Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Deviation From the Norm: Irwin Chusid's Songs in the Key of Z (2000)

"You can't have progress without deviation from the norm," composer Frank Zappa once wrote. Glancing back on the history of popular music, it shouldn't come as any surprise that it contains a long list of deviators. Out of their time, and breaking and remaking all the rules, these innovators dauntlessly set out to change history. While gleefully altering our perceptions of the world, these artists deviate most from the norms we take for granted. American outsiders are the most compelling to watch since they tend to transform themselves along with their work.

In 1925, Louis Armstrong, already a major jazz performer, decided to turn the music on its ear with a series of masterful recordings with the Hot Five and Seven. By reconstructing jazz into a soloist's art form, Armstrong was conveying a secret to all Americans: It's more exciting to stand out from the crowd than it is to join it. A few decades later, a young saxophone player from Kansas City named Charlie Parker decided to answer Armstrong's invitation by breaking the rules of standard harmony. While riffing at lightning speed, Parker ingeniously played within the chords themselves. Soon after, a young truck driver named Elvis Presley walked into Sun Studios in Memphis and made the cocky claim that he sounded like nobody else. Within a few years, he effortlessly altered the face of American music.

On the other hand,there is a whole other breed of outsider, whose talents aren't about innovation, self-transformation or changing the face of the culture. Quite the contrary: these artists live in a world shaped by their own peculiarities, and their music eagerly expresses those oddities. There is no danger that these visionary cranks will set the world aflame, but a compelling world is still tucked away within their music, a world that sets them apart, too, from the bland and homogenous conventions that mark the path to pop stardom. Irwin Chusid, a music historian and the host of WFMU's "Incorrect Music Hour," first termed this mutant strain "outsider music," and he wrote about it in a fascinating book called Songs in the Key of Z (2000).

Focusing on such unusual talents as Daniel Johnston, Joe Meek, Jandek and Wesley Willis, Chusid defined outsider music as "crackpot and visionary music, where all trails lead essentially to one place: "over the edge." In the music of Jandek, for example, a reclusive young Texan who has released over 30 homemade LPs, you hear a distinctly shattered performer. In a voice that sounds like Neil Young after he's been shot full of holes, Jandek seems to be reading suicide notes rather than singing songs. Jack Mudurian is a resident in a nursing home in Boston who professes to "know as many songs as Frank Sinatra did" - actually, he knows a lot more. To prove it, Murdurian once dared a hospital staff member to get his cassette recorder, then offered up an impromptu forty-five minute performance. When he was finished, Mudurian had blurted out a completely improvised and unedited 129-song medley that was gathered on an album called Downloading the Repertoire.

In Freemont, New Hampshire, a trio of sisters, Dorthy, Helen and Betty Wiggins, went into a local studio in 1969 to record an album called Philosophy of the World. Calling themselves The Shaggs (because of their long thick locks), their music couldn't be more disharmonious, with missed beats, shredded chords and innocent, almost naive lyrics. One of their songs, "My Pal Foot Foot," was about their pet cat. Where some dismissed it as one of the worst albums ever made, others insisted Philosophy of the World was one of the most original and indigenous of American records. (Of that, there's no question.) Philosophy of the World continues to cause debate some forty years after its release; Rolling Stone called it one of the most influential alternative releases ever made. Frank Zappa once tried to land The Shaggs as an opening act. Bonnie Raitt referred to them affectionately as castaways on their own musical island. What Chusid's book, and its CD soundtrack attests, is that the grain of outsider temperament, wherein you set the terms of your own acceptance, inspires this motley crew to make their own kind of music. With their faint hope of chart success, the outsider's daunting task still remains a compelling one. While playing out their part as Raitt's castaways, they remain a weird distillation of pure American ambition.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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