Book review: Irwin Chusid’s Songs In The Key Of Z: The Curious Universe Of Outsider Music by Graham Johnston

This is indeed a curious universe, but its cosmological clockwork has finally fallen into place; or it has for me at least. I’ve been listening to this kind of stuff for years but never really knew what to call it, and at last I now know: it is the music of the outsider.

I remember when I was a teenager, a few friends were going on a trip around Europe. Finances had prevented me from going too so, as the next best thing, I recorded a tape for them to take my place. The tape would be so unusual that it would inevitably make an impression on the unwitting listeners and my ‘mark’ would be made all over their expedition. For the ego-centric inside me it was even better than actually being there. Hence 90 minutes of Ivor Cutler, Wildman Fischer, Dr Cough and their numerous peers were dragged around Europe for a month or so of travels. There was Robyn Hitchcock singing about a longed-for journey through the English monarch’s capillaries, a version of “Up Up And Away In My Beautiful Balloon” played on a haphazardly tuned sitar, some gentrified fop called Sir Lancelot advising prudent men to marry ugly women and, naturally, King Missile with their wonder-drenched paean to the ultimate hipness of the Holy Spirit, “Jesus Was Way Cool”. After they got back I learned that this tape had made such an impression that it had been played virtually non-stop. It had even been foisted upon everyone they met along the way, giving unknown quantities of continental folks a taste of something very strange indeed.

Irwin Chusid has given us a taste of music often even stranger in his book and its companion CD (available separately) of the real thing in incredibly strange / outsider music, both of which are a delight to dip into, albeit an occasionally disturbing one. In his introduction he welcomes us to “a mutant strain of twisted sonic art that’s so wrong it’s right.” Indeed it often is.

Songs In The Key Of Z covers a disparate range of artists, with one characteristic in common: a lack of self-consciousness. This is the key ingredient which separates the work of true outsiders from the more consciously irregular work of musicians such as the above named King Missile and Robyn Hitchcock or Half Japanese’s Jad Fair. Thus, the collection covers musicians as dissimilar as the visionary Captain Beefheart who broke new boundaries in experimental rock music and the mentally unstable nursing home resident Jack Mudurian who simply did what he did because he wanted to and why in hell not?

I believe the urge that drove Swedish Elvis impersonator, Eilert Pilarm, into a recording studio is similar to the urge that compels me to stand naked on the first floor balcony of my flat next to a busy crossroads in the centre of Brighton, with Tom Waits’ version of “Silent Night” booming out around me at foundation-shaking volume on a hot July evening such as this one. Sometimes there is just something inside of you which you have to get out, regardless of whether the audience are going to applaud enthusiastically, laugh in derision, or call the police to have you arrested as an indecently exposed public nuisance. The significant difference, however, is that my self-consciousness stops me from doing so, whereas Pilarm has recorded two albums of Elvis covers, which, regardless of his own belief in his skills as an impersonator, don’t have the faintest whiff of Elvisness about them.

Chusid’s confident prose makes the music come alive and gives us an insight into not only what made the music so distinctive (“Dogs liked Tiny Tim’s high notes; ships lost in the fog sought harbour in the low ones”), but also reveals something unique about the creators. Possibly the most engaging chapter is the one about Shooby Taylor, a scat-singing unknown who recorded just 14 tunes in the 1980s and promptly split for the obscurity from whence he came, now entirely unaware of his somewhat preternatural fame and also oblivious to his ability to count the likes of Tom Waits in his steadily growing number of fans. See for any news about the ongoing attempts to finally locate the ‘Human Horn’.

Many of these stories contain a considerable amount of tragedy: tales of self-loathing, psychological imbalance, public ridicule, and, in the case of Joe Meek, murder and suicide. Prior to reading this book I had no idea about the extent of the psychological problems faced by Daniel Johnston whose chapter opens with the quote “I’ve been treated cruelly at times because people think I’m a dork”. Johnston had achieved a degree of underground fame, winning the admiration of Kurt Cobain, Half Japanese, Yo La Tengo and the Butthole Surfers.

The centrepiece to Daniel Johnston’s anguished story is his trip to New York City to record with Sonic Youth, convinced he was standing on the brink of world-wide fame for his snappy and often eloquently moving lo-fi recordings documenting tales of fear, isolation, unrequited love and discomfort. However, Johnston had neglected to bring his proscribed medication along with him, and dosed himself up with LSD instead. His stay in New York saw him alienate everyone who had been so keen to help him get his music heard. Following an assault on Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth, a period of homelessness, occasional spells in jail, and the germination of the belief that Yoko Ono was desperate to meet him, he ended up in Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital. Chusid writes: “Eventually, the album project was shelved, as Daniel later ruefully acknowledged, “because they met me”.” Fortunately for Daniel, he’s managed to keep his troubled cognition relatively focussed in recent years, and his latest album, Rejection Unknown, is nothing short of a triumph.

