by carl wilson

The Disappearance of the Outside?

irwin.jpg jackson.jpg
Becoming-insider, becoming-outsider: Chusid and the deposed King of Pop.

This week's column is one I've been wanting to write for a long time, on Irwin Chusid's project around the concept of "outsider music." Thanks to Helen Spitzer [typo corrected - sorry Helen!], Chusid was in Ontario this week and I finally got to hear him speak in person, at a gig at the fantastic Ford Plant in Brantford (run by "leader of a small town" Tim Ford), opening for the Republic of Safety. I don't mean to dismiss Chusid - I think he's done a valuable thing by spreading the word on a lot of fascinating amateur artists, and he's a charming fellow, and he put out Esquivel and Raymond Scott records - but I do think his approach is problematic. Consider this piece a bit of a sequel to the sincerity-wars posts of the past couple of days.

Freak show? Sure, like the rest of pop music

OVERTONES
By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Saturday, June 11, 2005

Perhaps it was the elderly Tiny Tim gripping his ukelele for dear life with a rictus grin in the video of a punk band doing a rowdy travesty of his 1960s hit Tiptoe Through the Tulips.

Maybe it was the late Shooby Taylor in 1983, in his sole attempt at bringing his singular hyper-scat-singing-in-tongues act to Amateur Night at the Apollo in Harlem, being booed and then chased off stage by the nasty house clown called the Sandman. (You could have seen it coming when the emcee asked about his nickname, "the Human Horn," and Shooby answered with an unwitting double entendre: "That's what I do - I blow me.")

But somewhere in Irwin Chusid's lecture with video clips, "outsider music" started to seem much less black-and-white than he painted it. [...]

A longtime broadcaster on free-form New Jersey radio station WFMU, Chusid has become the chief popularizer of outsider music, a category he defines in his 2000 book Songs in the Key of Z as music "so wrong it's right."

The book and its two companion CDs include the likes of Taylor, who taped himself bleating "swoop weeeep shap bloo" ecstatically over cuts by John Coltrane, Johnny Cash or even Mozart. There's the Cherry Sisters, the lousiest act in 19th-century vaudeville, and their 1960s counterparts, shambling family band the Shaggs (whose story has been optioned for a Hollywood movie). Maverick composers Harry Partch and Robert Graettinger join sixties casualties Joe Meek, Skip Spence and Syd Barrett (the founder of Pink Floyd).

There are recluses, such as prolific mumble-and-groan rocker Jandek, and dysfunctionals such as the hulking black schizophrenic Wesley Wills (I Whupped Batman's Ass) and the violent Texan manic-depressive and gifted pop writer Daniel Johnston (who prefers singing about Casper the Friendly Ghost).

Chusid has come under a lot of fire for lumping all these characters together: Is it just a freak show? Not long ago Robert Christgau of the Village Voice called him "a tedious ideologue with a hustle." I have my qualms too. So when Chusid went on a mini-tour of southwestern Ontario this week, I headed to the plucky Ford Plant indie-rock club in Brantford, where he was speaking, to find out for myself.

What I found was a greying, soft-spoken fellow laced with contradictions. Chusid admitted he got into the area for laughs in the 1980s, poking fun at weird records on his Atrocious Music show. But in 1991, he met one of his targets, outer-space-obsessed Lucia Pamela, who sang "like an inebriated Ethel Merman." Eccentric as she was, Pamela was sweet and sincere. Chusid reconsidered his attitude, softened his show's name to Incorrect Music and started to emphasize the music's earnest emotions instead of its weirdness.

He parallels outsider musicians with outsider artists such as Henry Darger, the Chicago janitor whose epic word-and-picture saga about an army of naked prepubescent girls (often with penises) in the "Realms of the Unreal" was discovered after his death.

In the art world, the differences between naive folk artists, mentally ill outsiders and the sophisticated avant-garde are a matter of intensive debate. But like his subjects, Chusid has no feel for professional rules -- he's a raconteur at heart. As attacks on the "outsider" label pile up, he seems more inclined to abandon it than to reconcile its flaws.

Like a bad anthropologist, Chusid blithely assumes his attentions are always in his subjects' best interest. But some musicians are upset to find themselves on Chusid's compilations. Unemployed New York music teacher B. J. Snowden, who sings a clumsily catchy tune about her love for Canada's provinces on Songs in the Key of Z Vol. 1, was appalled that everyone else on the disc was so terrible.

Chusid laughs: "Even among outsider musicians there's disagreement on the value of each other's work." But hold on -- there is no "among" here. These musicians all think they're normal, and they don't see what these other weirdos have to do with them. Would you want to be told you're endearingly awful?

He's right that listeners don't come to outsider music merely to mock. It can be moving in its starkness or delightful in its unpredictability. Laughter may be a defensive recognition of how it evokes your own private madness.

But Chusid's roots in record-geek collector culture show up in his celebration of obscurity as tantamount to a moral value. His idealization of outsiders as vessels of purity in a world of phonies is demeaning to everyone: It inadvertently implies that eccentrics are enslaved by drive, never making choices, while skilled musicians are caricatured conformists.

