Your friendly blogger is having quite the surreal experience: a live show by Dot Wiggin of the Shaggs!
Your friendly blogger is having quite the surreal experience: a live show by Dot Wiggin of the Shaggs!
Today’s Outsider: The Legendary Stardust Cowboy (1947-)
Bio: 1950s Lubbock, Texas was not a particularly exciting or stimulating climate in which to grow up. Norman Carl Odam knew that better than anyone. The shy young man didn’t fit in with the rest of the then-podunk town, so he lived mostly in his head, drawing, writing, and planning trips to outer space. He took guitar lessons and then taught himself to play bugle, drums, kazoo, harmonica, buffalo horn, and rubberboard. He also taught himself birdcalls and Indian war whoops. Soon, Norman was a bona fide one-man band. He gained notoriety among his classmates when, in junior high, he developed a peculiar habit: He would sit on the steps of his school at 7:30 in the morning, bang on his guitar, and wail at the top of his lungs. These little concerts earned him an audience, but not always a supportive one. Some of Norman’s fellow students amused themselves throwing dirt and candy wrappers at the young troubadour. In high school, Norman put together his two main obsessions- Westerns and outer space- and renamed himself “The Legendary Stardust Cowboy.” He spray painted his new moniker in huge, flashy letters on his Chevy. The new persona gave Norman a boost of confidence, and soon he was performing in venues more public than the front steps of the middle school. In parking lots, he would stand atop the vehicle that had been graced with his name and belt out his oddball songs. Sometimes he turned up at parties and clubs uninvited and did his act for the confused guests, who were generally even less receptive than his middle-school peers. Upon graduation from high school, Norman knew he had to get the hell out of Lubbock. First, he moved to Los Angeles, but the City of Angels was unkind to the caterwauling Texan. Next, he decided to drive to Manhattan. On the way he stopped in Fort Worth, where he met a pair of vacuum cleaner salesmen who invited him to play at a club owned by a friend of theirs. As soon as Norman began his act, the salesmen knew they were in the company of an iconoclast. They took him to a recording studio, where a young T-Bone Burnett played drums to accompany Norman’s frantic howling and bugle playing. The resulting track, called “Paralyzed,” was taken to the early-morning DJ at the radio station located above the studio. The DJ played it, listeners loved it, and Norman found himself a novelty star. Though the recording soon made its way to the top of “worst ever” lists, it managed to crack the Billboard Top 200, and Norman subsequently appeared on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in, where the performers imitated Norman’s movements while he performed. Upset by the mockery, Norman ran off the set. Still, “Paralyzed” and Norman remained popular, and offers came in from Ed Sullivan and American Bandstand. Unfortunately, a musician’s strike caused a temporary ban on televised live music, and by the time the ban was lifted, Norman’s fifteen minutes of fame were over. He has recorded since “Paralyzed,” but the majority of listeners have forgotten him. He still performs regularly to a small cult following and counts among his fans such luminaries as David Bowie.
Music: “Paralyzed” consists mostly of Norman screaming incomprehensibly and wailing away on the bugle, which he barely seems to know how to play, while Burnett wildly whacks at the drums. It’s not exactly easy listening, but the energy of the record is fascinating. The Ledge has a feral spirit which can hardly be contained on vinyl. He’s a man who runs through life whooping and yelling at the top of his lungs. If his creative expression doesn’t sound like music, that’s okay; “music” is too restrictive a term to describe the chaos that is the Ledge. The rest of his recordings have a similar sound, although most of them aren’t as nutty as “Paralyzed”- some, such as “I’m Standing in a Trash Can (Thinking About You),” actually have time signatures and even lyrics.
Notable Works: Rock-It to Stardom, Live in Chicago
Trivia: David Bowie took the “Stardust” part of “Ziggy Stardust” from Norman’s stage name. In May 2010, the Mayor of Mankato, MN declared May 21 the city’s official “Legendary Stardust Cowboy Day.”
Quote: “I am a legend in my own time.” -The Legendary Stardust Cowboy
Your friendly blogger now has her very own outsider music radio show on vicradio.org Sundays from 10-midnight. Feel free to listen in and request your favorite outsiders!
