Same question arises when Shooby Taylor the Human Horn, a man who showed up in a NYC recording studio in the early '80s, recorded the most delightful and whacked-out scat singing over other people's LP tracks and then disappeared. Same with Arcesia, a one-time Rhode Island big band crooner who hit California in the late '60s, apparently discovered the possibilities of modern chemistry and recorded one very rare LP of nearly hysterical musings without quite shaking his old style. Jaws have been dropping ever since.
These are just the tip of an iceberg that will forever remain hidden. The world is crawling with such inept-though-sincere musicians and more-competent-but-less-fathomable artists, though their dim visibility in a media-saturated age can make even the most obscure indie rock band seem like superstars by comparison. Now Irwin Chusid -- the man who sparked the Raymond Scott and Esquivel revivals -- has both written a book on the subject and produced a companion CD, Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music (A Capella Books; Which? Records, respectively). For these unusual artists, Chusid adopts the loose designation of "outsider music," based on the art world concept of outsider art (also called art brut, self-taught art and naive art). The book includes 20 full-length profiles, a section of numerous "snapshots" and a list for further research (including Atlanta's own DQE). The CD's 20 tracks actually stand up to repeated listenings, evidence that these are not mere novelty recordings.
There's a potential for condescension or hip smugness with the subject of Songs in the Key of Z, which Chusid avoids because he's not pushing the "so bad it's good" attitude that mars much of the related field of psychotronic film. Even less is he insisting that all of these musicians are undiscovered geniuses (though some actually are). Chusid is upfront that he's not too fond of the work of the rattled and repetitive Wesley Willis or depressive guitar-strummer Jandek ("Did someone say 'rock and roll'?" he writes, "Jandek's neither 'rock' nor 'roll.' He's not even 'and.'") He also deals head-on with the issue of whether this might be an exploitative freak show because at least five of the main profiles concern musicians with genuine mental illness. Surprisingly, high-profile books on outsider art mostly ignore this issue, even though they're often dealing with more seriously disturbed people. Chusid points out that these people enjoy making music and leaves it up to readers to decide for themselves.
So what's the appeal? The world is already full of bad music, right? And there's never a shortage of clumsy musicians as any trawl through dank clubs will prove. But outsider music is more than this. Eilart Pilarm is a Swedish Elvis impersonator who makes no attempt to look or even sound like Elvis; Peter Grudzien is a country and western singer, openly gay since the '60s, who believes he and Johnny Cash have been cloned by the government; Jack Mudurian was a nursing home resident who one dull afternoon recorded a 45-minute medley of almost a hundred pop and Tin Pan Alley classics.
When outsiders do penetrate the mainstream, confusion is the most common result. The Legendary Stardust Cowboy is remembered for the Billboard-charting "Paralyzed," unhinged dementia treated as a novelty song, but more indicative of the LSC's lifetime of sporadically documented music. Tiny Tim suffered a similar novelty treatment but was completely serious about his music -- the mark of a true outsider -- and a walking encyclopedia of forgotten early pop.
Some people might take issue with the inclusion of fairly high-profile artists such as Syd Barrett, Captain Beefheart and Harry Partch. But the question isn't whether they are genuinely "outsider" (a deliberately ambiguous designation in any case) but whether considering them in this context is fruitful. And clearly it is. Songs in the Key of Z, both book and CD, won't fail to amaze even the most jaded music fan; some might even get that rare, giddy feeling that there are entire new worlds awaiting exploration.
For more information, see www.keyofz.com. Irwin Chusid also co-hosts a radio show, Incorrect Music, archived at www.incorrectmusic.com.
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