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Indeed, Johnston is now a genuine, moneymaking, major-label artist. His first solo disc for Atlantic Records, Fun, was released last year, at about the same time Bar None Records released Dead Dog's Eyeball. Fun, produced by Butthole Surfer Paul Leary, finds Johnston's muse getting a professional studio treatment. Even so, Johnston's nervous, childlike whine keeps things offbeat and uncomfortable. As such, Fun doesn't connect the way Dead Dog's Eyeball does. McCarty's voice, clear and strong and tinged with Celtic coloring, is a perfect companion to Johnston's lyrics. Sometimes McCarty adds an extra touch, cloaking Johnston's fear and trembling in upbeat arrangements, as with the aptly titled "Hate Song," presented here as a rowdy, good-natured romp.
But on the CD's best cut, "Going Down," McCarty aims straight and hits Johnston's chilling description of bipolar disease on the down cycle: "Feeling small/All the time/When will it all stop/Going down . . . again."
Also of note is "Like a Monkey in a Zoo": "The days go on so slow," McCarty sings. "I don't have no friends/Except for all those people who want me to do tricks for them/Like a monkey in a zoo." It sounds like Johnston's questioning why some are attracted to his music--as if he realizes his songs are like a freak-show soundtrack for some listeners.
"Actually, he wrote that song before anyone liked anything he ever did," McCarty says. "He wrote it in high school. It's an absolute fabrication of what it's like to be incredibly famous."
But McCarty agrees that some people listen to Johnston's music, especially his tapes, because it's like witnessing a nervous breakdown in progress. In one case, with Hi, How Are You, Johnston was, indeed, in the process of losing it as his tape recorder rolled. "When Daniel opened shows for us ten years ago, when he took the stage, a lot of people didn't know how to react to him," McCarty says. "They didn't know if it was a joke. Because he'd be so incredibly nervous. He'd shake from head to foot. Plus, given the childlike voice and the way his songs are, people wouldn't know how to react. They'd wonder, 'Is this cool or is this not cool?'"
Johnston is now considered very cool. He's a hot item with the alternative intelligentsia. The members of Sonic Youth are among Johnston's biggest admirers, David Byrne's a fan and Kurt Cobain used to wear a Hi, How Are You tee shirt religiously. That kind of indie/underground buzz has helped to enshrine Johnston as a cult curiosity. Indeed, 900 people showed up for Johnston's last big show in Austin a couple of years ago.
McCarty says Johnston desperately wanted to come along on her current tour. He even offered to open for McCarty, an interesting concept, seeing as how McCarty's show is made up almost entirely of Johnston's own songs. But Johnston isn't likely to take the stage anytime soon.
"Unfortunately, Daniel's just not able to play live shows on a regular basis," McCarty says. "He never has been. They have a really bad effect on his psyche. I don't think that lifestyle would be good for him, or that he'd enjoy it that much. Plus, he's got a bad tremor in his hands from the medication they gave him in the state hospital, so he can't play keyboards anymore. But that's beginning to clear up, or so he says."
As for McCarty, she and Johnston's songs are hitting the road with an all-Austin backing band: Peter LaFond on guitar, Kris Nelson on bass and drummer John Paul Orozco. Once the tour is over, McCarty hopes to get back in the studio and record a solo album of her own material. No easy task after Dead Dog's Eyeball.
"My next record has to be as good as this one, and that's gonna be hard," McCarty says. "Because that means I have to write songs that are as good as Daniel's. It might take me years to write as many great songs as on this record."
Kathy McCarty is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, February 7, at Congo in Scottsdale, with Stomp Gospel. Showtime is 7 p.m.