Today’s Outsider: Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944)
Bio: Born Narcissa Florence Foster to a wealthy couple in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Florence Foster Jenkins always knew she was destined for stardom. She loved music and wanted desperately to sing opera, but her father refused to pay for music school, so Florence eloped to Philadelphia with a physician named Frank Thornton Jenkins in 1885. By 1902, Frank and Florence were divorced, and in 1908 Florence moved in with actor St. Clair Bayfield, who would remain her partner for the rest of her life. In 1909, Florence’s father died and left her enough money to ensure her lifelong wealth. Florence saw her newfound riches as an opportunity to pursue her dream of singing, and soon she began giving recitals in Philadelphia and New York, personally distributing the tickets to her friends and fellow socialites. She became the toast of the high society, and her annual performance at New York’s Ritz-Carlton ballroom was one of the most coveted tickets in the city. She was finally a famous and beloved singer just like she’d always wanted- but perhaps not for the reason she’d expected. Florence Foster Jenkins couldn’t sing, and her fans liked her that way. Her off-key warbling, screechy top notes and lack of rhythm were sources of great delight to the devoted audience members at her concerts, which were closer to comedy acts than traditional vocal recitals. People were charmed by the dotty old diva’s flashy costumes, which she designed herself, by her complete self-assurance despite her lack of ability- Florence was convinced she was in the same league as famous sopranos such as Frieda Hempel and Luisa Tetrazzini- and by her patronage of the arts. She was such a cherished fixture among music lovers that when she finally gave a concert at Carnegie Hall at the age of 76, it sold out quickly and thousands of people had to be turned away at the door. A month after that final show, Florence died at Manhattan’s Hotel Seymour, still convinced that she was the most beloved diva of them all. Considering the plays that have been written about her, the popularity of her recordings, and her lasting image as a woman who did things her way no matter what the critics said, it’s safe to say that she was right.
Music: Nine of Florence’s recordings still exist- four coloratura arias and five art songs, two written by her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon. Each begins with McMoon’s light and lovely playing, when suddenly a voice is heard- a voice like that of a chimpanzee or exotic bird, shrieking away with no regard to tempo or key. She just barely manages to sing the right pitches, and occasionally she gives up on pitch entirely and simply screams instead. Her diction is nonexistent- you can’t even tell what language she’s singing in. McMoon patiently plays along as Florence misses her entrances and takes huge gulps of air in the middle of her long notes. Full disclosure: I’m a classical soprano myself and listening to Florence always brightens my bad vocal days. Even listeners who’ve never heard Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria will be able to tell that Florence’s version (above) is, well, special, but it really enhances the experience if you know what it’s supposed to sound like: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C2ODfuMMyss
Notable Works: The Glory (???) of the Human Voice
Trivia: When Florence got into a taxi accident in 1943, she declared that the crash had enabled her to sing “a higher F than ever before” and sent the taxi driver a box of cigars. Boston-based indie band The Everyday Visuals included a song about Florence on their self-titled fourth album in 2009.
