Back in the days before YouTube, videos went viral by hand—people dubbed and traded VHS tapes, and if you wanted to see weird junk videos you had to know somebody. In the late 90s my best suppliers were three guys who lived together in an apartment, where I would hang out and let them screen whatever bizarre tapes they wanted. One day they showed me something called The Junior Christian Science Bible Lesson Program. It was a cable-access show hosted by a vaguely middle-aged-looking guy with a menagerie of ventriloquist's dolls, including a nightmarish teddy bear and a kid with dark skin and kinky hair named Chip the Black Boy, which would've seemed amazingly racist if the host weren't black. (Instead it was just weird.) The man, who I'd later learn is named David Liebe Hart (he also has a number of aliases), made the dolls deliver his sermons on the Bible and the existence of sentient extraterrestrial life, or else had them sing hymns in his quavering baritone, accompanied by a Casio synthesizer. It was utterly bizarre, but it also had the spark of wild originality that distinguishes great outsider art.
In subsequent tapes—mailed by Hart himself after one of my guys sent him a fan letter—a long-haired electric guitarist with a hint of a smirk began to appear, suggesting that Hart had acquired a quasi-ironic cult following in LA, where he produced JCSBLP. This was more or less confirmed in 2007 when Hart began turning up in episodes of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! alongside other recognizable figures from the Hollywood fringe, including JCSBLP regular James Quall.
Since he joined the cast of Tim and Eric, Hart has recorded and released six albums, most with the help of a younger musician named Adam Papagan—not the same guitarist from the late-90s videos—who provides sprightlier, more rock-based accompaniment than the Casio. He also seems to have a way of keeping Hart's attention on music. Earlier this year Hart launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a punk record he wanted to make, eventually raising more than $11,000. One of the songs slated for it is about an entity called "La Rent," who according to Hart is "an alien who doesn't want me to look at porn."
Pop music has been very kind to outsider artists, especially in the rock era, and the counterculture in particular has sustained a fascination with eccentric musicians since at least the 60s—which has made cult idols out of Wild Man Fischer, Moondog, Jandek, Daniel Johnston, Wesley Willis, and many more. Appreciating them can sometimes be ethically tricky. A segment of the audience is always there ironically, which can give the interaction an ugly freak-show aspect even if the artist in question is merely eccentric, not mentally ill (as some are). When an outsider's collaborators have the same vibe, it's extra ugly.
Eccentric Chicago-born singer-songwriter Willis Earl Beal—recently relocated to New York City—has told me that he admires outsiders such as Johnston and Jandek, and that he hopes his career will have a similar arc. I asked him what the appeal was. "What I liked about them isn't so much that they were labeled outsider musicians, but that they were out there doing it anyway whether they were going to be discovered or not," he said. "It didn't factor into the equation for them. To me outsider artists represent the ideal person, where they just make art a part of living life. It isn't something you raise up and worship. . . . It makes more sense than the music industry."
Hart was born in Forest Park and raised in Chicago, and as he tells it (between long digressions about his family history, the relationships among the alien races he's encountered, and his brushes with famous showbiz Christian Scientists), he was making music for decades before he found his current audience through Tim and Eric. He took music lessons when he was young, he says, and started out by adapting Christian Science hymns to his own arrangements; in the early 70s he began writing his own gospel songs. He tells me he used to advertise his music in the Reader classifieds back then, and that he auditioned for Styx and the band Chicago.
Soon he developed his own singular musical identity. "I started writing songs about people who meant a lot to me," he says. "Like my mother—I wrote a rap song called 'My Mama Died' that you can hear on YouTube. I have songs about my favorite railroads in Chicago." In fact he and Papagan have recorded an entire album where each track is devoted to a description of a rail line: 2009's Trains of the Past and Present. It's utterly fascinating.
Though he only started making rock and punk after he began collaborating with Papagan, he's been a fan for a long time. "I always listened to rock 'n' roll music," he says. "My first love was the WLS radio station, and I was inspired by many famous rock 'n' roll musicians. I just had a craving for rock 'n' roll music since I was a kid." He acknowledges Papagan as an influence in his decision to explore punk, but also credits a cousin for first exposing him to it in the 70s.
Hart spoke to me from the road—he plays at Township on Sun 10/7—and he tells me that the hassles of the road are worth dealing with for the opportunity to connect with his audience. They appear on his Tumblr, showing off DLH T-shirts and the original artwork he sells. The most dedicated—including the one who brought a live goat to his show in Pueblo, Colorado—seem to have wholeheartedly embraced the crackle of oddness that Hart carries with him. With others, it's hard to tell if they're weirdos themselves or if they just want to soak up somebody else's weirdness. Hart says so many of his fans have asked him so many questions about the aliens that the aliens have stopped talking to him. The last he heard, some of the different races, who've given humankind technological gifts like the airplane, were at war. His voice takes on a wistful tone, and he tells me he really wants to get this message into my article: "It's sad," he says, "that for all of the engineering technology the aliens have given us, they still haven't been able to overcome the childishness of war."