The Inside Out of Outsider Music
Bingo Gazingo Shooby Taylor, courtesy of Irwin Chusid
by Julie Cirelli-HeurichOn a Friday evening at the Bowery Poetry Club in downtown New York City, a former postal worker teeters to the stage for his regular 6PM gig, the bartender and a friend each taking an arm to ease him up the steps. A lone fan claps lazily from his folding chair for the hunched, wrinkled man in the ill-fitting suit.
"Psycho! PSYCHO! Wormy, squirmy, taxidermy... PSYCHO!" he roars, pointing a shaking finger skyward. His suit strains at the buttons and a bit of drool dribbles onto his pants.
His eyes are clenched shut. "J. Lo! You're so bueno!... Britney! I want to take off your shoes. Oh, Britney!" he shouts, referring to Ms. Spears. He pauses, then mumbles, "I've gotta get that last line. What will that last line be?"
With only the accompaniment of the microphone's reverb, the octogenarian embarks on a half-hour rant on whatever subject seems to interest him at the moment.
Bingo Gazingo, as he calls himself, could easily be taken for one of New York City's countless disenfranchised schizophrenics – but he is not mentally ill. He is quite lucid, just half deaf and plagued with the aching joints and slight discombobulation that commonly accompany old age. What sounds like the rant of a hallucinating lunatic is actually a carefully rehearsed act, a persona put on for the public (although the night that I watched him perform, I was one of three audience members).
"You gotta go over the top on some of the stuff so you get noticed," he said. "When you read poetry, read it loud... and wait for a miracle."
Playing music professionally is not an easy living. There are countless amateur musicians in circulation, and sometimes it seems that there is not enough space in the public arena for yet another celebrity. The odds against reaching stardom quadruple when you make music that does not fall easily into an established category.
But Bingo has achieved a very particular kind of notoriety. He, along with many others are part of the burgeoning genre of Outsider Music– the catchall anti-genre that claims any number of misfit, offbeat musicians from across the spectrum.
The term "Outsider Music" is relatively young. It was first coined by radio personality and music enthusiast Irwin Chusid in an article he wrote in 1996 for Pulse! Magazine. He described it as "a mutant strain of twisted pop that's so wrong it's right."
"Outsider music can be the product of damaged DNA, psychotic seizures or alien abduction; medical malpractice, incarceration or simple drug fry," Chusid wrote. "Or chalk it up to communal upbringing, demonic possession or bad beer."
But the term itself, "Outsider," has long been part of the vernacular of the contemporary art world, a universe with its own, tediously but clearly defined, inside (critics, aspiring art stars, dealers, collectors, etc.) and outside (everyone else). The outsider label is often applied to mentally ill artists sequestered away in institutions or attic rooms, who, with a dedication bordering on mania, chart, paint, draw, count and compile vast bodies of work without ever selling a canvas in Chelsea or having a write up in the New Yorker.
Typically, it is not until after the artist's death that his work is then summoned out into the light of the public eye, to be held on high and proclaimed a work of genius. "He is a visionary!" And, almost always, "his work is refreshing, authentic, real!"
This is because the Outsider, as critics will call him, is not a precocious graduate of this or that prestigious academic institution, fresh-faced and confident that his first solo show or performance will sell out. He is not melding so-and-so's style with such-and-such political bent, a winning combination calculated to please. He is operating on another plane, oblivious of the goings-on of the insular world of contemporary art. He is alone, other, outside.
But what happens when the term Outsider is divorced from its favored object, artist? Outsider has been applied to other mediums, including writing, film, and now music. In the past decade, critics have begun sprinkling their commentary with that savvy turn of phrase, implying with a wink and a nudge that they, dear reader, can tell the authentic from the contrived, the real from the fake. Easy categories are, after all, the playthings of the critic.
Ask a critic the formula for determining whether an artist or a musician is an outsider, and the critic will invariably say something along the lines of, "You just know." There is no formula.