Quote: “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say that I didn’t sing.” –Florence Foster Jenkins
Today’s Outsider: Jandek (1945?-)
Bio: Since 1978, Houston record label Corwood Industries has released at least one album a year, all of them with austerely simple cover art and attributed to the same artist: Jandek. The albums all have innocuous, generic titles such as Staring at the Cellophane and Follow Your Footsteps, which might lead an unsuspecting record collector to anticipate innocuous, generic music. Instead, these albums sound rather like what would happen if a drunken caveman wandered into a studio and tripped over a guitar several times. This music has no discernible influence, genre, or structure, and every “song” sounds more or less the same- yet multiple albums full of the stuff have been released every year for over thirty years. The natural tendency when faced with such an otherworldly musical phenomenon is to assume it must be some sort of elaborate joke created to poke fun at music snobs who will declare anything to be great art as long as it repels the average listener. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case- as far as anyone can tell, the Jandek project is the completely sincere output of a man named Sterling Richard Smith. Smith’s only contact with the media consists of two rambling phone interviews, and thus very little is known about his life. He refuses to divulge any biographical details other than an anecdote about burning his seven novels after they were rejected from New York publishers. Because of the utter lack of any definitive information about the man, Jandek fans have been forced to piece together a life story based on clues from his albums. Smith may have lived in Providence, Rhode Island at one point, because several of his songs mention the state and city. Some of the photos from his album covers have been identified as locations outside the United States, which suggests that Smith is a traveler. For most of his career, no one even knew if Smith really was the man behind the music. Some of the album covers feature a thin, forlorn, redheaded man, but for years no one knew if he was the musician. Furthermore, though Sterling Smith was the only person anyone could manage to contact at Corwood, no one knew if he was Jandek or a manager protecting his client’s privacy by speaking for him. When Jandek finally gave his first-ever live performance in Glasgow, Scotland in 2004, it was obvious that the man onstage was the same man from the album covers, and from there it becomes easy to assume that he is Smith. Since that first performance, Smith has toured sporadically around the country. He also continues to put out a couple of albums a year. Perhaps the most intriguing detail about Jandek is Corwood Industries’ phone number, which is shared by a company called “Sterling Smith Corporations”. A simple web search proves that this company is a real investment securities broker in Houston, TX. Could Smith be a regular person, a businessman with a job, friends, possibly 2.5 kids and a dog? Well, yes. It’s entirely possible, probable even, that Sterling Smith is a completely normal man who likes to make very strange music on the side.
Music: Imagine you are driving by yourself on a long road trip. Never mind where you’ve come from or where you’re going- just imagine that you’ve been driving for hours and it’s now the middle of the night. Drowsy and stupefied by the long stretches of highway before you, you take the wrong exit and find yourself lost in a series of twisted, wooded back roads. You turn on the radio, trying to find some sort of traffic update, a weather report, anything that sounds human enough to be comforting. You’re greeted by static on every station, and you’re about to turn the radio off in frustration when you hear a single chord played on an acoustic guitar- but it’s not a chord you’ve ever heard before. It’s just a series of random notes that together manage to sound like nothing at all. As the song- is this a song?- progresses, you hear more dissonant, out-of-tune banging on the guitar, when suddenly a man begins to intone in a breathy, ethereal voice: “What can I say? What can I sing? You always knew ‘bout everything.” The song keeps going, but nothing happens. No verses, no chorus, nothing but the haphazard strumming and the singer’s low moan. The song fades out and another begins in exactly the same fashion as the first. You keep listening, and by the time you find the highway again you’ve heard ten songs. As the sky begins to lighten and you reenter civilization, you realize with a shudder that minus some slight differences in lyrics and pacing, every song sounded exactly the same. That’s the feeling most people get when they listen to Jandek: revulsion, confusion, even fear. This is nothing to be ashamed of: it’s weird music, there’s no denying that. One way to understand Jandek a little better is to listen to some music by the early 20th-century atonal composers (particularly Anton Webern), whose minimalistic, cacophonous pieces were often criticized as “unmusical”, just like Jandek’s work is now. Of course, the atonal masters are now widely recognized as seminal figures in modern music- perhaps there’s hope for Jandek yet.
Notable Works: Ready for the House, Glasgow Sunday
Trivia: Jandek’s debut, Ready for the House, was originally credited to “The Units”, but a band called The Units forced Corwood to change the name, and so the name Jandek was attached to the album and to all Corwood releases that followed. In 2013, a fictional biography of Jandek called Niagara Blues and written by Danen Jobe will be published.
