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“The rubber-knife spankings and threats of cannibalism from two babysitters (the latter a 100-year-old witch), gave his sound a dark edge,” writes Danny Cohen in a third-person promo blurb for his upcoming performance at the Schindler House, the kickoff of this summer’s “sound.” series. “He found a guru over a buffet and heard the ‘Music of the Spheres.’ He was supposed to die, but there was a psychotic blond nympho which spoiled everything. He returned to L.A. to record his travails, as The Museum of Dannys

In Music: Ear of the Beholder: Danny Cohen, beyond the fringe. By John Payne

Cohen’s slight crackpot accent may stand out from the academic manners of most avant-garde musicians, but it’s typical shtick for practitioners of Outsider Music (O.M.), a loosely defined but burgeoning genre of music encompassing recordings that have fallen between the cracks of mainstream culture — lyrically, musically, or because of the sociological eccentricities of their creators. Longtime itinerant acid casualty, favorite singer-songwriter of the ’70s experimental Los Angeles Free Music Society crowd, and major influence on Tom Waits, Cohen has only recently been garnering anything like the kudos he deserves.

A Larchmont native and longtime Valley person, Cohen’s edgy, baroquely appointed song stylings of the last 30 years finally reached a relatively wide audience with the 1999 release of the aforementioned Museum CD, a remarkable survey of patently individualistic lyrical observations set against a range of musical getups from the starkly minimal to the floridly psychedelic, issued as part of the “Lunatic Fringe” series on John Zorn’s Tzadik label.

Zorn’s concept of the crazy periphery also includes the performer known only as Jon (a woman who dresses in a fuzzy dog costume and sings high-pitched paeans to God knows what peculiar childhood obsessions in her native Japanese over the default instrument of lunatic choice — the electric chord organ) and Rodd Keith, deceased Mozart of the song-poem industry (see Vinyl Fetish).

Though prominent, Zorn is just one of a network of relatively inside musicians and producers who have devoted a portion of their energies to preserving and promoting this often ephemeral work. The role model for this kind of kook cottage impresario was L.A.’s own Frank Zappa, whose sanity and business acumen allowed him to support such difficult and peculiar talents as Captain Beefheart, the GTOs and Larry “Wild Man” Fischer in the late ’60s.

The most conspicuous contemporary connoisseur is Irwin Chusid, critic, co-host of the long-running radio show Incorrect Music (WFMU-FM, New Jersey) and compiler of anthology CDs as well as such single-artist gems as The Langley Schools Music Project. It was the 2002 publication of Chusid’s book Songs in the Key of Z, profiles of the 20 most beloved O.M. practitioners from composer Harry Partch and Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett to the unrecorded 19th-century Cherry Sisters Trio, that brought O.M. a brief flurry of public-radio and alternative-weekly attention.

This even included a tribute CD covering the songs of the Shaggs — the all-girl power trio whose jangly, dissonant and transcendentally sincere self-released 1969 LP Philosophy of the World (rediscovered by New Rhythm & Blues Quartet ivory-tinkler Terry Adams and unleashed on Rounder Records in 1980) was the seismic event that kicked off the last decade’s tidal wave of interest in eccentric sound recordings.

So what exactly is Outsider Music? You might as well ask, “What is Outsider Art?” In a field occupied by a dozen or so jostling factions, the overall spectrum remains bewilderingly inclusive. Like its more closely monitored visual counterpart, O.M. practitioners range from the infantile to the institutionally committed — almost anything qualifies.

“Outsider music includes all manner of incompetent but sincere recordings, music by the mentally challenged, industry rejects, eccentrics, singing celebrities, lovable oddballs, grandiose statements, etc.,” states Lang Thomson, Webmaster of the Outsider Mailing List, trying to sort the merely misguided from the creatively different. “Outsider Music is NOT: novelty recordings, merely bad music, avant-garde weirdness, exotica/lounge music, or anything where the artist is conscious or aware of being bad or kitschy.” Many in his online community would (and do) argue with these criteria: Chusid has his own position, and Jean Dubuffet, the visual artist who coined the term Art Brut and recorded scads of naive improvisational tunes on the fiddle and accordion, had another.

One of the pivotal figures in contemporary outsider culture is David Greenberger, a painter who worked at the Duplex Nursing Home in Boston for less than three years at the turn of the ’70s. The literary fallout of his job there — poetry, interviews and record reviews — produced not only the archetypal zine Duplex Planet (164 issues and counting) but five volumes of musical interpretations of Duplex laureate Ernest Noyes Brookings’ lyrics by musicians from Fred Lane to XTC; an unprecedented verbatim recording of the nursing home’s Talent Show; and the discovery of Jack Mudurian, whose breathless a cappella rendition of 129 popular song fragments in 45 minutes on the Arf! Arf! CD Downloading the Repertoire has become an Outsider staple.

 

Contemporary interest in Outsider Music has its roots in collecting: Recordings of the music of the developmentally or geriatrically different are hard to come by. So are recordings made by triplets, Christian ventriloquists, cranky academic composeurs, Inuit throat singers, anonymous surrealist corporate showtunesmiths and schizophrenics — and there’s a certain level of friendly one-upmanship (and occasional unfriendly territorial pissing) in unearthing an O.M. talent that redefines the canon. While this lends credibility to criticisms of exploitative voyeurism, O.M. fans are essentially motivated by the same combination of exhausted skepticism and thirst for novelty that drives the Outsider and Lowbrow art worlds. Whatever you think of the Shaggs’ music — and I can listen to it all day — there’s never been a question of their being a put-on.

 

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.


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