He's hardly alone. Lots of people now assume art is either hustle or pathology. Yet I kept thinking how little divides Chusid's pantheon of loonies from the celebrities he sneers at. After all, in pop culture, there are no standardized credentials the way there are in high art (and increasingly not there either). What's inside or out changes weekly.

As the Michael Jackson trial wraps up, the deposed King of Pop seems about as heavy a bundle of damaged goods as Wesley Willis or Henry Darger - his traumatized, twisted fantasy realm just happened to inspire million-selling albums.

Think of his hit songs: Ben was about his pet rat; Thriller about horror movies; Billie Jean a paranoid ramble about a paternity suit. He might as well have sung about Batman.

Growing up, my generation thought of the obese, reclusive Graceland Elvis as if he were an outsider artist -- which is pretty much how he got started.

And today indie-rock stars such as Cat Power, notorious for her on-stage panic attacks, or Will Oldham, fixated on bodily fluids and death, seem as lumpily idiosyncratic as any itinerant ranter. (Though they may be more fortunate in birth or fashionability.)

Every artist is ultimately self-taught; every person is a self-taught human. "Outsider music" is mainly a reminder that there is no getting out of it: We all blow "me."

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, June 11 at 3:11 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (13)

 

COMMENTS

for years i thought CP a bit of an idiot savant (esp. after interviewing her, yikes) but then i noticed how well she pulls her shit together for those photo shoots.

Posted by spitzer on June 15, 2005 11:23 AM

 

 

I like her sometimes. And sometimes I think she's b-o-r-i-n-g.

Posted by zoilus on June 14, 2005 11:08 PM

 

 

Well, JR's position is pretty clear, but Carl, what don't you like about Cat Power?

Having seen her live once a few years back, I'll never make that mistake again. But I sure do dig that last record, or most of it anyway.

Posted by DW on June 14, 2005 2:18 PM

 

 

Thanks, Carl. I understand better now why you brought up Jacko and Elvis, and hope I didn't come on too righteously indignant. And I'm sure you're right that it's unfair to lump in Oldham with Cat Power. (The truth is, I don't know his music nearly well enough to pass serious judgment, and am probably reacting to the sight of his beard more than anything.)

And, yes, you're right (and not at all too preachy) about artistic insiders being outsiders on some level. I do think Jackson is an instructive case, because he has the dignity to rise about his pain and, you know, sing, dance, thrill, deliver the goods -- to transmute his personal "outsiderness" into joy-bringing art. Whereas Cat Power and other indie rock sad-sacks aestheticize pain and distress in a way that I find distasteful.

Posted by Jody Rosen on June 14, 2005 6:09 AM

 

 

Well, I don't feel about Oldham as you do, Jody (and anybody who can write songs Johnny Cash wants to record has to be given at least a second thought on that score, whatever you think of his performances). Cat Power I am no defender of. But the reason to bring up Jackson is that Irwin includes in his outsider lists the likes of Captain Beefheart, or Harry Partch, who are deliberate and conscious creators of stuff that's by no means amateur, just like Jackson. The question becomes - wait, does this have to do with personal outsiderness, in which case Jackson and Elvis and similar human-car-wreck celebrities qualify, or does it have to do with musical outsiderness, in which case all "strange" music is in (and shouldn't be tarred with the brush of insanity), or does it just have to do with either of them, whenever it catches Irwin's fancy?

Also I bring Jackson up to say that many artistic insiders are outsiders on some level - and that wrenching human pain and complication isn't just felt and expressed by an outcast few, but is absolutely everywhere... And I actually think there's a lot at stake in remembering that, which I won't go on about lest I get even preachier.

All that said, your vigorous defences of showbiz values and musical polish are always a good balance to our klutzier impulses.

Posted by zoilus on June 14, 2005 12:57 AM

 

 

Thanks, Carl, for your usual keen thought, wit, and concision. I know I'm not the only one who's jealous of your prose chops.

I did want to write to register mild umbrage at your invoking of Michael Jackson, whose professionalism stands so clearly in contrast to the values and aesthetics of Irwin Chusid's unlistenable records, to say nothing of those mumbling, moaning frauds, Cat Power and Will Oldham. Jackson has always been, as you say, "damaged goods," but he's never put on anything less than a mind-blowing concert, or hit a bum note. Seems to me that rise of outsider music is symptomatic of a broader devaluing of pop music professionalism in the aftermath of punk, in particular by indie rockers. Pop stars like Michael have too much respect for their craft, and their vocation -- and their audience -- to indulge in that crap. I can buy a Chan Marshall-Wesley Willis comparison...but Michael Jackson? I mean, this guy is the supreme entertainer of his generation, the carrier of the No-Business-Like-Show-Business torch! Maybe he'll even make another good record now that he's not headed to the big house.

Posted by Jody Rosen on June 13, 2005 11:11 PM

 

 

Actually, I *do* sneer. Most recently (and privately) at the ubiquity of CNN TV in U.S. airport terminals. In fact, at the ubiquity of tubes in terminals PERIOD.