Quote: “…imagine a subterranean microphone wired down to a month-old tomb, capturing the sound of maggots nibbling on a decaying corpse and the agonized howls of a departed soul desperate to escape tortuous decomposition and eternal boredom. That’s Burt Bacharach compared to Jandek.” –Irwin Chusid, “Jandek: The Great Disconnect”
Today’s Outsider: Abner Jay (1921-1993)
Bio: Abner Jay was born in Fitzgerald, Georgia in 1921. His father and grandfather had both been slaves, and his grandfather, a banjo player, passed down his knowledge of old-time folk music to Abner. Abner began performing at medicine shows at the age of five and joined the Silas Green from New Orleans Minstrel Show at eleven. By 14, Abner was a bona fide one-man band, traveling around the South in a mobile home that converted into a portable stage. Calling himself the “last working Southern black minstrel”, Abner livened up his concerts by telling jokes and stories in between the songs he played on the harmonica, the drums, his ancient banjo, and a percussion instrument made from bleached cow and chicken bones. He liked to tell tall tales about his exploits as a cotton picker, tobacco crapper, jaw bone player, and mule skinner. Over the years, his fame grew and he came to be recognized as one of the last great masters of true American folk. He befriended and influenced more well-known artists such as Little Richard and James Brown, played the Apollo, ran restaurants and nightclubs, and managed the pioneering gospel star Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Abner’s youthful vigor never left him for a moment, and he claimed that his eternal youth stemmed from drinking out of the Suwannee River. He continued to play concerts well into old age. During his final shows, he was known to genially instruct the audience, “Hurry up and get your record. They’ll be worth a lot of money when I’m dead.” He was right. One Man Band, a compilation of recordings by a man who played free shows outside his trailer for anyone who wanted to listen, can now be purchased for $100 from a Swedish record label.
Music: Abner Jay’s lyrics are raw, fierce, and completely honest. He sings about war, depression, and politics using blunt terms rather than veiling his opinions in metaphor. The listener learns of his sorrow over the Great Depression, his anger about whites’ economic oppression of blacks, and his love for his beloved Suwanee River- topics which he sings about with equal fervor. His hauntingly beautiful music matches perfectly with the fire of his lyrics, as well as his powerful vocals.
Notable Works: One Man Band
Trivia: Drinking from the Suwanee may not have granted Abner eternal youth, but it seems to have helped his potency- he fathered sixteen children.
Quote: “Forget about your Tchaikovsky. He Russian. I’m your classical American music. Like it or not- I’m IT.” –Abner Jay
Today’s Outsider: David Liebe Hart(1955- )
Bio: To fans of Adult Swim’s Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, David Liebe Hart is well-known as the Christian puppeteer who’s so unnerving he could only be a satirical character created by the show’s writers. Unbelievable though it may seem, the ventriloquist from the black lagoon is 100% real and devoted to spreading the word of the Lord. Hart first became interested in puppeteering while attending Sunday school as a child in Chicago. He also dreamed of acting, and in 1976 he moved to Los Angeles, got cast in bit parts on shows like Chico and the Man and movies like Brewster’s Millions, and joined the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. He supplemented this with a day job as a busker across from the Hollywood Bowl, and soon he and his raggedy puppet Doug became familiar to passerby, who began referring to Hart as “the puppet man”. The puppet man’s big break finally came when he created his own religious-themed TV show, The Junior Christian Teaching Bible Lesson Program, proudly broadcast on Adelphia Cable channel 77. The show features Hart and his puppets singing original songs, mostly Christian Science-themed. He was subsequently discovered by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, creators and stars of Tim and Eric, who featured him on their program several times and included him in their Billion Dollar Movie, as well as their tours. Hart has also been featured on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. In addition to his career as a puppeteer and his favorite hobby, watching TV Land, Hart also enjoys hanging out with aliens. “The Paladians are good friends of mine and the Korendians,” he says. “I don’t like the negative stuff they put online about the Omegans though.” He continues to write and record music, both solo and with friend and fellow public-access host Adam Papagan. The two tour together, puppets in tow, bringing the world Jesus’s teachings with a side of nightmare fuel.
Music: David Liebe Hart is an astonishingly bad ventriloquist; I’ve seen grade-schoolers in suburban talent shows do better. His lyrics are generally earnest and straightforward: in one song he expounds on the benefits of using email, while in another he tells us all about his favorite alien race, the Korendians. It’s when he attempts to veil his lessons in metaphor that he runs into trouble: “You’re a hard green tomato, and you’re gonna ripen into a red hairy tomato,” he informs children in “The Puberty Song”. His raspy baritone is the sort of singing voice that would be great if it managed to stay on-key. His performances are amateurish, with false starts and stumbles throughout. But he’s so sincere in his desire to teach and to honor the Lord (and the Korendians) that you can’t help but cheer for him, even as you cower behind the couch and try to avoid eye contact with his leering puppets.
