somehow inaudible to those who write blank checks to artists far less talented.

McCarty's career is indicative of the biggest myth that surrounds South by Southwest, which is that struggling young bands can get signed there. In fact, very few unsigned acts play SXSW (about 30 percent of the nearly 900), and those that do are generally ignored by bizzers and badge-holders in favor of bands with big buzzes and albums shortly due in stores. The few unsigned bands who do bring out droves of A&R people--the way Beck and Veruca Salt have in recent years--have long been stalked already. The A&R brigade is only there to check out the competition.

McCarty has played a showcase at 12 of the 13 SXSW festivals. At most of them, she was pick of the night by the Austin Chronicle and drew standing-room-only crowds of artists and critics. Last year was the first year she skipped the conference, discouraged because Dead Dog's Eyeball had done so well and yet, despite the universal raves, there seemed to be no interest in her at all.

She was going to skip this year's conference too. Then, a week before the conference began, she got a phone call out of the blue. She called me up to tell me the news.

"Guess what," she said. "Chuck D. is coming to see me play at South by Southwest, and he might sign me to his label!" She was ostensibly referring to the Public Enemy frontman.

I was dumbstruck. "Chuck D? Are you sure?"
"Yeah, you know--he's in a rap band?"
A picture of McCarty in big pants with a gold chain around her neck, singing a duet with Chuck and Flavor Flav, entered my mind. "Are you sure he said Chuck D?"

"Yes, and the label's called Grand Royal."
All was explained. "Kathy, that's Mike D., not Chuck D." I shouted, and apparently just in the nick of time. Mike D. is a member of the Beastie Boys and part-owner of Grand Royal, the world's hippest record label. It would, in fact, be the perfect home for a quirky artist like McCarty, who would fit right in with other Grand Royal artists such as teen-rocker Ben Lee, Luscious Jackson, Bis, and Sean Lennon.

A representative from Grand Royal had asked whether McCarty could set up a showcase for the label to check her out. For most people, to a request like that, coming a mere 10 days before SXSW, the answer would be no. But McCarty used to work for the SXSW organization; in addition, two weeks ago, she was voted into the Austin music Hall of Fame at the Austin Music Awards, a fact she was unaware of at the time. Thus, she was given a prime slot at midnight on Friday on the patio of the Buffalo Club on Seventh Street. She set about furiously practicing a set with her performance partner, guitarist-singer Kris Nelson. Because of her recent marriage, McCarty had played only twice since August; the duo needed a lot of practice.

When the conference began, McCarty was again contacted by Grand Royal reps, who explained that Mike D. was not coming to the conference after all. Instead, she was told, she needed to win over Mark Kates, a former Geffen A&R man responsible for Beck and repping Hole who now works for the Beastie Boys-owned label. "What's Mark Kates into these days?" McCarty nervously inquired of a friend.

"Baseball and drum-and-bass," was the disheartening reply.
McCarty winced. "Gee, I can't even fake those things."
She was nervous the night of the showcase. It didn't help that the club at which she was appearing wasn't particularly appropriate for an acoustic artist, or that the soundman didn't even know she was playing until Brian Beattie, McCarty's old partner in Glass Eye and still among her closest friends, informed him that yes, Kathy was on tonight's bill. Worse, the stage was outdoors beneath a shoddy tent, and had sound bleeding into it from both the indoor club and a club across the alley.

But McCarty's so professional, you wouldn't have known that anything was the matter. She and Nelson did a stellar set that included both new songs, such as "City Song" and "Summer Country," and old ones, including Glass Eye's "Christine" and "Living Life" off Dead Dog's Eyeball. She earned an encore, a hilarious cover of Ween's "Don't Get 2 Close (2 My Fantasy)." If I had been an A&R person, I'd have signed her for that alone.

Mark Kates, alas, was not in the house. McCarty was introduced to him at Waterloo Records the next day, but his disinterest was so manifest--according to McCarty, he rolled his eyes when he heard her name--she couldn't go home even pretending she had a hope.

This incident seems typical of the bad karma that plagued this year's SXSW. Writers were running around saying, "There are no good bands." Labels were running around saying, "We don't have money to sign or feed you." Artists were plagued by bad weather and bad prospects. In all, it seemed as though there was an unspoken sense of Are we still having fun here? hovering on everyone's lips. There were Band for sale signs hanging from the stages of a lot of acts with significantly higher profiles than Kathy McCarty. Perhaps because she didn't have to drive all the way to Austin from Kentucky or California, McCarty took the Grand Royal fiasco somewhat philosophically.

"If they sign me," she said the next day, "I'll have a record deal, and I'll have my life. If they don't, then I'll only have my life."

Although she could only laugh about the situation, she was also a bit disconsolate. "All I ever wanted from music," she added, "was the ability to be free to live my life being an artist, without having to work at a restaurant. So part of me thinks, 'Wow, I'm 38. Maybe it's time to get out of the Youth Culture Racket and have a fucking life.' But the truth is, I am an artist, and I'll always be one. I just think it might be time to pour more energy into making a living--by which I mean, not by art, as I had always hoped, but at least in some way better than restaurant work."

The day after SXSW, Kathy and I took a long walk around Town Lake, finally settling down on a hot rock near the bridge by Guadalupe Street. And as we trailed our fingers in the green water and watched the turtles floating by, McCarty told me that after 13 years in the music business, she was thinking about giving it up. Saying uncle. Moving to Wyoming and maybe going back to school, training for something else.

"But it's not so much giving up on music," she amended, "or writing songs, but the whole winning-the-lottery-ticket mentality of getting a big fat record contract. I've really devoted myself to that for 15 years, and my particular lottery ticket hasn't won yet. And all of I sudden, I'm thinking maybe it never will."

For a second, I think maybe she's right. Rock is in bad shape right now, and jeez, we all have to live. Sure, I think McCarty's a great artist, but this business is a cruel one, and it doesn't enjoy hearing from a 38-year-old woman with a brain, however deserving she is of being heard.

But almost the exact second I thought that, I realized I was wrong. McCarty should keep on keeping on, not for herself and her dreams, but for me, for you. Maybe it's selfishness on my part, maybe not; the artist initially makes music for himself or herself, but it is ultimately for us. And what McCarty does is so wonderful, I can't bear to think of it disappearing into thin air, never to be heard or appreciated again.

Besides, to be able to get a showcase at a moment's notice at South by Southwest, to win a place in the Austin Music Hall of Fame, to have made records your peers love, to even be considered by Grand Royal--these things are not nothing. Many artists would be happy to have done any of them, much less to have lived the life we did back in the 1980s--a life that was the rock-and-roll equivalent of Paris in the '20s, driving around in a beat-up van and making meaningful relationships and really great music. To give up now may be understandable, but it's also kind of unthinkable. And if she does quit now, she won't be the loser.


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