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Chad Oliveiri interviews Irwin Chusid: the full transcript


Chusid: Are you tape recording this? Can you hear me OK?

            City:Yeah, I'm taping this. I was actually thinking of recording you and releasing the recording somewhere as a form of outsider music.

            Chusid: Go ahead. Just include me in the royalty streams.

            City:There'll be plenty of those, I'm sure.

            Chusid: Oh yeah. I bet. There's a record out there that somebody made of my voice maybe 27 years ago. But no one knows where it is.

            City:Who did it?

            Chusid: I'm not even saying. Don't go looking. Ha ha.

            City:Do you find yourself still having to defend your notion of outsider music? I know it's ruffled some feathers.

            Chusid: No, absolutely not. I mean, occasionally. But not in a confrontational way. If you're speaking specifically about the Village Voice encounter, that was as rough as it ever got. And I completely batted their softballs out of the park. They wouldn't print my response. So I ran it at But I make it clear to anyone who asks that outsider music, the genre, it's a journalistic convenience and it's a marketing convenience. I'm not going around saying "This is outsider and if you don't agree with me you're wrong and I'll battle you to the death." No. It's something to write about. It's something to be interested in. But if somebody says there's no such thing as outsider music, that's fine with me.

            City:I wonder though, particularly when you talk about folks like Jandek... I think back to when I was going to college in the mid-90s. Finding a record by Jandek was like finding a hidden treasure for a lot of kids I knew. So there's certainly a larger audience for these things than people might expect.

            Chusid: No one aspires to be an outsider musician. If anyone said they aspired to be an outsider musician, I'd be very suspicious. It's a big red flag. In fact I get on occasion, not that often, things submitted to me by people who say "I've read your book and I think I'm an outsider musician. Here's my CD." Or, better yet: "Here's my cassette." Generally I listen to it and it's just some indie rocker or some guy who has a weird predilection lyrically or even has a kind of sick sense of humor and his friends think he's untalented. Well, in fact, he may simply be untalented.

            People who I consider outsiders, and, again, it's a label that I apply, it's not a label they embrace, in most cases it's not even a label they've ever asked me about... these people consider themselves musicians, entertainers, composers. And that's what they are. That's one way of looking at them.

            You could say the same thing about Miles Davis. He was a musician, a composer, a trumpeter, a bandleader, whatever. Well, most people would also say he was a jazz musician. If Miles Davis never uttered the word "jazz" in a self-referential way, it makes no difference to anyone. It's music. And in the case of outsider music, it's music. But like any category --- rock, folk, how do you define folk music? People do define it.

            City: You attempt to in the book.

            Chusid:I do attempt it. And I try to distinguish folk music from outsider music for the very reason that folk music already has a conventionally accepted set of qualifications. Folk art tends to refer to the kinds of things that are outsider art, the visual manifestations of outsider art.

            City: It's an important distinction. Because one of the arguments you'll hear revolves around, say, the suburban housewife who likes to paint watercolors in her spare time even though she's had no formal training. Should she be considered an outsider?

            Chusid: There really isn't a hard and fast rule. I included Harry Partch, Joe Meek, Robert Graettinger, and Captain Beefheart. Some people say they aren't outsiders. In the book, I make a distinction between outsider musicians and musical outsiders. I had my reasons for doing so. In each case, there was a number of specific reasons why they were in the book. Would I argue that Harry Partch is an outsider musician? No. I wouldn't argue it. I make a case for it in the book. But in the case of Partch, I love his music. I always have. And it seemed like a great opportunity to include him in a broadened definition of the category and get more people interested in his music.

            City:With Partch and Beefheart, their music has this sort of alien language. But within that language, there's a virtuosity there.

            Chusid: I'm gonna use that: "alien language." I like that. I'm gonna use that in my next interview. I'll attribute it to you. And I promise I won't use it with the other guy in Rochester. I like it, though. And you're right. There is an alien language. There's an idiosyncratic language. And that's not easy to create.

            Sometimes it's a byproduct of a mentality. In the case of Beefheart, look, no one really knows what goes on inside that guy's head. By all accounts, his behavior was not conventional. His approach to music was extremely unconventional. To this day, I have great difficulty with Trout Mask Replica.

