Eyeballing McCarty

Austin's Kathy McCarty fleshes out the naked emotion of Daniel Johnston's songs

You may not know her name, but if you've paid any attention to Texas rock and roll over the course of the past ten years, you've probably heard Kathy McCarty's music. Until the band called it quits almost two years ago, McCarty served as singer and songwriter with Glass Eye, the Austin college rock favorite that more than a few observers, professional and otherwise, will be happy to tell you was one of the decade's best kept secrets. The band produced four albums, some of which are still in print, and garnered the sort of cult following that's often turned out to be a simultaneous blessing and curse for gifted Austin rock bands (think True Believers) who never quite managed to parlay a talent into a living. Glass Eye stayed together for nine and a half years, but by the time the end rolled around, hadn't released a record in almost five.

"We got into a very bad situation," McCarty says over the phone from her Austin apartment, where a locksmith securing her van for an upcoming tour has sent the dog into a barking tizzy that lasts through a full hour of conversation. "We'd been around for a long time, but we'd never sold that many records and nobody wanted to sign us. Finally we got two offers, from one small label and one very, very large label. We gave up the small label deal to do the large label deal, and the large label deal didn't come through. And I'm not naming any names, but I'm still bitter about it. We all really loved our music and believed in it. It's just that as a unit, I guess we got tired of trying to make something happen when nobody was interested in helping us do so. That's essentially why we broke up: disappointment."

If the breakup left McCarty bitter, at least she wasn't at a loss over what to do next. Some five months before Glass Eye fell apart, she'd gotten record company go-ahead to start work on a project she'd had in mind for almost a decade: an entire album of McCarty singing her interpretations of Daniel Johnston's songs. She started the yearlong project the day after her band broke up.

McCarty met Johnston -- Austin's resident manic-depressive songwriter naive -- in Glass Eye's early days, when the prolific but unstable Johnston handed McCarty one of his homemade tapes and begged a chance to open a show for the band. And like most everyone who had a chance to hear Johnston's work, McCarty was struck hard by the naked emotion, un-self-conscious directness and pop craftsmanship of the songs. But what Johnston had, and has, in talent, he lacks in accessibility. Most of his otherwise gorgeous tunes rest on a bed of clunky guitar strums or tinkling piano accompaniment, and his voice trembles with a stage-fright quiver at the best of times. His early cassettes were recorded, obviously enough, with a tape recorder. McCarty loved the songs, but saw an opportunity to let them be heard outside of the tiny community of indie-rock fans and admirers who were willing to meet Johnston halfway.

"When I started the record, Daniel was in the state hospital [the result of a delusional episode in which Johnston reportedly attacked his manager] and it was looking like he would never make a record again, and that was another reason I wanted to make this record, because I thought people need to hear these songs, goddamnit." McCarty recorded her album with friends, including producer and fellow Glass Eye alumnus Brian Beattie, on a DAT machine in a friend's bedroom with her own money, "because I'm a jaded old fuck and I don't like record companies telling me what to do." She named the disc Dead Dog's Eyeball, after a phrase from Johnston's personal lexicon.

"When Daniel was 13 or 14, around the time of his first breakdown," McCarty explains, "he was listening to the Beatles, 'I Am the Walrus,' and he heard this line 'yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog's eye,' and it blew his mind, just like in the '60s, he couldn't believe it, and he walked out of his house and there was a dead dog with pus coming out of its eye lying on his front lawn. It was this amazing coincidence. And so from that day on, whenever an amazing coincidence happens to Daniel, he says 'dead dog's eyeball.' It's an expression. And when we were all hanging around with Daniel we picked up on it. And when I was making the record I said something like, 'Oh my God, Daniel's record is going to come the same time as mine. Dead dog's eyeball,' you know? And I thought it would be a great name for a record."

The Daniel Johnston record of that charming anecdote was something most people familiar with Johnston thought would never happen, but as it turned out, Johnston would be released from the hospital and get his own chance to peddle his songs to a wider audience when Atlantic Records signed him and sent him into a studio with Butthole Surfer Paul Leary to record his major label debut Fun. Fun is a welcome and decent album in its own right, with Leary wisely choosing to opt for simplicity over what must have been the temptation to overproduce, but with the project lasting a mere three months from signing to release, Fun turned out to be about half a good Johnston album, well distributed but burdened with filler.

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