The Genealogy of a Genre: What the Critics Say
The term was first coined in 1972 in a book called "Outsider Art," by Roger Cardinal, though the concept of the "other" itself in art had existed since the 1920s under various rubrics – folk art, visionary art, art brut and raw art.
In the early 1920's, a doctor at a Swiss asylum documented the work of one of his patients, the now-celebrated Outsider artist Adolf Wolfli. Another doctor, Hans Prinzhorn, published a book, Bildernerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill) in 1922. This book documented the work of thousands of mentally ill patients – and a fascination was born.
"He noticed that these people were creating art and it was very, very strange, and very different, and very original, and very deranged ... and scary in some cases," Irwin Chusid said.
Quietly quippish, Chusid is one of a breed of manic record collectors who can be found ferreting around in discount bins and flea markets, digging up unlikely rarities and blowing dust off 99-cent records.
"For a lot of years there has been attention paid to sculpture, landscaping, film and literature made by people who just seemed not quite connected to reality," he said. "For some reason, 'Outsider' had never been used to modify music. I don't know why. In retrospect it's a no-brainer."
In the late 1990s, around the time that Chusid first cooked up the phrase Outsider Music (later deciding who belonged to the genre), he was the host of a weekly radio program on WFMU, Jersey City's alternative radio station, called "Atrocious Music." The show was a satirical hour of the worst, most unlistenable music in Chusid's collection.
"I started out in the 1950s and 1960s collecting novelty records – records that were intended to be funny, that were kind of goofy and wacko," he said. "But after a while, all that stuff wore kind of thin. I had discovered this other form of music that was unintentionally funny, unintentionally weird. They weren't trying to be strange or trying to make people laugh. It was music that was seriously flawed, but in an exceptional way and in a fascinating way."
The "Atrocious Music" show featured humorous "found" tracks by singing celebrities like Joey Bishop from the Rat Pack, Jack Webb of "Dragnet" fame, comedienne Phyllis Diller, Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner (AKA Dr. Spock and Captain Kirk) – people who, as Chusid said, "should have known better" – as well as singing children, religious zealots, über-patriots, high school bands, and a smattering of tunes by musicians now considered Outsiders.
The show was on the air for seven years, until Chusid had an experience that changed the way he felt about the music he played. On a trip to Los Angeles, he met one of the musicians regularly featured on the "Atrocious Music" hour: Lucia Pamela, a singer/songwriter who was then in her late eighties.
Pamela's recordings chronicled what she called her "adventures in space travel" – in particular, her frequent trips to the moon. She insisted her albums were all recorded in outer space and blamed her unusual acoustics on the moon's thin atmosphere.
"There's something very childlike about her," Chusid said. "But clearly she's spent a very rich life. She's entertained orphanages and U.S.O. shows, and supposedly played for a president; she was married three times – I mean she really had a colorful life. I remember thinking, 'God, I hope she never finds out I played her on a show called 'Atrocious Music.'"
Chusid immediately changed the name of his program from the "Atrocious Music" hour to the "Incorrect Music" hour. "It didn't imply anything bad," he said. "I just began to realize that I need to respect these people a bit more... I need to respect them, period. And deal with them on their own terms, rather than dealing with them as a zookeeper. Let people get out of it whatever they want. Because there's some people who hear this and feel that it's the perfect antidote to cosmetic pop, because it's real – it's so from the heart. It's soul music."
David Grubbs, professor of Radio and Sound Art at Brooklyn College, CUNY, credits the surge in technological advances over the last two decades to the popularity of musicians who would otherwise be cut off and disconnected from the greater population.
"Technology is the gateway of accessibility: of liking, hearing and owning," he told an audience at a recent panel called "Outside In" at Oliver Kamm/5BE Gallery in New York.
Accessibility, Grubbs explained, has two meanings: one is stylistic accessibility – whether something is listenable or easy to digest. The other is more literally described as "what you can get your hands on or hear." The Internet has borne the latter.