            City:But you've got to admit that once you get into the flow of that record, or a lot of the Beefheart records, you become attuned to that alien language and you grow to understand it. You appreciate its own unique riffs and hooks.

            Chusid: That happened to me with Beefheart, who I didn't like when I first started writing the book. I didn't want to include him and wouldn't have. Not to dismiss him as a composer, or to say his music didn't have any value. It just didn't appeal to me. But I had to admit I wasn't familiar with a lot of it.

            City: Was it the Zappa connection that turned you off?

            Chusid: Oh, no. If anything, Zappa to me is a seal of approval. Because Zappa is a man who recognized the value of Wild Man Fisher and the GTOs and Beefheart when other people were probably thinking these people were just crazy. My brother was into Trout Mask when I was growing up. We shared a room together and he used to play it. And it just gave me a headache. From that point on, I didn't want to hear any more Beefheart.

            My editor at A Cappella, Paul Taylor, suggested that we needed some names with marquee value for this book, because no one's gonna buy a book about BJ Snowden and Jandek, these complete, remote characters. BJ Snowden had sold 100 albums at that point. And he gave me a list of people like Lee "Scratch" Perry, Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Beefheart. And for my own personal reasons, I settled on Beefheart and Barrett.

            Barrett I love. So it wasn't a problem including him. He's in the first rank. Brian Wilson, look, I love Brian Wilson. And you could easily make the case that Brian Wilson's an outsider. Talk about someone with a very intuitive approach to music that broke so many rules but didn't do so willfully. And Lee "Scratch" Perry --- I'm just not a fan of reggae. It just didn't interest me. From what I've read about Lee "Scratch" Perry, yeah, you could make a case for him. So I settled on Beefheart, and the more I listened to it, the more I began to understand it. Some of it --- the later stuff --- I really began to like. And I'm not talking about those two Mercury records, which I don't like. But anything from the third album on, it's more accessible. So I managed to include him.

            Over the course of doing my research on Beefheart, I confessed to a certain ambivalence about how much self awareness there was in Beefheart. I just don't know. You can only speculate. And for the sake of the book, I think I make that clear. This is a guy who some people have suspicions about. And I could be one of those people.

City: Do you think your book argues for a greater acceptance of outsider music, for people to not view this material from the perspective of what's "right" musically --- verse chorus verse, western tunings?

            Chusid: Absolutely. That's one of the philosophical angles in the book. I speak from experience, because I was collecting this music before it even had a name. And when I first started collecting it, I was fascinated by it, but at the same time, it sounded ludicrous.

            I mean, I laughed and would say to people "Listen to this, how awful this is." I first heard The Shaggs in 1978, before the first reissue. I had a friend who had an original copy. His uncle knew them and had seen them. We'd listen to The Shaggs and we would just roll on the floor laughing. At the same time, we recognized there was something special about it. But it wasn't just bad. It wasn't mediocre. There was some sort of gene structure there. And we recognized that and were fascinated by it.

            Then I started collecting records the music director at WFMU was throwing away because he thought they were too awful to put in the library. I would occasionally grab these things out of the dumpster --- I'm speaking metaphorically --- and listen to some of the stuff and go, wow. Often these were records where one person played all the instruments in a very disjointed fashion, but in an exceptionally disjointed fashion. I would save the stuff and I started doing a feature on WFMU in the 80s called Atrocious Music. And it was really kind of a forerunner to the whole outsider music thing. But at the time I was doing it more for the laughs. At the same time, I was not playing comedy records. Never.

            City: How was it being received?

            Chusid: It was adored. Nobody ever accused me of making fun of people or being cruel. In some cases, there were some artists, like a Lucia Pamela, who I was featuring, who you didn't want to be cruel about, because there was something charming, something childlike and playful, about her efforts.