Notable Works: Christian Hymns and Songs of Praise, The Best of David and Adam
Trivia: Hart is divorced and does not drink, smoke, or use drugs. He appeared on Golden Girls in 1990 and Wings in 1993.
Quote: “I just want to feel like I belong.” –David Liebe Hart
Last night the great outsider musician Daniel Johnston performed at Philadelphia’s Union Transfer, and I was lucky enough to get tickets. I stood in the third row, very close to the stage, in a packed venue full of antsy fans waiting through two hours of opening acts. Just as I thought Daniel might never show up, there he was, abruptly marching onstage accompanied by his guitar player to ecstatic cheers. Dressed in sweatpants, his hands shaking as he held the microphone, he looked down at an audience left utterly transfixed by his presence. I could barely believe what I was seeing. For months I’ve been writing about these outsiders almost as if they were fictional characters, but here was one right in front of me. He sang a few songs that I suspect were fairly new, because it seemed like most of us didn’t know them. They sounded great- I never realized what a powerful voice he had until I heard it live. He may not be a conventionally talented singer, but his voice is strong and expressive, and you can feel the honest passsion that pours out of him when he sings. After a few more obscure songs with just solo guitar, he brought the opening band out to accompany him on the hits. “How about ’Walking The Cow’?” he asked, and we screamed our approval. Daniel plays with a different band at every show and therefore different arrangements of his songs. Tonight’s band turned the pensive, meandering original into a fast-paced rocker, and the room was filled with surreal joy as we all sang along to the refrain. He continued to mix his classics with lesser-known tunes. My favorite moment of the night was when he sang “Worried Shoes”, which is close to my heart because it’s the first Johnston song I ever heard. When I bought the Where The Wild Things Aresoundtrack two years ago, I noticed that the composer listed for the song was someone named Daniel Johnston rather than Karen O who wrote the rest of the songs. “Worried Shoes” was always my favorite song on the album, because it was beautiful but also slightly “off” in a way I couldn’t describe, but I never really wondered about the mysterious Johnston. When I discovered the Wikipedia article on outsider music and saw the little blurb on Daniel, I finally realized why that song sounds the way it does- because it’s the product of a beautiful but fundamentally different sort of mind. If not for that song, I would never have become hooked on outsider music the way I did, so it was a pretty amazing experience to see him perform it right in front of me. I almost lost it when he belted out the final lines- “‘Cause I’ve got a lot of walking to do, and I don’t want to wear my worried shoes.” Words to live by. All too soon, he announced his final song of the night: “True Love Will Find You In The End”, a simple and beautiful assurance that love will find you no matter who you are, as long as you step out into the light. It was heartening to see such a large group of people singing along with such a sweet sentiment. After that song, he left for about thirty seconds before we brought him back on by chanting “Dan-iel, Dan-iel, Dan-iel”. He sang “Devil Town” accompanied only by the crowd and the opening band, who put down their instruments and simply sang along. Again, it’s surreal and wonderful to be part of an entire crowd of people all singing “All my friends were vampires/I didn’t know that they were vampires/Turns out I was a vampire myself.” Furthermore, it’s simply incredible to see people put aside all their cynicism to embrace such a genuine artist.
I started this blog as a bored experiment to see if I could manage to give every artist on the Wikipedia list of outsider musicians a listen. I didn’t foresee that I would fall in love with them so deeply, and I certainly didn’t know that the experiment I started on a whim would lead me to the moving and beautiful experience I had last night. This is why these artists matter. They are not conventional. They are not normal. But despite what makes them different, they affect so many people with their heartfelt expression. Thank you, outsiders and most especially Daniel, for showing us that the human passion to create art can overcome any obstacle, and for sharing your unique and wonderful visions with us.
Your friendly blogger is currently at Philly’s Union Transfer to see the ultimate outsider himself, Daniel Johnston, perform live!