Wednesday, December 06, 2006

K. McCarty

During the early 90s it seemed everybody was covering Daniel Johnston. The list of artists who have covered Daniel Johnston songs reads like a who's who of indie rock: fIREHOSE, Yo La Tengo, Wilco, Beck, The Pastels, Half Japanese, M. Ward, The Flaming Lips, Spectrum, even Pearl Jam covered "Walking the Cow." In 2004 a compilation of Johnston covers featuring some of these luminaries was issued in conjunction with Johnston's originals.

On the one hand, Daniel Johnston is the ideal songwriter to cover. The original versions of the songs (especially the early ones) were more like frameworks for songs: primitive, crude recordings of simple chord progressions often played on the chord organ, coupled with Johnston's bizarre-yet-touching lyrics. The covering artist typically took the framework Johnston provided and built the kind of song they wanted around it. On the other hand Johnston sings with such arresting honesty and raw, unpolished emotion, that sometimes the covers seem like mere academic exercises compared to the brutal frankness of the--sometimes difficult to listen to--originals. Covering Daniel Johnston is tougher than it might initially seem.

For my money nobody covered Daniel Johnston as well as Kathy ("K.") McCarthy, who released an entire album of Johnston covers, Dead Dog's Eyeball in 1994 (the same year Johnston released Fun, probably the most unlikely major-label release in music history). For those put off by Johnston's amateurish delivery, McCarty's album is a revelation. Yes, Daniel Johnston really is more than an indie-hipster freakshow; he wrote some great songs. McCarty makes the case for Johnston as a genuinely talented songwriter quite convincingly.

McCarty's association with Johnston went back a long way; her band Glass Eye, were instrumental in bringing Johnston to the public's attention. Johnston was a big fan of the Austin based unit and would regularly present them with home recorded cassettes of his songs at their shows. McCarty was quick to recognize the "genius" behind Johnston's obvious mental illness, and the band became his biggest booster. Dead Dog's Eyeball was the culmination of that boosterism.

I picked two songs from this now sadly out-of-print album. "Walking the Cow" is probably Johnston's best known song, having been covered many, many times. In my opinion, you won't find a better version of this song anywhere. "Museum of Love" is an intensely personal song that is almost painful to listen to in Johnston's original recording; McCarty manages to make the sentiments expressed in the song seem at once personal and universal.


Anonymous said...

Have you seen "The Devil & Daniel Johnston?" It's pretty great - although it's certainly not easy viewing. Ms. McCarty's take on Mr. Johnston (the genius beneath the neuroses and, more upsettingly, the authentic menace beneath that genius) is unique and moving.

Pete Bilderback said...

I haven't seen it yet. I imagine it is difficult viewing, but I should check it out. I also want to see the movie about Jandek. I currently have Off The Charts (about the song poem industry) from Netflix, and if I ever get over this cold I'll watch it.

Pete Bilderback said...

Also, one of these days I am going to post on why I think people enjoy Daniel Johnston, song-poems, The Kids at Widney High, and other "outsider" music. I think the "it's obnoxious hipsters laughing at those less fortunate" explanation misses the mark by being both too facile and extremely uncharitable.