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From the Inside, Honoring the Outside

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Ben Tausig spoke with noted eccentromusicologist Irwin Chusid, who recently released the second volume of the Songs in The Key of Z series. This series documents "the curious universe of outsider music," where strange and heartfelt sounds rise above the din of musical predictability. But there is more to the concept of "outsider music" than meets the eye. . .

From the Inside, Honoring the Outside

“Outsider music” is an inversion of the familiar system of musical appreciation, an ideological statement that uniqueness of artistry and personal expression are more important than being able to play one’s instrument “right” (read: as it is considered acceptable to play it). If it is in fact a genre, it nonetheless flows upriver by possessing no cultural or geographical roots and seeking no internal definition. Outsider music is discovered and disseminated by insiders.

The demand for outsider music is a reflection perhaps of a growing concern that musical innocence, and along with it unfettered passion, are lost amongst today’s creative communities, which demand conformity, market-researched blandness, or stylish posturing for success. Those who put their faith in outsider music believe that only by listening to musicians who are unconcerned with or unaware of how to sell albums and accrue social capital can we hear pure creative output. Much like outsider visual art, outsider music has become somewhat of a codified genre with its own rules, individual legends, and controversies, though all of these things are discussed externally and not by the musicians themselves. Since the late 90’s, this process has largely been arbitrated by one person: WFMU DJ and well-known eccentromusicologist Irwin Chusid, who has written a book, maintained a website ( www.keyofz.com ), and compiled two CD volumes called Songs in the Key of Z. Though by no means the first or only figure to give outsider musicians a wider audience, Chusid’s work stands as fundamental in the narrative. The Key of Z series has been a veritable bible of outsider music, and the recently released second volume of the CD series continues the trend with some of the most unusual, funny, and fascinating songs anywhere. Chusid has been with WFMU since 1975, hosting the Incorrect Music Hour - a program similar in focus to the Key of Z material - for the past 4.5 years. Supplemented by his input, this essay explains the concept of outsider music, both musically and theoretically. Keep your mind and your ears open.

As Chusid’s book (hereafter referred to as Key of Z) explains, outsider music is created by those who for a variety of reasons compose and perform on the periphery of the music industry or society in general. Like all music, the boundaries of who is and is not an outsider are relatively fluid and subject to personal inference. But in general, these artists are infinitely more likely to be your grandmother or the mailman than four twenty-eight year old boys sporting mesh hats. The best-known example of an outsider group was the earnest New Hampshire trio the Shaggs, three teenage sisters who, prompted by their zealous father, formed a band and recorded an album in 1969. That album, called Philosophy of the World, has long since become legendary in underground rock circles for its remarkable honesty and signature style, and if you’ve heard it you’re unlikely to ever forget it. Subsequent groups like the Galaxie 500 have followed directly in their footsteps. Chusid features the Shaggs both in Key of Z and Songs in the Key of Z, Volume 1, along with other quasi-household names like Tiny Tim, Captain Beefheart, Wesley Willis, and Daniel Johnston.

In contrast, Volume 2 features an exclusive roster of unknown names. From the Space Lady’s dreamy street performance of the psychedelic classic “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)” to the bizarre a-cappella burlesque “Curly Toes” (sung by an unknown singer), most of these songs have reached the narrowest of audiences until now. But according to Chusid, “I hadn't intended any ‘conceptual’ difference between volumes, but having tossed a few deserving ‘marquee’ names on Volume 1 – Tiny Tim, [Joe] Meek, Beefheart – I felt no such obligation on Volume 2. In the final analysis, these are just more artists whose work I wanted to call to the attention of outsider music fans. But perhaps I no longer felt compelled to make a ‘case’ for outsider music by throwing familiar names in the mix, so Volume 2 might be slightly more daredevil. But let me state with certainty – if it needs to be said – that Volume 2 does NOT contain artists who weren't ‘good enough’ for Volume 1. I could compile ten volumes of equal merit. There's that much great material – and more noteworthy outsiders are being called to my attention every month.” But the difference between the two volumes highlights an important part of being an outsider musician – obscurity. The preference of most listeners when seeking outsider music is that the songs be like freshly unearthed artifacts, heretofore unknown to the rest of the world and available only at long last.

