on May 25, 2004
If you want to read about Aerosmith, you pick up a copy of Billboard. Johnny Cash? Try any issue of Rolling Stone. Or if it's Justin Timberlake you're looking for, there's a plethora of materials on any Bargain Basement book table.
But what if you're in search of information on someone like, say, Wesley Willis (the rotund, schizophrenic lyricist behind such melodies as "I Kicked The Mighty Thor's Ass" and "Rock 'N' Roll McDonald's")? Or his low-key counterpart, Daniel Johnston (of "Walking the Cow" fame)? How about the songstress behind "In Canada," B.J. Snowden?
In that case, have you even heard of any of these artists? Irwin Chusid, the author of Songs in the Key of Z, thinks that you should.
Each of the artists profiled in this unique book qualifies as an "Outsider Musician" in the sense that they never fit into the genre of Popular Music - and in all likelihood, never will. Each artist, inspired by "damaged DNA, alien abduction, drug fry, demonic possession, or simply sheer obliviousness," is sincere in his or her own version of sonic expression. And to be sure, they each have back histories far more intriguing than anyone in the common musical market.
Chusid hasn't compiled a catch-all discography of virtual unknowns with this book. The very definition of "outsider musician" prevents one from knowing all of the musical miscreants out there. And yet, by his diverse selection, the reader feels a certain intimate involvement with the subjects detailed within. From the unknown recluse Jandek to the decline of Tiny Tim and Syd Barrett, Key of Z never fails to provide.
The book's single downfalling is the somewhat dated nature of the material contained therein. Yet, Chusid has provided a Website which provides follow-up information (especially touching are the journal entries on the rediscovery of William "Shooby" Taylor, the "Scat man," by Chusid in 2002).
With two companion CDs (to be had independently of the book), Songs in the Key of Z provides a personal, often intense, look into the lives of people whom otherwise you'd likely never hear of. This book is brimming with humanity and raw talent, unfettered by formal training of any kind.
on May 6, 2002
This book is truly a rarity. Chusid vividly tells the tales of the most incompetant, inept musicians in history with a genuine love and affection that makes this book a true joy to read. It may be my very favorite book of all time.
The concept of "outsider music" is one that I have embraced for years. While I don't deny liking some classical music and traditional album rock (Dire Straits, Lynyrd Skynyrd, etc.), I have always had a place in my heart for the struggling artists that just don't seem to (and never will) get it (like The Shaggs), others that DO get it, they just mock the norm (Brave Combo, PDQ Bach, etc.) and that peculiar group that are seemingly from Mars (Jandek, The Legendary Stardust Cowboy), that possibly get it, but are a so far beyond the norm that nobody pays attention to them.
This book is an unabashed celebration of ineptitude and (seeming) insanity. It is not to be missed, but when purchasing please make sure to buy the CD as well so you can grasp what he is talking about. Of particular note is the section on the famous MSR Song-Poems (where you send them $100 and your lyrics and they record your song) which, to me is the ultimate in outsider music.
I couldn't put it down. I can't recommend it strongly enough. Buy this book. Do it now!
on September 19, 2000
Irwin Chusid's first book is an extremely entertaining, inspiring, and well-deserved tribute to an assorted cast of musical curiosities. More than just weird songsmiths, and certainly way beyond alternative music, these artists defy description. Under the umbrella of 'outsider music' (coined by the author as the musical equivalent of outsider folk art), he offers up twenty intriguing examples for your consideration. Some of these individuals have already achieved a certain degree of fame (Capt. Beefheart, Syd Barrett, Tiny Tim), and some have gained notoriety through the underground community (Wesley Willis, Daniel Johnston, B.J. Snowden, Wild Man Fischer). Some may have been unlucky geniuses (Harry Partch, Robert Graettinger, Joe Meek), and some have stories that remain unresolved, with only the recordings left to speak for themselves (Jandek, Shooby Taylor, Jack Mudurian). All of them, however, share unquestionable sincerity and originality when it comes to their skewed takes on popular music forms. What separates them from other pop oddities like Frank Zappa, the Residents, or Barnes & Barnes is a lack of self-awareness in their work. They don't aim to be weird, but the end result inevitably gets received that way. Although he writes with a healthy dose of humor, he also displays a large amount of respect for them. Fans of way-out sounds may recognize Chusid's name. He's been shining spotlights on fringe music for years, penning liner notes and producing compilations for both Esquivel and Raymond Scott (he's also the director of the Raymond Scott Archives), as well as co-hosting the "Incorrect Music Hour" on the legendary free-form radio station WFMU in New Jersey. This wonderful book is by no means a comprehensive look at any of these names, but merely a well-written sampler that will hopefully inspire you to find out more. Closing out the book, there's a section of artists' discographies to provide an idea of what's out there (and you can marvel at the vast self-released output of Jandek, Johnston, and Willis), and a bibliography featuring plenty of sources for the intrigued reader to do further research (both in print and on the Internet). A fantastic companion CD is also available, featuring tracks by many of this book's subjects (which is highly recommended, in order to fully appreciate what they do).
on July 7, 2000
"- As regards the Outsider, the question -- never asked directly, but always to a third party -- is: "What were they.thinking?" - Irwin Chusid
Well, in the case of Harry Partch, perhaps we can know by wading through his massive tome on micro-tunings. But even that book is kind of weird.
So what makes The Shaggs, Joe Meek & the lovely Lucia Pamela so dear to our hearts? What compels us to stare at Jandek's fuzzy black & white album covers? What the heck is a "Neon Meate Dream Of A Octafish?"
Irwin has genuine affection for outsider music & art. He practically defined the genre on his WFMU radio programs. It's a massive subject, sure to be turned into coded babble as the academics get hold of it. But Irwin is not only an expert; he's a fan, too. His pleasure here isn't to be complete & definitive, but to throw open the door to this beautiful, intriguing & awful stuff & give you what you need to wander around outside on your own.
Clearly written (Irwin's a fine writer), loaded with cool pix, entertaining, amusing, even a little unnerving: You & I share the world with these oddballs; perhaps they .. is us! I wonder if that's Irwin's subtext?
Irwin has also compiled a CD soundtrack for "Songs in the Key of Z." Get that, too, so you can scat along with Shooby Taylor, the Human Horn.
on May 11, 2000
This is a nifty volume, not really definitive on any of its subjects, but a great introduction to some over-looked (and some would say over-rated) musicians. Whether or not you like Jandek, Daniel Johnston, etc., you'll find plenty to be captivated in their stories, which are laid out here eloquently and with a nice dash of humor. Great job, and a great read!