Poet and cultural critic Wayne Koestenbaum, speaking on the same panel, explained that, contrary to popular opinion, "it is a fiction that technology brings more 'moreness.'" Rather, he explained, "it is a gateway into becoming more public," creating a space for "the new professional amateur."
But many criticize this seemingly willy-nilly granting of Outsider status. "Sadly we find today that many use the term in the loosest way, to refer to almost any untrained artist," wrote Raw Art, a publication dedicated solely to Outsider Art. "It is simply not enough to be untrained, clumsy or naïve... the definition has undoubtedly become obscured by chronic mis-use since its introduction in 1972."
Experimental record label Tzadik Records, operated by the avant-garde composer cum music producer John Zorn, puts out albums by musicians who are too bizarre even to fall under the rubrics of "experimental" or "avant-garde." They include musicians like Buckethead, who always wears a white mask and an empty fried chicken bucket on his head in public (because a chicken scratched his face off, he said) and Ken Butler, who constructs his own instruments out of every possible household item, including rakes, golf clubs, rubber bands, flash lights, telephones and shotguns. The sheer unlikelihood that one could possible play such objects contributes to Butler's appeal.
But Zorn does not refer to the musicians he produces as Outsiders, a term he feels is trite and reductive. He categorizes his musicians as "Lunatics."
"The terms 'Lunatic' and 'Outsider' are derogatory in a way," Zorn said. "The one thing they want is to be insiders."
After all, Outsider is by its nature defined from without. The paradox is this: if a musician calls himself an Outsider, he undermines his authenticity and betrays his market savvy. He is not, therefore, an Outsider. In this way, only a critic can decide who is granted Outsider status.
What ingredients make up an Outsider Musician? The ideal candidate would be mentally ill or emotionally damaged, abusive and evasive, passionate and volatile. He would be entirely self-taught, having never taken a formal music lesson (it would be helpful if he had never heard another piece of music, period). Most important, the music would sound like nothing else, would elude categorization…would stump a listener.
These qualities are perfectly encapsulated in the personality of Larry "Wildman" Fisher, the manic depressive, paranoid schizophrenic who in the 1960s would stand on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, begging strangers to trade a dime for a quick song. Frank Zappa discovered him there as he stood panhandling and offered to cut an album with him.
Many of the accounts of Fisher's life have devolved into legend over the years. Chusid recounted the experience of Dennis Eichhorn, who in 1971 invited Fisher to play a concert in his hometown of Spokane, Washington. According to Irwin, Fisher stayed for several weeks, living in Eichhorn's living room. As the story goes, there was one occasion when Fisher had gone into town for lunch. After being denied the use of the bathroom in a local fast-food restaurant, he went door to door, hoping to find a "fan" that would let him use the bathroom.
"A local resident named Dave — not a fan but someone who recognized Fisher from a concert poster — charitably acceded to the request," Chusid wrote. When Fisher did not return from the bathroom after 45 minutes, Dave went upstairs to check on him —only to find that Fisher had "unload[ed] a steaming heap in a clothes closet."
Apparently unfazed, and "realizing a 'celebrity' had squatted and dumped in his home, Dave sprayed the pile with polyurethane and charged friends admission to view the shrine."
For every musician that fits perfectly into the category Outsider, there is another that has been stuffed there against her will. Ask B.J. Snowden. The fact that she has been playing piano since she was 3 years old and has a degree in applied music composition from Berklee College of Music in Boston (the same institution to graduate such august pop stars as Melissa Etheridge and Aimee Mann) should disqualify her from Outsider-dom. She's even recorded an album produced by Fred Schneider of the B-52s.
Yet Snowden's name repeatedly comes up under the moniker Outsider Musician.
"I don't fit the stereotype," she said. "Because I'm a black woman I'm supposed to do rhythm and blues or jazz."
Instead, Snowden plays infectious pop tunes that sometimes waver in and out of key. She is charming, talkative, child-like and eager, which comes across despite imperfections in her arrangements.