            Then of course, back then, you had the singing celebrities. It was a broad universe. If you ever went back and listened to those shows --- the tapes don't exist --- you'd realize it's not an outsider music show at all. That's when William Shatner was first discovered as a pop singer, and Leonard Nimoy, and Phyllis Diller, and Joey Bishop, and Jack Webb; the whole Golden Throats thing. There were also religious zealots, singing children, über patriots... Anyone who was just over the edge or over the top, whether they were an outsider or a wayward celebrity or just some kids who went before a microphone because their parents thought they had talent. That was part of the universe of Atrocious Music.

            City:So they're fully invested in whatever it is they're doing.

            Chusid: It was sincere. Anything that was too arch, that had its tongue in its cheek, I wasn't interested in; unless it had its tongue in its cheek in an exceptionally clumsy way.

            So after about eight years of doing that show, two things happened: It really became difficult listening to all the mediocre material I had to sort through to find something that was worthy of the show. We're talking about one tune out of 20. People were sending me cassettes. And fast-forwarding through a cassette is not the same as fast-forwarding through a CD. I'd be going through a 90-minute cassette and nothing on it would interest me. Partly it's me becoming jaded. And partly it's me realizing "I don't have the time for this anymore."

            The other thing that happened was that I met Lucia Pamela. She was in her '90s then, and she was the sweetest woman. I was in LA and her grandson arranged a meeting at a restaurant. And I came away feeling a bit sheepish.

            City:I imagine that's a probably an important component of this --- actually being able to meet some of these folks to see where they're coming from.

            Chusid: Yeah. I had to reconsider my own views on this music. She was sincere. She did this music out of the goodness of her heart, out of a sense of self-expression and to entertain people. She entertained in orphanages and nursing homes and schools. I thought, "What a sweet woman. And here I've been including her on a show called Atrocious Music."

            It was shortly thereafter that, for those two reasons, I stopped doing the show. At that point, people were livid because they wanted me to continue. They were loving it. But I just couldn't go on with it.

            I'd always been doing freeform radio. Since 1975. In fact, my 30th anniversary will be in about a week and a half. And I can play anything I want. Most of my radio is freeform. So, whatever you do, don't say I'm an outsider music DJ. I'm not. I include outsider music in it, but I don't even refer to it as outsider music.

            City: I noticed you were playing U2's "Vertigo" in December.

            Chusid: I love it. It's a great tune. I usually hate U2. But that song is just incredible. The first time I heard it, I didn't know who it was. But I heard it while listening to a commercial radio station, which I rarely do. I thought, "Wow! What is this?" I found out it was U2 and thought, "OK, I'll download that." I'm not gonna buy the album.

            So my programming has always been freeform. And in the late 90s, I started a show called Incorrect Music. It was similar to Atrocious Music, but with a name that I felt was a little more complimentary. You can be musically incorrect and there's not a sense that you're a bad person, even though it's something that most people consider wrong. There was a good outsider component to some of the music, but at that point I was approaching it from a more gentle, more understanding standpoint.

            Granted, my partner, Michelle, was in it strictly for the laughs. I was in it from a musicological and anthropological standpoint. We were kinda foils for each other in that regard. I was the one programming the music for the show. She was there more as ear candy. She's very clever on mic, so she'd come in and hadn't even heard half the things we were playing. She'd hear them on the air and make wisecracks. And I would often respond by explaining, maybe, the more informational side.

            But incorrect music is not synonymous with outsider music. And I've had to make that distinction. Finally, when the book came out, it was causing me problems. They were hearing the Incorrect Music show and thinking, "Oh, this guy is making fun of retards." And I said, "Well, no. I'm not." These are distinct categories. Outsider music is a small subset of the incorrect music universe. And I have to keep explaining this to people. So finally I stopped doing the show. And there were other reasons, too. Michelle had to get a job. She was becoming a lifer, she was 35 years old and still in school, and needed to pay the rent. So we discontinued the show.

            I subsequently took down the Incorrect Music website after an incident in Boston. I was doing an outsider music show in Cambridge. Someone at the Boston Globe did a long interview with me and then he titled the article "The worst of Irwin Chusid." And half the music focused on the Incorrect Music hour, which was off the air but available on archive. And I was kinda livid because I thought I made it clear I didn't want the "incorrect" angle to be played up in a story about outsider music. And here I am making the same distinction to you, and for all I know your whole article will go on to talk about how Irwin Chusid was defensive about the "Incorrect Music" hour, which, to me, is beside the point. It's only relevant in the sense that the same person was involved in both. But I do draw distinctions.

