By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
To translate: The majority of Johnston's efforts are poorly recorded; they give new meaning to the word "primitive." To appreciate them, you have to listen through these traits or find a way to prize characteristics that are seen as detrimental in practically every other case. As McCarty points out, however, taking the latter tack can lead to condescension. "I get very irritated by the press Daniel gets--that because he's crazy, he's also stupid or retarded or that he's a joke or that his talent comes from some bizarre source and he doesn't work at anything. A lot of people have this impression of him--that he's this giant fluke. Even some writers who I like and are friends of mine write headlines like `Daniel Johnston--Genius or Gerbil?' or `Indie Poster Child.' There's this opinion that nobody would even want to talk about him except for the fact that his exploits as a crazy person are so funny and interesting.
"That's why I wanted to make a record with his songs on it in such a way that people could not deny that he is a great songwriter. They would no longer be able to say that people are interested in his music simply because it's weird or because they think it's funny to listen to someone who's having a nervous breakdown on a recording. I wanted to eradicate once and for all the notion that Daniel is talentless."
When McCarty pitched her Johnston theories to Bar/None, a small independent imprint out of Hoboken, New Jersey, the response she received was relatively lukewarm. It took years to receive a go-ahead from the company, and when it finally came, Glass Eye was on the rocks--meaning that Eyeball would not be seen as the entertaining side project McCarty had envisioned. "I never conceived of this as being a big foray into solo artistry," she confirms. "To me, it was something that I really wanted to do, something that really needed to be done but that I thought might sell 2,500 copies. I never thought of it as being a huge deal except to me, artistically."
Eyeball's quality belies the circumstances surrounding its making. The album was cut entirely on an ADAT machine owned by Craig Ross, an Austin musician who let McCarty use the equipment (located in his bedroom) during those occasions when he wasn't fiddling with it himself. "That's why it took me over a year to do it," McCarty says.
It was time well-spent. The nineteen Johnston songs on the CD are given full-bodied treatment by McCarty and her cast of supporters, including co-producer/fellow Glass Eye veteran Brian Beattie, drummer Scott Marcus (part of Glass Eye for Hello Young Lovers) and other Austin regulars. McCarty transformed tracks that Johnston had left largely unadorned with cellos, violas, trumpets, flugelhorn and her own remarkable voice, which can switch from rich and honeyed (as on "Walking the Cow" and "Like a Monkey in a Zoo") to sharp and biting ("Sorry Entertainer") in the middle of a syllable. The results somehow render Johnston's idiosyncrasies accessible without squeezing the juice out of them. Like the best interpreters, McCarty makes each tune her own even as she makes it clear that they still belong to someone else.
"I've had people say to me that my versions didn't lose any of Daniel's natural pathos," she says, "and in a conceited way, I kind of agree, and feel that I am the best person to translate his stuff, because I do understand him. Daniel and I were born one day apart, and we're similar in a lot of ways--we even look a little alike. So maybe there's a zodiac thing happening."
Another example of synchronicity: As McCarty was wrapping up Eyeball, Johnston, freshly released from a mental hospital, was signed by Atlantic Records. At first glance (and at second and third), the pairing of this fragile, erratic but often exceptional songwriter and one of the biggest record companies on the globe is a quizzical one, and it certainly didn't bring out the best in Johnston: His Atlantic debut, Fun (produced by Butthole Surfer Paul Leary), is an uneven full-length even by his eccentric standards. Worse, it hit the streets at roughly the same time as Eyeball, prompting many analysts to judge them jointly. In practically every case, McCarty's version of Johnston was seen as superior to Johnston's. Even Johnston thought so.
"Daniel wasn't really ready to make a record, and you can tell," McCarty claims. "About half the songs on Fun are really good, and the other half aren't as good as his usual work. That's why Daniel isn't really happy with the record. So at least he wasn't mad about those reviews--he'd say, `Your record's much better than mine.'
"But those reviews are unfair to the extent that mine was like Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits and his is like Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. I mean, he wrote the songs on Fun in the last year, but the songs from Dead Dog's Eyeball are from his entire catalogue. I think a lot of people get lost in that. They think I'm entirely responsible for my album, but Daniel's the one who wrote all the songs."