(Credit: Daniel Johnston Facebook)

5 outsider musicians to get you through lockdown

Country songsmith and jaunty hat wearer, Hank Williams once said of his songwriting, “I pick up the pen and God moves it.” If that indeed is the case, then the lord was certainly moving in mysterious ways when he begot the music of BJ Snowden. To state the obvious, music is life affirmingly marvellous. In fact, Louis Armstrong once went a step further and said, “Music is Life itself.” But with life the way it is at the moment, even when it comes to music, it can be easy to land in a rut.

When that happens, it may well be the right time to turn to the wild west world of outsider music. Ditch the mainstream and even try to get away from what others deem to be ‘alternative’. We’re focusing on those figures in music who don’t just operate on the peripheries of society and go back to their nicely lit homes with 2.4 children, but who were born as outsiders, lived and died there too. In a world as crazy as ours right now, it’s one of the safest places to be.

After all, could 2020 really be depicted with any more all-encompassing fidelity than a schizophrenic lamenting the number of curse words he hears on both the street and in his own mind, in a song titled ‘Shit & Fuck’? We didn’t think so either.

So, without further ado here is a cursory dive into outsider music, that will almost certainly not help you get through the very real perils of lockdown, but once endless repeat listens has rubbed all the hope off of your ‘Maggot Brain by Funkadelic’ reissue, then it may well be time to remind yourself how strangely uplifting life, in all its berserk guises, can be.

5 essential outsider artists:

Daniel Johnston

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 is. 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 Daniel’s bedroom-bound ballads, you get a real sense that his music would exist even in a world without a mainstream, and even with an audience of one.

His song ‘The Story of an Artist’ could almost serve as a mantra for the Outsider Music world: “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 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.

BJ Snowden

When Frank Zappa besmirched the great American love song and the effects of its over-saturated presence on the national psyche, I doubt he could have envisaged the joys that awaited him on the opposite end of the cliched song spectrum in the form of unwitting iconoclast BJ Snowden.

Within her repertoire is an ode to the politeness of Canadians, a song about Santa Claus and the track about the tragedy of 9/11. There’s even a part-song-part-outburst dedicated to her son, and other teenagers who, despite outward appearances, are not actually on drugs. There’s little doubt anyone has ever dealt with these topics with more sincerity whilst also maintaining inherent joie de vivre. Snowden embraces the beauty of banality. For what could exemplify the Aristotelian ethos of art expressing ‘the inward significance’ of the commonplace than lyrics regarding the “good standard equipment” of the comfortable family saloon car — a 98 Oldsmobile.

Her style incorporates lo-fi pre-set keyboard drums and melodies with her own chord thumping repetitions, upbeat vocals and her happy-go-lucky Dr Suess of the everyday lyrics. The smile permanently plastered on her face seems to permeate right through her music, even when singing about the hardship of her divorce, and it is this that makes her such a cherished addition to our dismal daily lives in these trying times.

The most recent upload to her YouTube channel (a flame-backed performance of her 2001 track ‘Conspiracy’) seems to imply that she was fired from her job as a music teacher, seemingly owing to frankly despicable inhouse posturing by co-workers and administrators alike, who may or may not have uncovered her music career. The silver lining is that they may take away her job, but they will never take away her song. As COVID-19 has to some degree literally snatched both our jobs and music, BJ helps us to try and accept the hardships of life with a smiling equanimity and to revel in the wonders that unfurl from the every day for those of a disposition to gladly receive them.

Shooby Taylor

For some Shooby Taylor is the unheralded godfather of outsider music, for others, he is simply The Human Horn, for most everyone he is an unknown entity.

It is this inherent anonymity of outsider music that imbues it with great charm. If, as has been said many times over in words of approximation: art is an outward expression of what exists within, then perhaps more inexplicable than Shooby’s music, is the innermost self from which it derived.

He is the baritone man of scat, unlike any other. Namely, because nobody else would have thought you could yell “poopy-poopy-poopy-poopy-poopy” over a record and get away with it. And they would be right. In 1983 he appeared on the American TV show Amateur Night at The Apollo, and the audience could only stomach 19 seconds of his exuberant nonsense before he was mercilessly booed off the stage. However, in that 19 seconds, he exhibits the absolute sincerity of his craft, and therein the central proponent of outsider music.

His music is funny enough in of itself, but the fact that he holds such unabated nonsense in such sincere regard permeates the few recordings we have with an indelible sense of joyful abandon, infectious to any listener and guaranteed to exalt you, for as long as you can bear to listen, beyond any existential dread.

No doubt all the records in your collection that refrain from speaking in tongues are great, but to listen to ‘Stout Hearted Man’, if only once, is to champion the craziness of life in all its forms.

