So Bad It's Got to Be Good
Irwin Chusid had never used the term outsider music until late 1997, when he was drafting the proposal for his book Songs in the Key of Z, recently published by the local A Cappella press. In fact, for decades the Hoboken record producer, disc jockey, writer, and record hound had lovingly referred to the music he collected--stuff that sounded incompetent or just plain bad by conventional standards--as atrocious music. But in 1991, after meeting Lucia Pamela--profiled in the book as a "tipsy Ethel Merman" who "hollers, growls, and stutters" songs about her interstellar travels--he decided the term was too pejorative to use with someone who took her music as seriously as any "real" musician. On Chusid's radio show for the Jersey City free-form station WFMU, he stopped doing a segment he called the "Atrocious Music Hour," and though he now hosts a whole show called the Incorrect Music Hour, its mission is carefully stated on the Web site: "We don't present comedy--we're engaged in anthropology."
On October 5, Chusid will give a presentation at Chicago's Intuit gallery, whose directors face similar issues in their mission to present what they call "intuitive and outsider art." The Intuit organization was founded in 1991 to promote work by visual artists who are usually self-taught and often wholly unaware of the marketplace--people like Henry Darger, Howard Finster, and Sister Gertrude. The current exhibit features the "fiber art" of Judith Scott, a 57-year-old California woman with Down's syndrome who obsessively bundles yarn. "I don't think there's a one-to-one correlation between outsider art and music," cautions Jeff Cory, Intuit's executive director. You just can't make music without realizing that you're making music, even if you do it completely outside of the public eye. But there are parallels to be drawn, and starting this week Intuit is presenting the "Intuitive Music Series," in part inspired by Chusid's book; it kicks off this Saturday night with two performances by folk-improv wacko Eugene Chadbourne. The featured artist on October 21 will be the one-man psychobilly band Hasil Adkins, and on November 11 the series culminates with the first Chicago appearance of Austin singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston (whom Chusid describes as "huggably pudgy, emotionally unstable, and disarmingly gnomelike").
Chusid's talk will include a video presentation, which he hopes will include recently discovered footage of one of the better-known outsider music acts, the Shaggs. Chusid is in part responsible for the recent revival of interest in the Wiggins sisters' garage band--he and NRBQ keyboardist Terry Adams coproduced RCA's 1999 reissue of their Philosophy of the World, sales of which got a boost from a Shaggs feature in the New Yorker. Chusid has also produced key reissues of work by offbeat composers Raymond Scott and Esquivel, along with novelty compilations like Ernie Kovacs' Record Collection. Songs in the Key of Z covers an impressively broad range of outsider music with no pretense of completeness, drawing connections between the work of savvy weirdos like Captain Beefheart and Harry Partch, goofs like Tiny Tim and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, and addled primitives like Swedish Elvis impersonator Eilert Pilarm and the Cherry Sisters.
The chapter on the Cherry Sisters, a vaudevillian sister act from the late 1800s, might be the highlight of the book. The group never got a chance to record, but in his assiduous research Chusid uncovered reviews of their performances that have none of the cautious sensitivity of, say, recent perspectives on Wesley Willis. A notice from a newspaper in Odebolt, Iowa, reads, "The mouths of their rancid features opened like caverns, and sounds like the wailing of damned souls issued therefrom. They pranced around the stage...strange creatures with painted features and hideous mien. Effie is spavined, Addie is knock-kneed and string-halt, and Jessie, the only one who showed her stockings, has legs without calves, as classic in their outline as the curves of a broom handle."
The sisters sued the paper for libel and, in a precedent-setting case, lost, but went on to sell out several weeks of shows on Broadway on the strength of their reputation as the world's worst sister act. Celebrities invited them to parties and apparently Mae West even made a disparaging remark about them in one of her films, but Chusid never resolves whether the Cherrys were truly unaware of how they were perceived. Not that it matters--in a way, Songs in the Key of Z is as much about how "normal" people respond to outsider music as about the people who make it.
Intuit is at 756 N. Milwaukee; call 312-243-9088 for further information on the "Intuitive Music Series." For more on Chusid and outsider music, visit www.incorrectmusic.com.
Starting on Wednesday, Metro hosts the bulk of the lineup for Flower10, a five-day indie-rock extravaganza that celebrates the tenth anniversary of Flowerbooking. I don't know why concertgoers should give a hoot about the anniversary of a behind-the-scenes entity like a booking agency, but any excuse to get a lot of good bands on one flyer is a good one, I guess.
Most of the groups playing here fall into the post-rock and emo camps, and most of them play here with some regularity. Two noteworthy exceptions: Antietam, the great Hoboken trio featuring blitzkrieg guitarist Tara Key, plays Friday, September 29, and San Francisco's Fucking Champs make a fairly rare local appearance on opening night. You may remember the Fucking Champs as C4AM95, which is what they called themselves on their 1997 album III (Frenetic) to avoid legal tussles with the band that made "Tequila" a hit. Their new IV (Drag City) strips heavy metal of its tacky paint job, scraping away the idiotic lyrics and cartoonish vocals and endless guitar solos to reveal an awesome topography of ultraprecise chugging riffs, tight unison leads, and a sly sense of humor--song titles include "Thor Is Like Immortal" and "These Glyphs Are Dusty."
Proceeds from Flower10 go to PLAY, an organization that provides creative outlets to teens who've been exposed to violence or abuse.
The local pop quartet OK Go are looking for the right label to release their new album, produced by Dave Trumfio, but meanwhile they've decided to put out a three-song single on their own, which they'll celebrate with a show Friday at the Empty Bottle. OK Go are sort of a high-tech version of what Blur were before Blur began imitating mopey, self-aware American indie-rock bands: they bury strong pop hooks under explosive hard rock riffs, colliding drum loops, jags of electronic confusion, and new wave keyboard licks. Trumfio's done a good job balancing gritty live instrumentation with blatant artifice, playing them off each other in a constant shuffle of sonic details. Opening the release party is We Ragazzi, who've re-formed with new drummer Tim McConville and recorded a new single, available in MP3 format at www.weragazzi.com.
Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at email@example.com.