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|
|EP released September 1959|
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|
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.
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.