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The Outsiders

Irwin Chusid Reveals What's So Good About Playing Badly

By Lee Gardner | Posted 2/7/2001

If you want to hear a rhapsody, listen to Irwin Chusid describe a videotaped performance by a now-deceased never-was country singer from York, Pa., named James "Rebel" O'Leary.

"He's got an awful toupee," Chusid enthuses. "He can't sing worth a lick. He uses his family [as a band] behind him, and they can't play either. The rhythm falters, he's constantly off-key, his enunciation is terrible. The pedal-steel guitarist sounds like she's flying in from a different city in the middle of the song and is about to crash-land in the instrumental break.

"It's chaotic, yet it's all tied together by this personality. He's thoroughly inept, and yet his ineptitude is so sincere, the intent is so genuine, and the approach is so serious that he's unquestionably an outsider."

For Chusid, a performance such as the one he describes is a coveted nugget, not a piece of crap, and "outsider" is a term of high praise. Over the past decade, the New Jersey native has made a name for himself among fans of musical oddities and ephemera as a connoisseur's connoisseur and the man responsible for reviving interest in the music of Raymond Scott and Esquivel. In 2000, A Cappella Books published his first book, Songs In the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music, while Which? Records released a companion CD that allows the curious to hear exactly what Chusid means when he talks about "outsider music." He will present further examples in a talk with videos on outsider music at the American Visionary Art Museum on Feb. 9.

The book and the disc encompass a stupefying range of stupefying performers who come under Chusid's outsider rubric, from the semifamous (Captain Beefheart, Tiny Tim) to the obscure (unhinged scat singer "Shooby" Taylor, Swedish Elvis impersonator Eilert Pilarm), from the deeply naive (charmingly shambolic all-girl rock band the Shaggs) to the deeply disturbed (diagnosed schizophrenics Daniel Johnston, Wesley Willis, and Wild Man Fischer) to the just slightly odd (openly gay country singer Peter Grudzien, ebullient singer/songwriter B.J. Snowden). The only thing these artists have in common, Chusid says, is that they make music that's "so wrong, [it's] right."

Dreadful singing, pre-competent musicianship, and utterly nutty lyrics are par for the course in Chusid's world, but the only thing that is crucial for an artist to be considered an outsider musician is total unself-consciousness, even as they warble about walking on the moon (Lucia Pamela) or try to turn dance-floor fondling into a dance craze (Luie Luie's "El Touchy"). Their commitment to their own idiosyncratic vision, ability and rationality be damned, can make for music that reaches levels of sincerely off-center inspiration and creativity that no seasoned studio pro or million-selling star could ever touch. "As long as they're sincere--if they mean it--they qualify," Chusid says. "If they're trying to be funny, we're not interested."

The 49-year-old Chusid ("rhymes with 'lucid,'" he says) has been engrossed by music since a very early age, and with strange music since his teens. While he has been a DJ at venerated noncommercial station WFMU in East Orange, N.J., since 1975, and his research of little-known musical treasures have made him an ad hoc expert on some of the most obscure music in the Western world, he spent most of his adult life working part time for temp agencies and a mobile DJ outfit--"I was a hobbyist basically," he says.

But in the late '80s, he encountered the jaw-dropping music of the late bandleader/inventor Raymond Scott, which led him to produce 1992's Reckless Nights and Turkish Twilights (Columbia), an album of prewar Scott compositions that put the once-obscure artist back on the cultural map (though Scott's tunes, such as "Powerhouse," had already been unwittingly enjoyed by generations of Bugs Bunny fans). Likewise, Chusid's enthusiasm for the work of late-'50s/early-'60s space-age-bachelor-pad-music avatar Juan Garcia Esquivel sparked an Esquivel resurgence, abetting the mid-'90s lounge-culture explosion and leading Esquivel to bring Chusid aboard as his manager. Between various Scott and Esquivel projects, radio shows, freelance writing, and the Key of Z project, Chusid has built a late-blooming career on the heap of thwarted, hapless musical careers he has stumbled across and dusted off.

"I preserve musical landmarks," as he puts it. "I find things on the scrap heap of history that I know don't belong there and I salvage them."

Several years ago, Chusid started an audio-visual spin-off of his WFMU Incorrect Music Hour show at the Manhattan nightclub , featuring sub-MTV videos for songs by B.J. Snowden and Chicago-based singer/songwriter Jan Terri; excerpts from documentaries on outsider musicians such as "Rebel" O'Leary; and even vintage newsreel footage of Cecil Dill, a Midwestern farmer interviewed about his hobby of "manualism"--playing tunes by squeezing air from between his cupped palms. A selection of these videos will form the core of Chusid's appearance at AVAM.

He is well aware that most listeners wouldn't find any right in the musical wrongs perpetrated by the performers he champions. "I don't fault people for not getting, not caring about, or not being interested in outsider music," he says. "Outsider music, by definition, is marginal." He also understands that even for many outsider fans, Shooby Taylor's wack-a-doodle scatting or the Shaggs' stumbling instrumental and singing skills are, first and foremost, a giggle.

"It's so absurd that the natural impulse is to laugh," he acknowledges. "But if you stop and listen [you can] hear the passion, and the talent even. I think Shooby Taylor is a virtuoso. I dare anyone to imitate what Shooby does with his voice--it can't be done. The Shaggs sound so uncoordinated, but that lack of coordination is in fact their style, because they can repeat those mistakes and no one else could."

Of course, Chusid notes, finding humor and joy in outsider music isn't a bad thing: "Before any shrink puts a patient on Paxil or Zoloft, they should try a little bit of Shooby. He's really a mood elevator." But he adds, "You really should proceed to the second step and try to hear what the person is doing and understand what they're doing. That's the true appreciation of outsider music--to understand what's coming from the heart of the person who's doing the performance."

To be sure, there is plenty of outsider music Chusid doesn't like. He calls the music of Jandek, the enigmatic Texas-based droner who makes up one of the book's most compelling chapters, "unashamedly repellent." But he respects Jandek as an outsider because "the fact that he would continue to do this over 29 albums and 23 years tells me that this is not a joke." Of course, outsider music is something of a contentious subject even among outsider artists. Chusid recalls a friend telling him that Snowden was a little miffed at her inclusion on the Key of Z CD because, as she put it, "Everyone else on it is terrible."

But Chusid also points to Snowden--a Massachusetts-based songwriter whose music was only "discovered" in the mid-'90s via a demo tape of her innocent, one-woman-band paeans to Canada and Oldsmobile 98s that found its way to a Manhattan record store--as an example of the continued health of true outsider music, even in our fame-obsessed, media-saturated age. Chusid last saw Snowden perform in New York in October and says that, despite years of acclaim from outsider-music fans, "There's no pretense. There's no sense that, 'OK, I'm supposed to sound sloppy, so let me give these people what they came for: an outsider performance.' And she's so genuine and so loving and so lovable that it's really irresistible. She just gets up there and acts naturally. She's up there performing as a musician.

"When you are a genuine outsider--and they're never self-defined--it doesn't penetrate. They still perform the way they perform, they still do what they do. At the bottom, they're artists."

Irwin Chusid gives a talk and video presentation 7 p.m. Feb. 9 at the American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway. Admission is $10; seating is limited. For more information call (410) 244-1900 or visit

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