Esthetical Incorrectness, or What We Used to Call Bad Art

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:54

    And there's Chusid, a friend of and occasional contributor to New York Press, who's made it one of his life's goals to champion Bad Music. Bad music. There are tracks on this CD bad enough to give you an earache. And that's the good stuff. The really bad stuff here is so bad it bypasses your ears and goes straight to your brain. Brain-ache music.

    Let's start with him. The 20-track CD is a companion to his new?and first?book, Songs in the Key of Z: the Curious Universe of Outsider Music (a cappella, 271 pages, $16.95). I think you should do them as a package set, because they cross-reference each other in so many ways. The compleat aficionado of Incorrect/Incredibly Strange/ Unsung/Un-derground/Lo-Fi/Outsider/DIY musics probably won't read or hear a lot here that's new, but that's largely Chusid's own fault. Much of what the Outsider Music connoisseur thinks he knows about this stuff is fallout from Chusid's years of obsessing about it?at WFMU, where he's been since 1975; as producer and promoter for a long list of outré artists, from Raymond Scott and Esquivel to Ernie Kovacs, Ladislaw Starewicz and the Shaggs; as coproducer of the Incorrect Music Video Soirees at Fez; and writing about it here and in the Times, Billboard, liner notes, etc.

    I'm saying Irwin has only himself to blame for spreading the word about B.J. Snowden, Shooby Taylor, Sri Darwin Gross and the late Liberian Congresswoman Malinda Jackson Parker. And now you can blame him, too.

    If you're already familiar with those names and their music, (a) you need to get out in the sun more often and turn off the FMU once in a while, geek, and (b) you still might learn something from Chusid's book, because it's an unusually catholic survey of the field. Chusid's interested in all kinds of people whose music has been considered outré for all sorts of reasons, from highbrow composers to rock bands, from legitimate visionaries to crackpots, from the rankest (sic) amateurs to those who actually made a living at music. What's similar about them is that they all stand somehow outside the boundaries of contemporary taste and practice, some of them intentionally, others because they have no choice?they couldn't make "normal" or "popular" music no matter how hard they tried (and oh, how hard some of them try). As a natural result, most of them have labored away with no or nearly no recognition. "Of course," Chusid correctly notes, "broad public indifference is a useless barometer of artistic significance." He says this not as a snob, but because he's the opposite: the ultimate cultural bottom-feeder. I mean that in the best way.

    All that said, I'm not sure how much you won't already have known about any of the following, each of whom gets a chapter, and most of whom get a track on the companion CD: Captain Beefheart, Tiny Tim, Syd Barrett, Joe Meek, Wesley Willis (represented on the CD by his maniac "Rock 'n' Roll McDonald's"), Wild Man Fischer, the Shaggs (their signature falling-down anthem "Philosophy of the World"), Harry Partch, Jandek (the ultra-morbid "They Told Me I Was a Fool"), the Legendary Stardust Cowboy ("Standing in a Trash Can [Thinking About You]") and Daniel Johnston (the beguiling "Walking the Cow," which sounds like a homicidal third-grader channeling early Tyrannosaurus Rex).

    They're all in their various ways cult figures and "stars" of Outsider music; but if you don't already know about them, this is the place to go, because Chusid is an acknowledged expert on, and in many cases has done the primary research into, their stories and their art. He treats them with the sympathy and affection they (mostly) deserve, without smirking at their lapses but not without the appropriate sense of humor (e.g., the morose Jandek is like "the Velvet Underground after taxes").

    I had the most fun reading about and hearing the way way outsiders, the songs and psychos I surely never would have heard about if someone like Chusid hadn't dug them up. There's Eilert Pilarm, the Swedish Elvis?the worst Elvis imitator I've ever heard except for Pol Parsley, a Southeast Asian one. (Irwin, I'll lend you the LP sometime.) Chusid elucidates two historical examples that so-bad-it's-good irony is hardly a hipster affectation born in the 1990s. One is the Cherry Sisters, beloved by thousands in their day as the worst act in all Vaudeville; the other is Florence Foster Jenkins, a Manhattan socialite and amateur opera diva who could sell out Carnegie Hall in the 1940s to crowds who came to hear precisely how bad her legendarily awful singing really was.

    There's a lovable innocence and joie de off-kilter vivre about some of Chusid's best characters, like B.J. Snowden, known for her enthusiastic ode "In Canada"; Peter Grudzien, a queer country singer from, of course, Queens, and author of the most touchingly patriotic song I may ever have heard ("Though I realize I'm homo, that is true sir/Don't judge me by my preference in sex/Let me show Uncle Sam what I can do sir/Let me help to bring the terrorists down a peg... And a hero gay is what I want to be..."); Lucia Pamela, barrelhouse belter of the story-cycle LP Into Outer Space ("the shortest musical route between the Shaggs and Sun Ra," Chusid quips); Shooby Taylor, whom Chusid aptly dubs "the world's weirdest scat singer"; and Congresswoman Parker, who banged out loopy educational songs for Liberian kids like "Cousin Mosquito #1," in which she utters the word "cousin" 204 times in under four minutes.

    For pure, psycho, brain-ache awfulness, the two worst tracks on the CD are, I suppose inevitably, the two most lavishly produced. One is a "song poem"; as Chusid explains in the book, people used to send their lyrics and money into these vanity press-style music houses, where studio musicians and singers would struggle mightily to wrestle them into something vaguely resembling pop tunes. The hallucinatory "Virgin Child of the Universe," whipped up into a bombastic soul anthem that sounds like an outtake from Jesus Christ Superstar (As Performed By the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade), grates on not only the ears but the mind with lines like: "As the day comes to an end, the Virgin Child of the Universe/is swept up in her fierce drive of sexual encounters/Orgasmic explosion of love, enhances the child/While a floodgate of love circles throughout Saturnate..." Yeah, you try writing music to that.

    Worse still is Sri Darwin Gross' stupendously overproduced ode to Eckankar (which Ivan Stang once denigrated as "the Stupidest Cult"), with lines impossible to scan, Gross' wobbily crooning like a tin-ear Bing Crosby impersonator and a chirpy, treacly, chipmunks-in-the-Emerald-Forest production that makes the most saccharine Disney movie orchestration sound like Alban Berg. I've never heard a track of recorded music that made my head hurt more than this song.

    Thanks, Irwin.

    William Anthony was a kid, aged 7 to 11, during World War II. Luckily for us, he still remembers the war that way. That's how he draws it and tells it in War Is Swell. His anatomically incorrect figures?heads like lima beans, torsos like potatoes, crooked tits and wrong-way-bending limbs?are the perfectly inept illustrations for his boy's own version of the war, all gleefully ignorant jingoism, racism and just plain doofism.

    One of the first things you notice is that it's not all that different from the view of war presented in Saving Private Ryan or most any other war movie. Indeed, there are panoramic battle scenes here every bit as epic in sweep as Spielberg's invasion of Normandy. It makes you think maybe all war stories are told by boys, to boys (with a few notable exceptions like The Thin Red Line).

    Not, I'd guess, that Anthony has so lofty an intent in mind. The book's too funny, the drawings much too likably dork. (Warhol once said Anthony's earlier illustrated rendition of Bible stories was the only version of the Bible he could read.) "The Japs, they started it by bombing Pearl Harbor," Anthony sagely relates. We learn that "Hitler's girlfriend was Eva Braun. Hitler didn't know it, but she would lock herself in her room and boogie to jazz records," and that "Kraut officers were all born with big dueling scars on their faces. Their favorite word was: SCHWEIN," and that "Whenever Hitler conquered a new country, he would do a dance."

    In the end, though, justice prevails: "Hitler had Eva Braun go and poison herself in their bunker. Then Hitler poisoned and hung and shot himself. Then just to be sure, he burned the bodies."

    Afterwords It's not that I'd disagree with the main thrust in Nancy Hass' profile of Toby Young for this past Sunday's Times "Styles" section. Covering Toby's going-away party thrown by Richard and Nadine Johnson last week?as "Taki's Top Drawer" readers know, he's been in the process of moving back to London over the last few months?she went to some lengths to portray him as "a kind of hangdog mascot" and an "icon of defeat" who "has, in his own words, 'been failing in a devastatingly public way'" since he came to New York and Vanity Fair five years ago. Okay, we get her point: Toby's a shmoo, a confessed loser who's slinking back to London with his tail between his legs. But why did she have to go the extra yard and give the impression that, besides the "400 words" he got into Vanity Fair in his three years there, he wrote very little else while in New York? For over a year he's written a weekly, and then biweekly column for "Top Drawer," which has certainly been his highest-volume and most regular output for any New York publication. Hass doesn't even mention it. Or Gear.

    On a similar note, the "Newsstand" section in this Monday's New York Post praises this week's New York for "a nice feature on Internet gossip Jim Romenesko. (Sure, The Post's Mary Huhn wrote about him last year in Cyber Ink, but he's always good copy?especially this week when he created a stir by alerting the news media that Talk correspondent Tucker Carlson has been prevented from leaving Vietnam.)"

    All right, (a) I'm over everybody in the media claiming to have discovered Jim Romenesko. Everybody wrote about his last year, not just Huhn. If anything, (b) it's typically after-the-ball for New York to be running a feature about him this year, and instead of praise, the magazine should be docked for it. And (c), it's shoddy to identify Tucker Carlson as a correspondent for Talk, where he's written a smattering of pieces, without mentioning The Weekly Standard, where he's employed, or CNN, where he's a regular.