            The book makes it clear that, with a few exceptions, I do take these people seriously. You know, I can poke a little fun at them. But I'm a journalist. I'm not writing the book for the artists. I'm not their publicist. I'm not writing their biographies. I have to be honest. I'm trying to explain this for people who would come at it from the standpoint of "I don't understand this. What's the value in it?" And that requires colorful language. If these people who I've written about call and ask "Why did you say this about me?" I'll tell them why. They're grateful for the exposure.

            City: I know BJ Snowden was somewhat reluctant.

            Chusid: Where did you hear that?

            City: Her website.

            Chusid: I can explain what that was all about. A friend of mine, a filmmaker named Doug Stone, was doing a movie about her. At one point she said off camera that she was upset about her song being on the Songs in the Key of Z CD. But, look, she gave me permission. She was paid. In advance! And she got a lot of exposure.

            So Doug asked her why she was so upset about being on it. And she said "Because everybody else on it is so terrible." She was thinking that she was the best thing on there. Well, Alvin Dahn, from the second Key of Z CD, his wife had a very similar reaction. Her reaction was: "Are these people walking on two legs or four?" She said no one on that CD is up to Alvin's standards. That Alvin was basically the only musician on that album. Even among outsiders there's disagreement over the value of each other's music.

            And I make it clear I'm no fan of Jandek. I'm a fan of Jandek as a phenomenon, but I can't listen to his music.

            City:I think that's amazing given the correspondence you've maintained with the man.

            Chusid: To this day. He continues to send me every new CD. I save the padded envelopes, because they're hand-addressed to me. At some point, a friend of mine's going to put them all on eBay.

            City: I just looked Jandek up on eBay. His recordings are selling.

            Chusid: Oh the vinyl goes for, what, $40-$60? Again, I can't listen to it. But do I think it's a waste of time what he's doing? No. I'm not like Kurt Cobain, who said Jandek's not pretentious but people who listen to him are. I don't feel that way. If people can find value in Jandek's music, great. Some people can't find value in BJ Snowden's music, and I do. I think if other people recorded her songs, people would be surprised at how good they are, the structure of them, the chord changes, the melodies. They really come from the heart. I think she's the poster girl for outsider music having value.

            City: That's where the whole talent idea comes in, because here she is with these great concepts but people put a lot of weight on things like talent. But when it comes to this music, talent's irrelevant.

            Chusid: That's exactly what I say in the book. Talent is irrelevant. And it really is the basis for the whole notion of outsider art. These forms of art were discovered in mental institutions, where nobody would ever go to discover art. You discover crazy people. And some people a century ago were noticing --- whether these were done for therapeutic reasons or whether they were done for compulsive reasons --- that some of it's pretty remarkable. And then they dug further and discovered that there was an overlooked universe of art that had great value.

            You take it for granted, people like Sister Gertrude and Henry Darger and Howard Finster. Millions of people, well, thousands of people, recognize what they do. But at the same time, people thought they were just nuts, crazy.

City:Society has really changed in its acceptance of cultural outsiders. I think back to the violent reactions Steve Reich got to his premier of Four Organs.

            Chusid: People had the same reaction to The Rites of Spring. There are many examples: Charles Ives, Monk. They thought Monk was an idiot. That he couldn't play piano.

            City: People felt offended by that sort of thing.

            Chusid: You know, I may have been offended if it was 1943 and I heard something of Monk, because it depends on what your frames of reference are before you hear it. There are many things we can hear now and put in a different context. Now the notion of outsider music is accepted, certainly in critical quarters, most critical quarters. And people have been opened up to a broader range of music.

            Think about what happened right after World War II, when you suddenly had this explosion of world music being interpreted by ex-GIs who spent time in the South Pacific or running around Europe defending liberty. Musicians and bandleaders in the service came back after World War II and brought with them influences from all over the globe and started incorporating them into what later became known as the lounge music or easy listening or instrumental pop of the '50s. Bringing along the interesting percussion they discovered in the South Pacific.

