Bent by nature

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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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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