But obscurity, however important, is not the only criteria. In the introduction to Key of Z, Chusid suggests that the secret ingredient to being an outsider musician is a lack of self-awareness, a quality especially elusive because by definition it cannot be sought. The label of “outsider” can only be imposed on one by other people (insiders, really), and one is not allowed to fully understand his/her position as such or the jig is up. This is one of the central paradoxes and perhaps the most unbreakable rule. Much of outsider music’s appeal is in its distance from the jaded world of modern music (which if you are reading this you are fully implicated in), and the more proximate the outsider musician becomes to the inside, the less novel value the music possesses. This doesn’t mean that outsider artists can’t advance their art. But it does mean that they must remain, to a certain degree, unaware.

In a perfect world, everyone with an interest in outsider music would enjoy it for reasons similar to Chusid: the songs showcase intensely individual styles, have more long-term listening value than the flavor-of-the-month garage rock record, and are potentially more in touch with the artists’ real feelings than those written by self-conscious musicians. But for anyone who has ever attended a Wesley Willis concert or seen Tiny Tim perform on Laugh-In, there appears a clear contingency of listeners who hear outsider music as a farce or a freak-show. Chusid notes that “reactions vary. Some folks listen to this material and hear authenticity – they hear REAL, sometimes *flawed* musicians in all their glorious sincerity, as opposed to cosmetic music-by-A&R-committee. And, of course, many people can hear moments of true, if occasionally naive, genius beaming through the unusual sounds. Others consider it hopelessly goofball. When doing radio interviews for Volume 1, I got a few calls from ‘Morning Zoo’-type tag-teams who heard in this music an easy opportunity for piñata-bashing. On these programs I good-naturedly attempted to make the case for these recordings having genuine musical value, but more often than not I ended up being just a straight man. One radio program in – I think – Knoxville called twice and left messages for ‘the guy who has the world's worst record collection.’ I didn't bother returning their calls. They got the wrong guy.”

Of course, outsider music is funny, but it can be so without the “Morning Zoo-type” condescension. I laugh every time I hear B.J. Snowden sing the lyric “Ameeerica/ a place that is a home” on Volume 2. That song, “America,” is one of the sweetest I’ve ever heard. It is passionate in spite of its flaws, and the singer projects a rare warmth. Chusid says “The one characteristic that seems endemic to outsider music and which is not generally present in, say, outsider painting, sculpture and sketching, is that some outsider music is more inherently, if unintentionally, comical. This is undeniable, and I would never pretend to ignore this aspect. But laughter doesn't have to imply ridicule. Laughter is a natural impulse, and it occurs when we find something funny, when something makes us feel good, or when we discover something delightfully unfathomable.”

But much of the material on Volume 2 will evoke responses other than laughter. A number of songs, including the aforementioned “Curly Toes,” Tangela Tricoli's "Jet Lady,” Wayne’s “Deep Bosom Woman,” and Luie Luie’s “Touch of Light” reveal a bewildered sexuality which is fascinating and not infrequently haunting. Moreover, the anonymity of “Curly Toes” and the vagueness of the Jet Lady and Wayne (little is known about their lives or current whereabouts) contribute to a fractured sense of place. In a way, these songs are ghost stories, akin to looking at old photographs of people who you know were interesting but you can never know much about. Other songs, like Buddy Max’s soul-influenced spoken word piece “Birthmark Story,” will likely elicit smiling cringes when the climax of the epic tale is reached.

Outsider music, replete with contradictions when defined as a genre, is most enjoyable when experienced personally. Reconciling whether the complex issues of outrephonics make the music an exercise in revelations of emotional depth or something else is ultimately up to the individual listener. Luckily, there are numerous opportunities to hear and read about outsider music. With a little effort, material by many of these artists can be purchased at garage sales or used record stores. Radio stations like WFMU often showcase outsider music, and Chusid has even curated live performances. This January 24th, B.J. Snowden, R. Stevie Moore, Thoth, and Bingo Gazingo (most of whom can be heard on Volume 2) will be performing in New York City during the Outsider Art Fair. If you’re interested in being exposed to something legitimately different, that isn’t even trying, something in the key of z may interest you.

By Ben Tausig

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