            Guys like Martin Denny and Les Baxter and Arthur Lymon. You suddenly had all these influences from all over the world being brought back by GIs. It's very different from what was around before the war, the Big Band music. Orchestral pop music changed a lot because suddenly people were introduced to new instruments and arrangements and settings, and they gradually accepted it.

            So you've got people now who are more inclined to be receptive to something that's exotic, even something that may seem exotically wrong or exotically incompetent. I had to make the adjustment over 30 years that this stuff isn't bad and unintentionally comedic. I'm not saying it's genius either. But I'm saying, "Let me listen a little closer and see what's going on here." It took me decades to reconsider. And it was through meeting these people and listening closer.

            City: Is there a danger that outsider music will run its course?

            Chusid: No. It'll never happen. By its very definition it's marginal. It's outside mainstream culture. It always will be.

            There may be a movie about The Shaggs. The rights have been optioned and someone's working on the script. But even if the movie is made and it's a hit, The Shaggs will never go platinum. Most people will still treat them as a joke.

            It's become more popular as a result of the book. But it's always gonna be a small percentage of the listening population that will listen to it and understand it.

            City: You spend some time in your book detailing how you've made musical connections over the years. How you'd come to learn about, say, Joe Meek through listening to the Tornadoes. Has your exposure to all this material changed the way you make connections?

            Chusid: The technology has changed. Sometimes, because of the radio program and the book, I'm overwhelmed by material, which leaves me less time to listen. I never have time to listen to all of it. Sometimes I'm less patient.

City: Do you sometimes wish you could go back to those days when you were just a kid with a transistor radio under his pillow at night?

            Chusid: It's not even tempting to say yes. The Internet is great. Someone can just send me a link. Within a minute, I know if I want to continue listening. And I also know if I need to put something down and come back to it later.

            Someone just sent me a CD by a guy named Bill. And they sent it to me because, they said, "We're proud to have bill on our label, we think he's great."

            I read the press kit and realized Bill might be Down Syndrome. Just looking at him, yeah, there a mental illness there. And he looks like a really sweet little kid. I listened to the CD and thought, "If I didn't know anything about it, it sounds like a rock band with a guy who really has no concept of being a vocalist at all." You might think it's a joke. But I made an adjustment and really concluded that I just didn't find the music interesting. I understand if you know this kid and you think he's really sweet and what he's doing is unusual, you go and make a record.

            It takes effort to make a record. Even now, it still requires effort to make a record and to circulate it. That's one reason why I think Jandek believes in what he's doing. It's not some elaborate hoax.

            City: And Jandek puts such little effort into disseminating his music.

            Chusid: You're right. Which is what makes him so unusual in that regard. He just doesn't care.

            City: Which in itself can be seen as an aesthetic.

            Chusid: It's his own little non-marketing philosophy. And I don't know why anyone would do that. But if it's a hoax, it's a hoax that's been going on for 27 years and 40 records. Even to the extent of taking his vinyl and repackaging it as CDs. Did you know that Jandek will be 60 this year? He'll be 60. When he's 65, do you think he's suddenly going to turn around and say "Ha! I've done this to fool the critics!" That would actually be quite an artistic statement.

            City: Have you ever managed to talk to Jandek about why you don't find his music engaging?

            Chusid: No. He never asks. He doesn't seem the least bit concerned. I respect that. When I wrote an article for WFMU publications, which later became the basis for the chapter on Jandek, he said, "You have a really interesting writing style." And he thanked me. But he wasn't thanking me for the exposure or for explaining his art. And I never felt he was offended. I think he's amused. Who know what goes on in his head.

City: You've been working for so many years at WFMU, this sort of oasis for free expression on the radio. Do you think the opportunities to do that sort of thing are disappearing with the FCC's crackdowns and corporate consolidation?

            Chusid: There are actually more opportunities these days, because you've got satellite and internet.

