By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
The idea of Outsider Art arose in the late 19th century and initially focused on visual work executed by the diagnosed insane. Much of what is considered O.M. overlaps with this slant: Daniel Johnston, whose recent no-show at Spaceland was somewhat compensated by the release of a new CD in March (Fear Yourself), as well as CD versions of his first two electric chord organ–backed, basement-recorded cassettes Songs of Pain and More Songs of Pain, now controls his psychosis with lithium and Elavil, but there was a period when stories of Daniel’s delusional assaults on policemen (and members of Sonic Youth) seemed to have him in and out of the booby hatch every other week.
Spaceland regular Wesley Willis is a sometimes-homeless schizophrenic from Chicago whose 30-plus full-length releases brim with songs like “Suck a Cheetah’s Dick” and “I Whupped Superman’s Ass.” And Wild Man Fischer’s most recent album, 1984’s Nothing Scary, was assembled from tapes of clandestine assignations arranged by pay phone in public parks (giving new meaning to the O.M. rubric). But O.M., like Outsider Art, has also come to encompass the work of children and naives, vanity recordings, thrift-store treasures and strange multicultural hybrids. And the arbitrariness of psychiatric diagnostics aside, if overt pathology made you an automatic Outsider, Michael Jackson and Axl Rose would be in heavy rotation on college radio.
While college radio stations have been instrumental in the dissemination of Outsider Music, it was the Internet that fostered its epidemic proliferation. Suddenly, instead of having to master, press, distribute and publicize a rediscovered oddity or one’s own idiosyncratic output, an uploaded MP3 and a few well-placed e-mails could do the trick. Onetime rarities such as the collected works of Shooby Taylor, the Human Horn (an amazing glossolalian scat singer from Brooklyn) or out-of-print singles by ’60s novelty (and walking Tin Pan Alley encyclopedia) Tiny Tim could be tracked down with a few minutes of Net surfing.
Specialists began trawling the information supertrench for freakish wonders of the deep, sifting the vast amounts of original music surfacing on sites like mp3.com, digitizing their thrift scores, discussing them on mailing lists and blogs, and sharing them on Napster or streaming radio shows like Otis Fodder’s Friendly Persuasion. With the crackdown on audio file sharing and the natural waning of publicity surrounding Chusid’s book, it might seem that the amount of activity in the Outsider realm is diminishing. Not so.
In addition to Johnston’s landmark reissue, two new CD anthologies of classic Outsider material have been recently released. Chusid’s Songs in the Key of Z, Volume 2 features such treasures as the tape swapper’s fave “Curly Toes” (an anonymous Southern woman’s spirited a cappella promises regarding her undergarments or lack thereof); a patriotic ode from Volume 1’s breakout star, unemployed music teacher B.J. Snowden; and an interminable but strangely hypnotic song-letter by Buddy Max detailing a birthmark-removal operation.
Erik Lindgren — whose Arf! Arf! imprint put out the Jack Mudurian and Talent Show CDs as well as the reissue of Incredibly Strange diva Lucia Pamela’s Into Outer Space— has finally assembled the second volume of Only in America, which mixes together the Shaggsesque country stylings of the late James “Rebel” O’Leary, various song-poem oddities, and L.A. legend Tangela Tricoli — Hollywood cable-access talk-show hostess, auteur of the soon-to-be-reissued 1982 Jet Lady LP and said to be the first woman certified to fly a Boeing 747.
There’s more: Otis Fodder’s lamented Webcast (Flash! Due to resume July 20!) has mutated into the 365 Project(http://www.otisfodder.com/ 365days/365help.html) — a daily upload of an often extensively researched audio curiosity for the entire year of 2003. KXLU’s DJs continue to program Outsider Music, although Don Bolles’ voice and attitude are sorely missed. And venues like Spaceland and “sound.” at Schindler House regularly showcase eccentric and visionary talents. Inured to fashion, Outsider aficionados have their own agenda — even if they can’t agree what it is.
Some fans of O.M. are patently exploitative, laughing at the weirdoes and oblivious to Daniel Johnston’s songwriting genius or the electrifying sonic presence of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, whose 1968 single Paralyzed sounds like Albert Ayler and Eddie Cochran locked in a front-load washing machine on “spin.” But at the heart of the movement lies a radically affirmative alternative to homogenized mainstream culture. There are countless different ways of being in the world besides the self-conscious, overgroomed, hierarchically distributed culture, and the edges worn off in the trickle-down process are, in fact, what make art nourishing. The rest is empty calories and hype. Humans can only stand so much spoon-fed supervised indoor playtime before making a break, even though (or precisely because) the Outside weather can be a little unpredictable.