Prohibition pushed cannabis culture into the fringes, a place where outsider music also revels.
The 2016 film Florence Foster Jenkins starring Meryl Streep has put outsider music on the map like never before. Like the title character, the real life Florence Foster Jenkins was a wealthy socialite who used her fortune as a patron of music and the arts, which also put her in a position of being able to perform without any honest critique whatsoever. It also gave her a welcome stage and audience, where she sang terribly to the delight of those who loved and humored her to varying degrees. Never fully realizing how “bad” she was.
However not being normatively-skilled is not necessarily the same thing as being bad. Can genuine passion make up for technical adeptness?
Outsider music is the ultimate in home grown sounds. It is the music made by everyday folks who generally have less skills and ambitions than professional musicians, but all of the heart. What it lacks in polish it makes up for in earnestness, soulfullness, and sometimes, bizarreness.
Most outsider musicians are completely unknown. You may have a timid uncle that has been secretly recording calliope sing-alongs of his own songs since the late 60’s, but has never shared them. Outsider musicians, in most cases, are not trying to become famous. They are just using music to relieve themselves the awkwardness of our humanity.
Perhaps the Elvis of outsider music is a man who took human awkwardness to unimaginable new heights – Daniel Johnson. From the beautifully depressive, Beatle-esque Going Down and the heartbreaking, macabre My Baby Cares for the Dead – to the downright strange, silly Casper the Friendly Ghost and absolutely hilarious Harley Man – Daniels music remains genuine, endearing and ethereally amazing no matter where he goes with it. He even wrote the definitive occasion song for your First Day At Work.
Yet my favorite song, and perhaps one of the greatest songs of the 20th century, was one I became familiar with long before I ever heard of Daniel Johnston. His music had already attained revered cult status levels by then with Kurt Cobain having famously worn hand-drawn DJ shirts during interviews. My exposure to this gem first came from a cover by the punkjam trio fIREHOSE, whose version of Walking the Cow was a staple of my teenage years.
If you thought Bjork was strange, Scandinavian resident, songwriter and performer Icy Spicy Leoncie is going to blow your mind. Her supercharged sexuality collides with her devil-may-care vanity to create some of the most eyebrow raising music out there today. Even more spectacular, in the age of YouTube, are her videos. From riding around town on magic carpets looking for love in Invisible Girl, to discussing the infidelities of a police officer in Sex Crazy Cop, her visual performances are every bit as memorable as her music. But if she moves into your neighborhood, you might wanna lock up your teenage sons.
If you aren’t putting it together yet, mental health struggles are often part of outsider music. Schizophrenic artist Wesley Willis often spoke and sang about “hellrides”, which is what he called experiences in which he claimed to encounter demons who were trying to provoke him into violent acts – often while riding public transportation in his native Chicago. Yet through the terror of this he still managed to remain an astoundingly prolific writer and performer.
His songs share many similarities, the most obvious being that they all sound like what happens when the ‘Demo’ button on a Casio keyboard. But where his music may not have been the most advanced or original, there will certainly never be another lyricist like him. Wesley Willis is the William Blake of expletives.
Many of his songs instruct the listeners to perform fellatio on animals and fictional characters, while other regale you with fables of fistfights with various real and mythical people. But what might seem like ugliness and crudeness more often shined through as the act of a man dispossessing himself of the demons within – which had a courageous beauty to it, especially live. And if you ever saw him live and met him in person, you probably also know all about the headbutts that he gave out like handshakes.
Outsider music, however, is nothing new. As long as there has been music, there have been people determined to make their music against all odds.
The Cherry Sisters were Marion, Iowa siblings who performed around the country in vaudeville acts and drew large crowds of people who simply couldn’t believe they sang as badly as the rumors stated. Although there is little left of those performances, their legendary status as awful performers has inspired some modern recreation of their acts.
Unlike most outsider musicians, Lucia Pamela came from a wealthy background and didn’t have the litany of life issues that most of her colleagues did. She was just plain eccentric. And even though she did not make a whole lot of music, the little she did make left a big mark.
Sometimes outsider music happens accidentally, like when a proud father is sure his three princesses have what it takes to be rock stars. Frank Zappa once called them the third greatest musical act of all time, which is high praise coming from one of rocks most talented weirdos. The beauty of The Shaggs is in their naivety. Listening to them one would believe they had no idea what rock music was supposed to sound like. Nor did they seem to be held down by notions that all of their respective parts were supposed to match up somehow.
Where the discordance of The Shaggs was probably mostly unintentional, outsider legend Jandek knew exactly what he was doing when he began recording his hauntingly discordant music anonymously in the late seventies.
For Shooby Taylor, the Human Horn, lyrics were little more than a distraction for his vocal aspirations to be a human instrument. Lying somewhere between scat music and cats fighting, he doesn’t sound like an instrument as much as a master of nonsense. And there is some real entertaining beauty in that.
In the case that you were afraid that this article would end without an entry of something a bit heavier than the above fare, I will leave you with Alvin Dahn, whose masterpiece of metal contains vocals that sound like a guy reading Superfudge to a group of third graders. But boy does he shred!
From here on out you are on your own. But if you care to head further down the outsider music rabbit hole there is lots more to explore.
You might wanna start with this Wikipedia entry on Outsider music.
Or if your excitations at having found this wonderful corner of existence go beyond a quickie wiki, then check out the Songs in the Key of Z books and album compilations by superfan and writer Irwin Chusid.
Okay, one last one…
Feature image via Daniel Johnston available here.