            I don't get paid for my radio work. It's a creative indulgence. I love doing it, and I love doing it at WFMU. I don't think there's another radio station I'd want to work for. FMU has developed this collective identity, and a very self-referential sense of humor, which is rare in media.

            I found a radio station called, from Ann Arbor. Not only is it completely freeform, it's good freeform. Someone there's got a great aesthetic. But there's no DJ. And some people prefer to have a host. There's a little more warmth in that. I understand that. Commercial radio has ceased to interest me from a musical standpoint for the past 30 years. But it hasn't caused me any problems because there is plenty of music out there, and there are more ways than ever to find it.

            Some people don't even think of radio. I don't think of TV. It's not my medium. For a lot of people, radio is not their medium. And now you have satellite radio or CDs or iPods in the car. You don't need FM or AM. I think there's going to be a tremendous drop-off in radio listenership. And it's going to have to make adjustments to survive. It did. AM radio adjusted when FM came along. It became talk radio. Maybe radio in general is going to go thru another shaking out period as people load up their iTunes at home and put them on shuffle.

            I find myself doing that. I bought a G5 recently, which is such a more powerful machine. I've got 1,700 songs in there. I put it on random shuffle and I've got a radio station now coming out of my computer that's only playing songs I like.

            City: But don't you think that tendency is going to eliminate opportunities for people to get exposed to unfamiliar music?

            Chusid: I do buy a lot of records still. I force myself to do it, because I don't want to be a guy who assumes that all music has to come to me for free. I go to Amazon or CD Baby. I never go to record stores. I may go into one while traveling. If I find a cool shop and I want the place to stay in business, I'll buy some records.

            City: You're a great example of someone who's been able to cobble together his odd passions into a career.

            Chusid: I've had to define what I did for a career that was never easy. I was fumbling around... "I'm a record producer, a radio host, a historian." It's so many things, I've finally realized I could encapsulate my career in two words: "landmark preservationist." I find things on the scrapheap of musical history that I know don't belong there, and I salvage them.

            In the course of doing that, if there's a way to make a buck, that helps. Often it's a primary consideration if there's a way to help exploit something. But in every such case, I only make money if the person who makes the music, or their heirs, make money. So I look for ways to become a representative or to consult or to be a music publisher or producer and get a stake in the commercial exploitation of something. I make a living primarily through royalty streams on non-outsider music: Raymond Scott, Esquivel.

            But I was broke at 40. I had no career. I was going nowhere. I was a three-time college drop-out. I was a career hobbyist. And it wasn't until after the age of 40 that I finally found a way to make a living with this. And even then it was a struggle for a number of years.

            I was depressed. I was a mess. I had a live-in girlfriend who broke up with me in a very, very ugly way. Oh man. It was one of the worst days of my life. There I am at 40, I was just starting to get the whole Raymond Scott thing underway with no guarantee it would lead to anything. It was just another hunch I had. I had many hunches before then that didn't pan out.

            Here I was without a girlfriend. I had practically no money. No day job. No career. No career prospects. I was sitting in my kitchen after she broke up with my crying, thinking "I'm a loser. I'm a total fucking loser."

            Do I go back to school? Get a degree? Look for a job? What do I do?

            Well, I continued with my hobbies with the same passion I always had. I got a couple of breaks. But, of course, luck is the residue of design, as they say. I was hungry for knowledge. And I had some skills from things I'd done over the years that suddenly began to serve me. You know, me being the one-man office.

            I don't have co-workers. I can't hire anybody. I can never explain to someone how to do things I want done. I'm accounts payable and accounts receivable. I've been able to make a living with this because I persisted and I didn't know what other alternatives were available. I think I would have rather died than get a fulltime desk job.

            I'd visit people in Columbia Records during the early '90s, when I was doing the Raymond Scott thing. I'd be in their office and they'd close the door and just tell me how miserable they were. How they hated the company where they worked and envied me because I had freedom. I didn't have money or benefits, but they envied me because I could come and go while they were stuck in this cubicle or corner office.

            Now they're all long gone. They've been with other companies they've been laid off by. I never wanted their jobs. I wanted their pay packages and their benefits. But I didn't want their jobs. I don't like going into meetings and punching time clocks.

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