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.
McCarty's album, released about the same time, takes 19 of Johnston's songs places they've never been before, turning "Oh No" into the Beatles-esque wig-out of Johnston's visions and positioning other tunes as torch songs, ballads, quiet rockers and Tin Pan Alley workouts that pull the neat trick of remaining faithful to the originals and expanding on them at the same time. Think of Johnston's songs as the blueprints from which McCarty built a house. At times, McCarty's faithfulness to the spirit of Johnston's songs even caused conflict between the two friends.
"At one point Daniel asked what songs I was doing and I named them, and he said, 'Desperate Man Blues,' well you're going to change that to 'Desperate Woman Blues' aren't you?' And I said no. He said, 'Well you have to,' and he became very belligerent about the fact that I had to change the pronouns of the songs because if I didn't people would think I was a lesbian. He's from a born-again Christian background and he sometimes takes an idea into his head and won't let go, and it was a real nightmare for me because I'm just absolutely not going to change the pronouns, no way. There's a lot of difference between a desperate man and a desperate woman. It's a different thing, and this song's about a desperate man."
McCarty stuck to her guns, and when it was all over with, Johnston gave her record his admiration-filled blessing, even telling McCarty that her record was better than his own. It's a sentiment echoed by the lion's share of critics who reviewed the two, often side by side, and found McCarty's the more focused, more coherent statement. Which points up another uncomfortable situation.
"In a way that makes me sad. I wish they wouldn't say that my record was better than his. It's awkward for me because I'm a friend of Daniel's and also I think he's a total genius. From what Daniel's told me, and just what I know about the last couple of years of his life and how he usually works, he wasn't ready to make this record when they wanted him to. I don't think it means that I'm a better artist than Daniel, or even that anyone would think that, but it does make me feel kind of sad, because I wish that he was happy with it and that there wasn't this valid criticism of his record. It would have ruined the experience totally for me if I'd sent him a tape when the record was finished and he hated it, so I was very scared and nervous and anxious that he wouldn't love it."
But Johnston did love it, which goes a long way toward dispelling the prevailing notions of the nature of Johnston's instability. Clinically, Johnston suffers from severe manic depression, but the legend that's grown up around him in a town that idolizes its mentally bent musicians (think Roky Erickson, or Gibby Haynes for that matter) has led more than a few writers to paint him as a sort of idiot savant who writes beautifully unaffected songs almost by accident. It's a perception McCarty doesn't wish to cultivate.
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"I remember him telling me when I first met him, he said, 'The way I write songs is I try to be like a kid again and have those real direct, honest emotions and just say exactly what I feel and not worry about whether it's an acceptable emotion or not.' Which is one of the things that I love about his writing, he writes songs like 'Poor You.' He doesn't sit there and go 'Oh God, this is so self-pitying'; he just says 'Yeah, it's a song about self pity, it's how I feel, I feel sorry for myself.' These incredibly crafted songs -- it's not a fluke. I really didn't want my voice or me to be the star of this record. I wanted the song to stand out as the focal point and use my voice and the arrangements and stuff to make the songs come across the way I knew they were: very strong.
"The only way in which he's sort of a savant is to write so beautifully about emotions, when as a person to be around and with, he can shock you with how much you are just an extra in his movie."
McCarty may be an extra in Johnston's movie, and you could look at Dead Dog's Eyeball as her cameo appearance in an otherwise sprawling epic, but what she does with her time on-screen focuses the picture and frames the shot. You wouldn't say she steals the scene -- though in some ways she does -- but rather that she allows Johnston himself to come across as more fully present than he can be on his own.
Kathy McCarty opens for Jonathan Richman at 8 p.m., Thursday, February 2 at Rockefeller's. Tickets cost $8, $10 and $12.50. Call 869-8427 for info.