Texas singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston's either a nut or a genius.
Singer Kathy McCarty says he's both, and she should know; McCarty's seen Johnston battle terrifying cycles of manic depression, replete with periodic stays in mental hospitals. She's also seen Johnston write and perform some of the most honest and aching pop songs imaginable. McCarty recently recorded 18 of Johnston's best tunes for a one-woman tribute album, Dead Dog's Eyeball: The Songs of Daniel Johnston. The CD is eerie, humorous, heartfelt and erratic, a lot like Johnston himself, says McCarty, and a lot like other people, too.
"Daniel touches this total identity chord with people," McCarty says from her home in Austin. "They'll say, 'This song is about me.' I've heard that so many times from so many different people. And I've thought it myself."
McCarty's had a lot of time to think about Daniel Johnston. She first met the troubled songwriter ten years ago.
"Daniel had run away from where he was living with his brother and sister-in-law," McCarty says of Johnston's Fellini-esque arrival in Austin. "He thought they were going to put him in the mental hospital, which may have had some basis, because he was definitely getting weird, and they were worried about him. And so he ran away and joined a carnival. He actually traveled all around the country working the corn-dog stand."
When the carnival stopped in Austin, Johnston got into an altercation with a co-worker. The fight--which stemmed from Johnston taking too much time in a portable toilet--left him bruised and battered, with a slight concussion. He wandered away from the fairgrounds, finally stopping at a Church of Christ, where he asked for help finding a place to live. He eventually found an apartment and got a job at a McDonald's.
Once settled, Johnston hung out on street corners and sold homemade tapes of his songs. He'd been making the tapes for years. They were crude recordings, with Johnston's high-pitched, nasal vocals backed by either a cheesy dime-store chord organ or an ill-tuned guitar. One night, Johnston took his tapes and went out to see a local Austin band, Glass Eye, that featured McCarty on vocals.
"He came up after the show and gave me a copy of his tape Hi, How Are You," McCarty says. "He asked if he could open for us. I said, 'Oh, well, sure, I'll let you know,' and then forgot about it."
A few weeks later, Johnston, wide-eyed and anxious, caught up with McCarty. She felt bad about not listening to the tape, so she told him that, yeah, he could open one of Glass Eye's upcoming shows. McCarty then went home to listen to the tape and see what she was getting into.
"It completely blew me away," she says. "All I care about is songwriting, so for me, listening to it was a total joy. And I had thought he was a retard."
Johnston was no "retard." He and McCarty wound up dating for a couple of months, but McCarty eventually realized that her newfound friend was a troubled soul. "Daniel's a very severe manic-depressive," she says. "He's the kind that when he's manic, he can stay awake 48 hours creating continuously, writing song after song, drawing entire comic books, painting pictures and never getting tired. Total unbelievable genius. But when he's depressed, it's so bad he can't bathe, or eat."
Johnston's problems were compounded a few years later, when he became, according to McCarty, a full-on acid casualty. "We used to warn him not to take pills or drugs or anything if anyone ever offered," McCarty says. "Because he was already too close to the edge. At one point, though, someone did offer, it was acid, and he's never been okay since that day."
Johnston began having massive psychotic delusions. It got so bad that he once tried to crash a private airplane he and his father were flying. He later caused a woman to jump out of a second-story apartment window. Johnston wound up in and out of institutions, with his most recent stay ending less than a year ago. He's now living with his parents in a remote Texas town.
"He's very lonely," says McCarty. "He calls me almost every day. But he has to stay there for a while, because he's not really together enough to live on his own."
McCarty adds that it's extra tough for Johnston to be stuck in the sticks with his particular set of parents.
"They're severe Church of Christ, born-again people," McCarty says of Ma and Pa Johnston. "Daniel was born after his mother was 40, so they're a lot older than him. They always considered his songwriting to be a lot of nonsense--and possibly even from Satan. Daniel's had a lot of conflict about that. Religious imagery comes out very strong in his delusional, psychotic breaks."
Yet McCarty says Johnston's parents seem to be coming around. They recently accompanied their son to see McCarty perform Johnston's songs at a show in Austin, and everyone came away happy. "They're reconciled somewhat to what he does," McCarty says. "Plus, it's hard to consider it nonsense when the money comes rolling in."
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.
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"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.