Chusid, in recounting these tales, does not hide the fact that it is the deep unusualness of the subjects which make their stories and music so interesting for the purposes of his book. Occasionally this can almost seem to undermine the music itself. For example, in the chapter looking at Syd Barrett, the qualities of the music are often overlooked to focus on the psyche and mental-stability of the one-time “insider’s” descent into becoming rock’s most famous outsider. This is a rare example of a minor short-coming of this rabidly entertaining book, however, and is possibly prompted by the author’s correct assumption that most of us already know Syd’s music anyway. The life and music of the lesser-known musicians are often sensitively outlined in a way which leaves the reader curious to find out more and immerse themselves in the world of the outsider.

And we don’t have that far to look to do so, since the tie-in CD release, also called Songs In The Key Of Z features 20 tunes by artists covered in the book. And a rum bunch they are too, ranging from the laugh-out-loud-funny, through the really-quite-pleasant-actually, to the-get-this-off-NOW! And I’d be very surprised and disappointed if it was any other way. The CD highlights the huge range of approaches and intent of the outsider musicians in a way that the book could not. Suddenly we realise that Jack Mudurian really is an institutionalised patient who happens to have memorised all kinds of forgotten tunes to recite them to anyone unfortunate enough to have ears. Having learned this we can wish him all the best and solemnly vow never to listen to his music again. Other tunes on here have already had me scouring second hand record shops and online auctions for more of their material. In particular, the following tunes really should be heard:

  • Shooby Taylor, whose gloriously ridiculous scat has produced near hysterics and startled exclamations of “what the fuck?” from everyone I’ve played it to. Respect is assuredly due.
  • Luie Luie, whose self belief would make the Gallagher brothers in their prime look like retiring paragons of modesty. Sounds like an archaic prototype for the Butthole Surfers.
  • Daniel Johnston, singing a beautiful little tune with a compelling childish simplicity. A highlight.
  • Arcesia who sounds like a Scott Walker impersonator who has psychically possessed Leonard Cohen and fed him all number of really bad drugs, leaving him stranded and confused wandering alone at night in a Magic Garden of his own making, singing about dead butterflies.
  • Lucia Pamela’s swinging story about a leisurely stroll on the moon, chatting to the various moon creatures she encounters such as the “Goonie Goon” who said “wowow owowowow wowowowow”. Top stuff.
  • Congress-Woman Malinda Jackson – I couldn’t even begin to tell you what this is about – deadly mosquitoes singing about their cousins, I think. According to the sleeve notes she says the word “cousin” 204 times in this 3 and a half minute song, and I will probably never know why.

On occasions the relish with which Chusid tells his story and with which I’ve lapped it up left me feeling more than a little guilty. The senior vice president of A&R at Rhino, Gary Stewart, comments about Wildman Fischer:

[wp_quote]”Frankly I feel a little bad about the whole thing,” he admitted. “Larry’s life has been tough. There’s extreme mental illness there. He was paranoid. He would go around saying, ‘This album could be the next Sgt. Pepper’s.’ If he saw you in public, he would follow you around. At the time we all thought this was hysterical. When you’re immersed in alternative, post-glitter, underground punk culture, there’s humour about certain things that aren’t actually funny. His song ‘I’m The Meany’ (from Wildmania) has a line about ‘She told me she was pregnant so I hit her in the stomach.’ During a period of nihilism, smart-assedness, and less morality, I used to think that was hilarious. But when you realise that stuff like that really happens, it’s not funny anymore.”[/wp_quote]

When you also realise that many of these people have had to cope with being laughed at (or much worse) throughout their non-careers, it also seems a hell of a lot less funny. Chusid recognises this and urges us to get over our guilt and just enjoy the music. Some of it is intentionally or harmlessly funny after all, and for every outsider who at some point has been a danger to his/herself or to others, there are more who seem to be having a damn good time, and this book never gets the two confused.

In short, the Songs In The Key Of Z book and CD are top slices of cracking entertainment. Sometimes riotously funny, frequently deeply moving and always compelling, it’s not to be missed. This is, after all is said and done, the only book ever to have given me sunburn, having spent far too long reading it in the sunshine today, unable to tear myself away.

– Graham Johnston

© – August 2000

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