All visionaries in art and in music have at one point or another stumped critics, scandalized audiences, been mislabeled and misunderstood. It is the great cliché of the arts, and the great cliché of the life of Shooby Taylor, a self-proclaimed scat singer whose only moment in the spotlight came from being booed off the stage at Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. His yodels and hollers are some of the most unusual ever recorded – he taped dozens of home recordings of himself yelping and hooting feverishly, but eventually died in a New Jersey nursing home without reaching the stardom he hoped for.
Then there is Jack Madurian, discovered in a nursing home by the musical curator David Greenberger, who has been recording residents of nursing homes since 1979. Madurian would sing for hours on end; one song would flow into another until nurses would finally have to quiet him. Madurian would improvise lyrics he couldn't remember, hell bent on singing without pause.
The result is an eerie, hauntingly recognizable non-melody more reminiscent of a spiritual chant than captured Americana.
"It had an everyman sensibility," Greenberger said. "He would sing partial songs. He would know the title of a song and just 'la-la-la' through the rest of it."
Greenberger met Madurian while he was recording contestants in a talent show he organized in the Duplex Nursing Home outside of Boston in 1979. "It was so compelling, the next time I saw him I challenged him to sing for 45 minutes straight – and he did it."
Greenberger draws a distinction between the recordings he has made and those of most musicians. "These aren't people who are trying to make an album," he said. "They aren't people who are trying to find stardom. They aren't trying to put their fingers to the pulse." Madurian and the other nursing home residents on Greenberger's recordings aren't angling for fame, he said. They are simply trying to communicate with others. What they are doing may intersect with Outsider Music – a term Greenberger said is murky – but ultimately they are singing and performing for the joy of it.
The Shaggs, often touted as the quintessential Outsider group, was a 1960's rock band composed of three sisters from New Hampshire. Though self-taught, these girls were far from being mentally deranged or the product of a bad drug experience. They formed a band after their father had a vision that his daughters would someday be a popular rock group. Though none of the sisters was particularly musically inclined, he bought them instruments and gave them music lessons, forcing them to practice and perform.
The results were both charming and tragic. Chusid wrote in his book Songs in the Key of Z that throughout the girls' performances, "hacked-at chords, missed downbeats, out-of-socket transitions, blown accents, and accidental convergences abound."
The Shaggs' first of two professionally recorded albums, Philosophy of the World, was heralded as one of "the worst albums of all time." But it has developed quite a following.
According to Chusid, it was one of Frank Zappa's favorite records, and was ranked as one of Rolling Stone's "100 Most Influential Alternative Releases of All Time" in 1996.
"They are trying as hard as they can, and there is something so joyous in it," Greenberger said. "They sing about being nice to each other and about their pets. It is so out of step with rock and roll. If they were just playing in weird time meters, it wouldn't connect with people. What it comes down to is sincerity."
The antithesis of the Shaggs, Greenberger said, is American Idol. "They do a lot of showy things – it's just artifice, because they don't feel comfortable."
German Beatles fanatic Klaus Beyer is about as famous as an impersonator could hope to be. By day, he works in a candle factory in Berlin, for hours threading long strings of wax through a massive metal disc, cutting each by hand on a table saw to produce endless blunt tubes. He eats the same three meals every day: two sandwiches and a mug of coffee prepared by his mother for breakfast, two more for lunch, and then on to mom's for dinner. He is 55 years old, and has followed this routine for 30 years.
But by night, Klaus becomes the fifth member of the Fab Four. He records himself singing German translations of Beatles songs, karaoke-style, over clips of the original music, performing to packed houses all over Germany and releasing a Beatles cover album every year.
When he runs out, he plans to start on cover albums of each member's solo work. Next up will be Paul McCartney's Wings-era material.
Klaus does all of his own album cover work, penciling in his own portly, smiling self into group photos of the band. He also makes music videos of each song, illustrating the "yellow submarine" with stop action super 8. His films are shown in art house cinemas across Berlin, and he often tours Germany, selling out 100+ capacity venues. A miracle by Outsider standards.