Also at writers like Christgau, whose "tedious ideologue" comment was so bizarrely gratifying that it was embraced and posted beneath my photo at:

http://www.wfmu.org/irwin/

> I very much appreciate your ability to listen to criticism
> with an open mind. That's a rare thing.

I enjoyed reading the column, which was thoughtful and well-reasoned.

Vis-a-vis your comments that my categorizations have "come under a lot of fire," and "as attacks on the 'outsider' label pile up" -- actually, there have been few attacks (outside of the Village Void*), and I'm entitled to more bashing. Your column helped to rectify that imbalance, albeit in an intelligent and civilized tone. When "attacks" do begin to "pile up," I'll tender my resignation and find some other project to get passionate about.

* Incidentally, the Christgau comment appeared in a review of the Langley Schools Music Project, which he gave a C-minus, with a "special annoyance" citation for 9-year-old Sheila's "Desperado." Maybe the man has CanCon issues.

Thanks again for the ink.

Best regards

Posted by Irwin Chusid on June 13, 2005 1:43 PM

 

 

Hi Irwin - I sent you this response by email as well: Thank you for your response to the column. And yes, I had regrets about the "sneer" sentence myself. I'm sorry for the phrasing - you're not the sort of person to sneer at anyone, I know. I should have put it more carefully. I very much appreciate your ability to listen to criticism with an open mind. That's a rare thing.

Posted by Zoilus on June 13, 2005 12:16 PM

 

 

Excellent column, Carl. Good points, and expressed articulately. Yes, I am a man who is "laced with contradictions," as is the genre of outsider music (and, in some ways, your column). In Key of Z, I put forth my definition of a musical category, and others are free to redefine it -- or reject it. As I say at every Key of Z video program (and in every interview), the phrase "outsider music" is, like all artistic categories, a journalistic and marketing convenience.

That larger-than-life celebs such as Elvis and Jacko can reflect "outsider" qualities is undeniable, as I made clear in my reference to Brian Wilson as someone who qualifies in countless respects.

In your final graf, you assert that "Every artist is ultimately self-taught; every person is a self-taught human. [T]here is no getting out of it: We all blow 'me'" (a reference to Shooby Taylor's clumsy verbal comeback). Your point is that we are all, in some ways, outsiders. I have professed the same sentiments at most Key of Z presentations and in interviews with journalists. (If I failed to mention it at the Ford Plant, it's only because my talks are not pre-scripted.)

However, I do object to your statement that I "sneer at celebrities." Particular ones, yes (who doesn't?), but as a general rule, never. I may not care for someone's art, but I respect commercial success. I don't subscribe to the default hipster assumption of vapidity on the part of those who succeed in the mainstream.

Cordially,

Posted by Irwin Chusid on June 13, 2005 9:39 AM

 

 

that's funny, because while we were driving chusid to brantford (down cheese factory road, which fascinated him) we were actually listening to the hoodoo gurus, but oddly no mention of tiny tim. and carl, spritzer is my mom's favourite drink. spitzer is the lady i love!
great to see you at the show dancing to RoS, the band that makes so many of my rock'n'roll dreams come true.
as for the column, i agree that greater distinctions should be made b/w the popular freaks and the unsung weirdoes. i was baffled by chusid's claim that brian wilson is the best known outsider artist--after all, isn't it impossible for the million-selling musical icon of all that is apple pie America to be an outsider? i mean sure, the guy's nuts, but there's nothing "incorrect" or unusual about his music (oh, but that's a whole other discussion)... likewise with MJ, who never gets pulled into these discussions (until now, thanks to you).
one of my favourite parts of chusid's book is when he argues that so much of what we now accept as conventions were once deemed unlistenable, dissonant and wrong... arguably, initial reactions to thelonious monk's cluster chords might have lumped him into "the outsiders." i think chusid's more on point when he's talking about driven, dedicated people who make baffling and often genius music that sounds like sacrilege to the rest of the world, not necessarily the mentally ill (i.e. wesley willis).
the most fascinating part of his talk was exactly what you touched upon, which was that these artists don't really understand why they're being talked about in this context and yes, even though i think chusid has best intentions, if the artists have any semblance of a sound mind they most likely do find it demeaning... a harsh word, but necessary. i don't know if daniel johnston ever grapples with that, but certainly bj snowden probably does.

Posted by barclay on June 13, 2005 9:00 AM

 

 

I saw Tiny Tim in Australia in '93 opening for Hoodoo Gurus. He'd done an album of rock covers such as "Highway to Hell" and "You Give Love a Bad Name". It wasn't so much outsiderish as it was surreal as it sounds.

Posted by Chris on June 12, 2005 10:10 PM

 

 

I'm sure it's a great column I don't get it as I'm in chicago but your blog is painfull to read as the quality of critical writing is so good it makes the rest of us bloggers look like dime store hacks. You write about music like a molecular engineer writes about the components of the atom. I guess that's what you get paid for though...keep up the good work and keep it real (serious).

also
http://www.songsillinoismp3.blogspot.com

Posted by Craig on June 12, 2005 2:44 PM

 

 

It's a great column, Carl, tidy and insightful. I like the end very much.

Posted by Sean on June 12, 2005 8:12 AM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson