"They bring my mind to a complete halt." Carla Bley on The Shaggs
"Disco, disco, disco. I am going to get Crisco." From "How Long Are You Staying," a song-poem written by Mary Urrutia and sung by Bill Joy
Ask any self-confessed fan what they look for in music beyond mere entertainment, and typically the first answer will be either "honesty" or "uniqueness." And this is admirable. The unspoken addendum, however, is that the "honesty" and "uniqueness" be delivered in a ready-made and easily recognized package. Creativity is great and all, but let's not get carried away.
Nonetheless, there exists a vibrant subterranean culture built entirely around music that is both incredibly unique and creatively honest ... and totally bizarre. Generally referred to as "outsider music," these are songs created by individuals with their own, decidedly distinctive ideas about what constitutes music. Though some outsider musicians, like Wesley Willis or Daniel Johnston, have achieved a modicum of notoriety among indie-rock hipsters, their reputations are based more on their respective personalities (and psychological difficulties) than on the actual music they create. (Willis is a schizophrenic; Johnston is manic-depressive.)
Certainly, personality goes a long way as the primary element in what makes outsider music so outside, and the creators of these sounds are generally possessed of personae quite outside the mainstream. After all, what "normal" person dresses up in a loincloth to play violin while yelping lyrics that explicate his wholly constructed imaginary world view? Thoth -- the subject of a self-titled, Oscar-winning documentary -- does, and he wants to share the history of Festad (a country of his own creation) with you via quite original songs like "The Herma, Scene 5: Recitation/An."
Unfortunately, outsider music is often defined by freaks like Thoth, of whom there are truly a surprising number. Yet, the majority of the stuff is made by "regular" folks who are convinced that they are talented, inspired and just one lucky step away from the Hot 100. Typically, these "regular" folks are none of those three things. Nor are they "regular." "Songs in the Key of Z, Vol. 2" (released in October on Gammon Records) is the second audio companion to the book of the same name and it easily makes this case.
The first companion CD focused on more well-known outsider musicians (Willis and Johnston, Tiny Tim and Captain Beefheart, as well as legends like The Shaggs, Lucia Pamela and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy), while Vol. 2 is focused on the Å¸ber-fringe of this peripheral genre. And when you're exploring the outer reaches of this genre, you are entering a seldom-explored musical frontier. Ranging from charmingly naive ("Deep Bosom Woman" by Wayne, or Liberian Congress-Woman Malinda Jackson Parker's off-key rant against "Cousin Mosquito #2") and plain old weird (the frenzied Devo-isms of Bingo Gazingo) to borderline retarded (Shooby Taylor's nonsense scat-singing on "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing"), "Key of Z" cuts a wide swath across the realm of outsider music. It's nearly impossible to describe the range of styles represented, as each "artist" on the disc is so undeniably immersed in their own idea of what music is that each track is pretty much of its own style. Yet one track, Dick Kent's "Five Feet Nine and a Half Inches Tall," fits into a somewhat recognized genre. It's a song-poem.
The ultimate example of self-actualized creativity, song-poems are the result of a peculiarly American combination of devious capitalism, unfettered ambition and declining public education. Hawked in the back of "poetry journals" and comic books, song-poems are what happens when you send one of your poems and 75 of your bucks to a post-office box, fully confident that the expert songsmiths at the other end will transform your written artistry into a musical masterwork. Yes, you get a musical rendition of your poem. Yes, it might even be pressed up on a 45 (or a CD). But, no, you won't find it in a record store. Ever.
Anyone dumb enough to fall for the scam isn't likely to be possessed of the poetic skills necessary to be a lyricist; but that stupidity has fueled the shady song-poem business for several decades now, yielding some amazing pieces of music. Finally, it seems that the genre is being recognized. With the release of "The American Song-Poem Anthology: Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush" on Bar/None, we get the first widely available CD overview of song-poems. (The earlier "MSR Madness" collections from which this disc was culled were released through the tiny Carnage Press label and weren't easy to find.) "Big Wood" brings together 28 stunning examples, including the legendary "Blind Man's Penis" and other classics such as "Rat a Tat Tat, America," "Human Breakdown of Absurdity" (which contains the most horrifying female vocal accompaniment in any song, ever) and "Jimmy Carter Says Yes."
Additionally, PBS is airing "Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story" as part of its "Independent Lens" series. The hour-long documentary pulls the curtain back on the odd (and often sad) world of song-poems, making it abundantly clear that it's a game of exploitation. Nonetheless, it's difficult to figure out who's being exploited: Is it the sad-sack Nashville failure who's doomed to churn out song-poems to pay the rent or is it the clearly mentally challenged Tae Kwon Do-loving Jesus freak who keeps writing the poems that keep these guys in business?
Manufactured factory-style -- from receipt of lyrics through chart-writing to final recording, which usually takes less than a few hours -- by well-seasoned studio hacks (typically in Nashville, New York or Los Angeles), the vast majority of song-poems have a dull, workmanlike quality to them. Given the typically mundane fare of the poetry involved, the process is appropriate. However, when the world-weary sounds of bored musicians and dulcet-toned, over-the-hill vocalists collide with poetry like "I Lost My Girl to an Argentinean Cowboy" or "I Like Yellow Things," the results are quite head-turning.
Taken on their own, song-poem lyrics hover between stupid and creepy: "God in his infinite wisdom/ put Richard Nixon on this earth." "A convertible and a headband makes the scene. A convertible and a headband is all I need." "I believe in the Constitution of the U.S.A. I respect the Holy Bible. Every word it says." But combined with the vocal talents of someone like Gene "King of the Demo Singers" Merlino or the deeply troubled (and likely genius) Rodd Keith, that's when the magic comes out.
To hear a drug-addled Keith wrap his honeyed tongue around an utterly nonsensical lyric lends absolutely unwarranted gravitas to a piece of music that -- by all rights -- shouldn't exist. But it -- as well as several thousand other song-poems and untold numbers of other "outsider music" pieces -- does exist. Their existence is ample evidence that the American creative spirit isn't limited solely to professionals and, more importantly, that talent and ambition aren't mutually inclusive.
"Songs in the Key of Z" (both volumes of the CD and the book) are available at www.keyofz.com; "The American Song-Poem Anthology: Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush" comes out Feb. 11 on Bar/None Records; "Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story" documentary airs 11 p.m. Feb. 11 on WMFE-TV.