That crazy form of life became embalmed in all sorts of urban myths when tapes of Shooby began to infiltrate the outsider circles in the ’90s. Until Rick Getz and Irwin Chusid (author of outsider music bible ‘Songs in The Key of Z’) tracked him down. He was simply a retired postal worker, who in his own words discovered, (as broadcast on the radio documentary ‘Adam Buxton and the Human Horn) “after years of lugging that [saxophone] around, I came to realise, that I am the horn!” And thus, he found a way of expressing his innermost self.

Moondog

Admittedly, Moondog, may not classically qualify as an outsider artist, primarily because he was a terrifically skilled musician, but it’s 2020 and we’re not here to get cynical. Despite his musical proficiency, there was much about Moondog that adhered to the outsider realm.

His story, for instance, is one of legend. Born Louis Thomas Hardin, the name Moondog came from a childhood pet, Lindy, who “howled at the moon more than any dog I knew,” but in New York (from the late 1940s until he left in 1972) he became known as the Viking of 6th Avenue.

Occasionally selling records, sometimes busking with self-invented instruments, but mostly just standing at a corner of 6th, between 52nd and 55th Street, dressed as a Viking holding a spear, most residents took him as an eccentric vagrant. Completely unaware that this blind Norseman was revered by composers like Leonard Bernstein and jazz stars like Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker (to whom Bird’s Lament is a homage) alike.

He lost his sight aged 16 when he discovered something in a field; he was unsure whether it was an explosive up until the point it exploded and blinded him. From that disaster came some of the most spiritual and unique music of the 20th Century.

Largely self-taught form reading the precious few braille books on music theory available to him at the Iowa School for the Blind, Moondog’s life is a lesson for all of us in these times of adversity. His life-affirming determination, individualism and zeal are perhaps best summed up in the lyrics of his song ‘Do Your Thing’: “Do your thing!/ Be fancy-free to call the tune you sing/ Don’t give up!/ That’s not the way to win a loving cup/ Do your best/ And opportunity will do the rest/ Don’t give in!/ Capitulation is the greatest sin/ Do what’s right/ What’s right for you, to do with all your might.”

Wesley Willis

Sadly, Wesley’s life is another one marred by tragedy and hardship, but another where thankfully the zeal for art not only endured but flourished as both an insular and outward cornerstone of existence to a vivacious all-conquering degree.

On October 15th, 1989, Willis’ mother’s boyfriend uncovered the $600 he had saved up to move out and robbed him of it. This was the culminating blow after a childhood of abuse that hurled Wesley into a psychotic episode and ultimately a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. Wesley dubbed the voices he heard as “Heartbreaker”, “Nervewrecker”, and “Meansucker”, referring to their attacks as “hell rides” and declaring the countering balm of rock and roll as the “joy ride of music”.

Embraced by many among Chicago’s punk rock scene, Willis performed in several bands, including the Wesley Willis Fiasco and the Monster Voodoo Machine. Still, it is mostly his solo work that survives to this day. Aside from the fact that Willis primarily used variations on the same 2 or 3 central melodies throughout his entire discography, the joy of listening to him comes from the fact you never really know what is coming next.

For instance, the song ‘2×4’ begins with the lyrics “Thank God for how I am learning to live, that’s the spirit, that’s that way of the world, that’s the ticket,” and you are left wondering how this has anything to do with a plank of wood, until you get to the chorus, and lo and behold he’s threatening to beat you around the head with one.

Many of his songs are self-referential stories, the first song he ever wrote, ‘He’s Doing Time in Jail’, describes the time a man with a box cutter attacked him. Whereas, other songs such as, ‘The Chicken Cow’, about a half-chicken / half-cow beast that not only “stabbed his brother in the ass” but also killed “100,000 people”, neglects the tough Chicagoan reality, and delves into the realm of farmyard nightmare. This same contrasting duplicity is even self-present within his songs themselves, the chorus for his evangelical anti-cussing songs being an outburst of simply “shit and fuck” six times over.

Besides the unpredictability of his music, what makes it so listenable is the intrinsic catchiness of his songs, he’s like the American Beatles. The danger is that after a bout of listens you may catch yourself mumbling ‘Suck a Caribou’s Ass.’

Wesley was a man who knew precisely how many days he had lived on this planet and just how many of those days were ‘good ones’. You can rest assured that such was his zest for performing that all those days on stage resided firmly in the ‘good’. As Wesley said himself, “If some of you have demons in your head who talk to you in profanity or whatever, don’t let your demon shoot down your rock music, don’t let your demon keep you off the joy bus. So, like I say, Rock music pays off.”

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