Susan Dietrich, known in Boston as "The Space Lady," spent 20 years hiding from the government, supporting her husband and 3 children by performing on subway platforms around the city. Her husband had dodged the draft during the Vietnam War, and the couple lived, as she puts it, like "political exiles living like refugees in their own country," long after all such demonstrators had been pardoned by President Carter in 1977.
Like Beyer, Susan was largely a cover artist, playing mostly radio hits with "space" themes. Her wispy voice, threaded through an echo machine and accompanied by an accordion and later by a toy-like Casio keyboard, was coupled with street costumes of blinking plastic daisies or a winged helmet lit up by a red ball.
Such costumes were adopted at the insistence of Susan's husband Joel, as an attention-grabbing measure intended to raise money. Like Bingo's haunted rhymes, Susan's flashy persona conceals a deep shyness overcome out of necessity to her family.
"I think most people didn't realize we were subsisting exclusively on the daily contributions placed in my tip box, and were often homeless and living out of our car," she explained.
Susan gave birth to all three of her children in secret at home and home-schooled them at her common-law husband's insistence that they not become "indoctrinated." She chose to "drop out" rather than participate in a society she said is governed by fascists. Now in her late fifties, Susan has made a life of resisting mainstream culture, at one point even living in hiding in caves on Mt. Shasta, Calif. For her, being labeled as an Outsider is validating, not patronizing.
"It helps to have a good sense of humor about oneself," she said. "I've always been an outsider, and I'm comfortable with it."
Anonymously Outside: Found Recordings
But Outsider status is not only ascribed to individual musicians – the term can refer to isolated songs as well. When producers compile such songs into themed groups, they tend to cull the best – which often means "worst" – amateur recordings by mostly anonymous musicians – such as song poems, school band recordings and similar one-offs. These records comprise the grey area between Outsider Music and Dr. Demento-type novelty and humor acts.
For Erik Lindgren, who operates Arf! Arf! Records – a label known for recording Outsiders and producing such compilations – there is a fine line between novelty music and Outsider music.
"Novelty music is calculated to be funny," he said. "Outsider Music – you play it and you scratch your head and go, 'What was that?'"
Arf! Arf! Records has produced records considered classics in the genre. Its albums "Only in America" Parts 1 and 2 are compilations of songs by amateur musicians from the 60s – an era that Lindgren said was a prime time for Outsider Music.
"The '60's was a time when the world went day-glo and there was a sociological upheaval," he said. The proliferation of LSD and the tide of social movements at the time inspired some interesting tracks, including one called "The Vacuum," a tune that featured a jarring, 30-second "vacuum solo" smack in the middle of the song. Another, called "Chicago Policeman," was sung from the point of view of a police officer during the 1968 Democratic Convention riots.
"This was when the police were brutal," Lindgren said. "They were beating protesters. But the song is the most bouncy ditty! Somebody lost their mind."
Another compilation is "Ooh Ooh Aah," an album of songs inspired by the overtly erotic collaboration by Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, "Je T'Aime... Moi Non Plus," an international 1969 hit that featured Birkin's breathy sighs.
"Through the whole song, this guy and girl are getting it on," Lindgren said. "All of a sudden, everybody and their brother would be making orgasm songs."
But, he said, after listening to several songs of this bent, the record smacks more of absurdity than eroticism, and the entire thing just feels ridiculous. Lindgren has produced some bona fide Outsiders as well, like Chusid's muse Lucia Pamela as well as Jack Madurian.
By recording music that is too different – to alien – for a mainstream audience, producers like Lindgren, archivists like Greenberger, and critics like Chusid are compiling rare treasures for posterity, for better or for worse.
For some, being called an Outsider has brought attention to music that might otherwise fade into the silent oblivion of history. They are grateful for even an iota of fame, in whatever form that fame comes. For others, Outsider is a flimsy euphemism for mentally ill, atrocious, or just plain bad. At best, it is patronizing, at worst, derogatory – as many labels and categories are wont to be.
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