Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Book Review: Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music

Songs In The Key Of Z: The Curious Universe Of Outsider Music
Irwin Chusid

I checked this book out of the library so many times over the years that I finally bought my own copy so I could finally underline all the intentionally and unintentionally hilarious bits, jaw-dropping anecdotes and biographical gems in this seriously weird account of music people so far out of the mainstream it makes your usual musical diet seem safe and bland by comparison. This is music, in the words of author Irwin Chusid, “so wrong - it’s right,” so “bad it’s even better.”

The musicians here aren’t underground or avant-garde, because those categories presuppose a high degree of self-awareness. They’re further out than that. Not better per se, just further out. They usually don’t want any part of the conventional—or even semi-conventional—musical world. They’re mostly untrained musically. They’re frequently mentally ill, though often they’re just very eccentric. In some ways, musical outsiders are the equivalent of outsider artists. The strains of wildness, scariness, innocence, childlike behavior and unself-consciousness that are common in outsider art are typical here, too.

There are chapters on relatively well-known artists (Syd Barrett, Tiny Tim), but almost all of the entries are on little-known or totally obscure musicians. Even with the two above, Chusid focuses on the non-limelight parts of their careers. All things considered, Captain Beefheart seems too popular a choice for such a book. That’s part of the fun, and frustration, of Chusid’s trying to stake out a new category – you argue with him. Chusid freely admits it’s maddeningly hard to define “outsider” at times, and we just had a century where it was the norm for artists to claim outsider status as a badge of pride. Still, though, most everyone here is, to put it cautiously, well and truly out there by any definition I can think of.

The Celebrated Cherry Sisters
Though there’s plenty of eccentricity, and even full-blown mental illness here, this isn’t really a disturbing book (though the cover is). On the contrary, there’s a lot of that innocence I mentioned earlier, as well as sincerity, even sweetness of a sort. Then there’s that priceless region where you don’t know if the artist is putting one over on you or not. There’s no better example of this than the Cherry Sisters. Forgotten today, they were the toast of Broadway during the turn of the 20th Century. Critics compared their voices to that of monkeys and said their, well, vocalizing was childish and ridiculous. Audiences yelled at them, and threw so much rotten vegetables that the Sisters had to work behind a screen. They were, in the words of one writer, a “strange mixture of Puritanism and exhibitionism.” One sister reportedly punched out an unsympathetic male journalist. But Oscar Hammerstein minted money with “IOWA’S FAMOUS SONGBIRDS.” Apparently, once the Cherry Sisters made it big, they apparently deliberately chose not to be forthright about why - or even whether - people hated them. Sadly, they never recorded. When they retired to a farm in Iowa, they wore men’s clothing, took up guns and bragged of never having been kissed, let alone married. I withhold comment.

EP released September 1959
Florence Foster Jenkins, who came not from the sticks but high society, had a similar career in the forties. After a traffic accident, she found she could hit amazingly high notes. Her pitch was once described as “non-existent.” She apparently never got vegetables thrown at her, probably because she played posh venues such as Carnegie Hall. You didn’t do that sort of thing there. What the audience did do was applaud and whistle so loudly that some of their numbers could laugh out loud and, it was hoped, not be heard by Florence. More polite ones would stuff handkerchiefs in their mouths.

Then there are the celebrities who should’ve known better. Just because William Shatner, Patty Duke and Telly Savalas had the clout to release well-distributed records doesn’t mean they should have.

Malinda Jackson Parker
By no means is everyone here risible. Far from it. There are very serious and highbrow musicians to be had; there’s an enormous range of musical styles included. I’m glad that Chusid included the endearing Congress-Woman Malinda Jackson Parker of Liberia. On the spinoff cd, also called Songs In The Key Of Z, she warns of the dangers of “Cousin Mosquito,” singing the word “ ‘cousin’ 204 times within the song’s three minutes and 27 seconds.” This isn’t tiresome, it’s plain charming. She’s a female Mister Rogers with great force and staccato. More than endearing, she’s lovable. This is one public service announcement I’ll never forget.

Did Alabama’s own outsider artist superstar Howard Finster also do outsider music? Who knew? It wasn’t a total surprise that there would be at least one native Alabamian in Chusid’s book. An outlier, eccentric state can’t help but produce beyond-the-rim musicians from time to time.

One minor complaint. On a few occasions, Chusid’s tone is clumsy. In trying to convey the oddness of the personages, he can exaggerate or even condescend, which is odd, because his overall thrust is to reveal the inherent value of the subjects. Their eccentricity is so articulate that it usually needs a restrained commentary.

Harry Partch
Not all of this music, I hope, will remain obscure forever. Tiny Tim got married on Carson in front of millions, but almost his entire career was in oblivion. If there’s any justice, this human encyclopedia of American popular song will one day be recognized as a national treasure. Harry Partch’s 43-tone scale and the instruments he built to go with it will always limit his appeal, or will it? You can, after all, play his music on conventional instruments, and Partch has gotten some well-deserved after-death recognition. The Shaggs made it into a Rolling Stone magazine poll of the most influential alternative rock musicians of all time. Most of Wild Man Fischer’s output is out of print, but that doesn’t mean some of it isn’t forbiddingly pricey. Obscure doesn’t necessarily mean cheap. Still, much of this music is worth hunting down. Whether this material is sublime or terrible, it’s usually captivating and often mesmerizing.

In the end, maybe the most salient characteristic of these misfits is that they are “happy making their music,” in the author’s words. When you read about that joy, and listen to it later, you may drop your inhibitions and realize that the world is wider than you thought it was.

Richard Grooms
Fiction Department
Central Library

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