Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music (review)
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Notes 59.1 (2002) 66-67



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Book Review

Songs in the Key of Z:
The Curious Universe of Outsider Music


Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music. By Irwin Chusid. Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2000. [xxvii, 271 p. ISBN1-55652-372-6. $16.95.] Illustrations, bibliography, discography, index.

The term "outsider music" was coined in 1996 by Irwin Chusid, who defines it as a "mutant strain of twisted sonic art that's so wrong—it's right" (p. ix). With this invented classification, Chusid renews the American myth of the isolated, uncompromising, and unschooled rebel. He is not alone: recently the San Francisco Symphony presented a festival entitled American Mavericks, and the seemingly oxymoronic term "American experimental tradition" now appears regularly in scholarly journals and syllabi. The New York Times Magazine reported on outsider music in its "Music 2002" issue, considering assorted untrained visionaries alongside articles on the more prominent figures Mingus and Moby (Dwight Garner, "Band of Outsiders," New York Times Magazine, 17 March 2002, p. 11-12, 14). Here in the land of James Dean, the home of the rave, the realm of manufactured iconoclasm, we continue to mine society's margins for wave after wave of marketable nonconformity.

Chusid, a radio host, record producer, and self-described music historian, may be the world's foremost authority on outsider music. Since 1997 he and his colleague Michelle Boulé have hosted a weekly radio show called "Incorrect Music" which showcases the same strange material profiled in his book. (The show plays on WFMU-FM, an independent station in Jersey City, New Jersey.) Taking a cue from the field of outsider art, which scrutinizes visual artworks created by self-taught, incarcerated, mentally ill, or otherwise marginalized individuals, Chusid insists that outsider musicians not be confused with the merely " 'unpopular,' 'uncommercial,' or 'underground' artists" (p. xiv) who deliberately oppose themselves to the mainstream. This emphasis on the artist's intention—as opposed to the resulting product—is not accidental, for Chusid locates marginality in the mind of the artist, who, in order to be classified as an outsider, must fail to display "overt self-consciousness about their art" (p. x).

Songs in the Key of Z is not a scholarly study, but it is diligently researched and engagingly written. Its twenty chapters focus mostly on individual musicians, from Swedish Elvis impersonator Eilert Pilarm to British rock producer Joe Meek, who is described as "a cross between Thomas Edison, Phil Spector, and Ed Wood, Jr." (p. 26). A final chapter briefly considers a number of additional figures, including the invariably inebriated Les Wilson, the celebrity amateur William Shatner, and the "singing psychic" Frances Baskerville (p. 201). Although most of the music could be categorized as vernacular, if not strictly "popular," there are exceptions, among them the cranky experimentalist Harry Partch, the wealthy would-be diva Florence Foster Jenkins, and the perplexing jazz composer Robert Graettinger. More typical, though, is a notoriously incompetent band called the Shaggs, whose "so-bad-it's-good" music, originally recorded between 1969 and 1975, now serves as a siren song for outsider- music aficionados.

Not surprisingly, Chusid's definition of outsider music is fluid and somewhat problematic. In his illogical universe, the anti-matter of ineptitude acquires the positive valence of innovation: "the 'wronger' it is . . . the closer it approaches pure originality" (p. xi). In addition, the book's parade of eccentrics displays an unmistakable flavor of the "freak circus" (p. xx), which Chusid wisely acknowledges—and partially defuses—in his introduction. Chusid's fetishization of unselfconsciousness raises a number of questions, too, chief among them the difficulty of assessing an artist's psychology and intentions. (Doesn't obtaining a degree from the Berklee College of Music, performing publicly, and releasing an album, as singer/songwriter B. J. Snowden has done, require a certain amount of self-awareness?) Moreover, although his afterword denies any one-to-one correspondence between marginality and authenticity, Chusid routinely portrays the outsider as unambiguously, and sometimes improbably, naïve. The campy, edgy tone of his...