“The tunes they call creative when they’re running out of names…”
When you delve into the murky depths of outsider music, the first thing you’ll dredge up is the fierce debate regarding what exactly it constitutes. The key is in the name itself. It is the feeling that you are listening to something so far outside the mainstay that it seems to exist in a realm of its own, without knowingly being duped by a novelty act.
Perhaps outsider music’s most well-known name, Daniel Johnston, embodies this best of all. When you listen to Johnston’s bedroom-bound ballads, you get a real sense that his music would exist even in a world without a mainstream; in fact, you sense it would exist even with an audience of one.
His song ‘The Story of an Artist’ could almost serve as a mantra for the Outsider Music world. He croons out in boyish tones: “Listen up, and I’ll tell a story/ About an artist growing old/ Some would try for fame and glory/ Others aren’t so bold/ Everyone and friends and family/ Saying, ‘Hey, get a job/ Why do you only do that only?/ Why are you so odd?’”
As is clear from his Beatles monomania his music was not without influence; it’s just that those influences are hard to pick up on with his trademark rudimentary Bontempi electric chord organ sound. His essential outsider moment came at a gig in Austin, Texas whereby he decided to forgo his trusty keyboard in favour of the guitar, a much more traditionally Texan instrument. The only problem being that he couldn’t play the guitar.
It is this inherent charm that has endeared his music to a cult following. Amid that hearty clan of followers for the late star was none other than David Bowie. The Starman once dubbed Johnston a “one-man Beach Boys,” but the admiration ran beyond the outsider musicians’ unmistakable ear for melody.
In a 2002 interview with Mojo, Bowie confirmed that his interest was not merely a fleeting fancy. “He comes out of Austin, Texas, also another lad who had a lot of problems with thinking,” he said. “He was in different institutions and hospitals all his life and would make funny little cassettes of all his songs, on an out-of-tune piano or guitar: beautiful, poignant, sad little pieces. And he’d take them into the local comic shop and swap the cassettes for comics.”
In 2005, Bowie provided the following tagline for the superb documentary film The Devil and Daniel Johnston: “Daniel Johnston reminds me of aspects that made me love art in the first place.” It was this unfettered ethos that Bowie was trying to head back towards when he recorded his ode to the joyous outsider star titled ‘Wood Jackson’.
With references to Johnston’s tracks like ‘A Lonely Song’ running throughout in verses such as, “I bet you never knew / What I went through / What I had to do / Just to bring you a lonely song,” Bowie puts the artist back into outsider art in a humanising way that many point-missing publications have stripped away merely to poke fun. Bowie’s tender celebration of Johnston’s unadorned love of creation continues to soar in lines like: “Heart’s upon his sleeve and his blade / Wood Jackson took the beating every day, given out, passed away.”
The track was released as a B-Side to the Heathen sessions and in an odd way, although obscure, it resides among Bowie’s most defining. After all, when Bowie finally found his straps with Ziggy Stardust the only thing saving him from being dubbed an outsider artist by a puzzled mainstream was an undeniable level of competency. The Starman was forever drawing inspiration from the avant-garde, and almost by definition, the outsider realm is the pinnacle of that field without ever even knowing it. The art world needs these illuminators in myriad ways and Bowie knew that more than most.