You could argue that Irwin Chusid's life was saved by his fascination with strange sounds. It's an argument that you'd probably lose, but you might have a shot.
"I was broke at 40," says the 53-year-old radio host-journalist-record producer. "I had no career. I was going nowhere. I was a three-time college dropout. I was a hobbyist. I had a live-in girlfriend who just broke up with me in a very, very ugly way. I was sitting in my kitchen crying, thinking 'I'm a loser. I'm a total fucking loser.'"
So Chusid stuck to what he knew: his hobbies. He kept hosting shows and writing articles for WFMU, a freeform radio station based in New York City. He continued looking for ways to be a publisher or producer and "get a stake in the commercial exploitation" of almost-forgotten music (Esquivel and Raymond Scott compilations, The Langley Schools Music Project). And he kept seeking sounds made by people he calls outsiders: earnest musicians who issue recordings with often extremely limited appeal.
"I finally realized I could encapsulate everything I do in two words: 'landmark preservationist,'" Chusid says. "I find things on the scrap heap of musical history that I know don't belong there, and I salvage them."
And he writes about them. Since the publication of Chusid's 2000 book Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music and its two companion CDs, he's managed to advance his notoriety among folks who admire his trawling and others who disagree entirely with his notion of "outsider music."
Through it all, Chusid remains remarkably unapologetic. The worst the criticism's gotten, he says, was being taken to task by the Village Voice after moderating a panel discussion on outsider music during CMJ 2000. The alt weekly called it "an infantilizing assemblage of experts." Chusid promptly "batted their softballs out of the park" in a letter that never ran in the Voice but still sits on Chusid's website, www.keyofz.com.
Chusid's basic (non)argument: "I make it clear to anyone who asks that outsider music, the genre, is a journalistic convenience and it's a marketing convenience," he says. "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."
But just what is outsider music? Music made by the untrained and undermedicated? Couldn't the latest assortment of So-Cal pop-punks be considered outsiders if it weren't for their commercial success?
Not so easily. Chusid's book profiles an assortment of the bizarre. There are The Shaggs, three New Hampshire sisters who made disheveled pop music in 1969, way before indie rock made sloppy cool. Or Jandek, the Houston recluse whose primitive guitar-and-microphone wanderings have perplexed listeners since 1978. Or schooled musicians like BJ Snowden who just happen to make endearing and completely oddball little songs. Then there are more well-known experimentalists like Captain Beefheart and Harry Partch: Musicians who bravely invented an alien logic that, after a few listens, begins to make perfect sense in its own freaky way.
If you require a common thread, it's that these are all figures whose output would be considered by the mainstream to be misguided or artistically bankrupt, yet they forge ahead without even a hint of self-awareness.
Luckily, Chusid will be in town on Thursday, February 17, to provide a multi-media crash course on this curious and oft-debated world at the Dryden Theatre. Not that he's even 100 percent settled on things.
Chusid was raised on "Top 40 radio and idiotic sitcoms," so his perspective on this music, despite his many years as a connoisseur, is firmly rooted in the mainstream. And in many ways, that's by design. After all, Key of Z hardly accounts for a perpetually expanding musical underground. It simply wasn't written for the growing number of music nerds who hunt for prized Jandek LPs.
"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," he says. It also requires an ability to offer readers some accessible frame of reference, which Chusid accomplishes with ease. Take, for instance, his opening passage on Jandek:
"How to describe the music of Jandek? Like most amateur rock critics, start by comparing him to the Beatles. Then strip away melody, catchy hooks, rhythm, and harmony. Next toss out vocal and instrumental ability, along with any trace of human feeling other than dull, lingering pain."
Chusid's early tendency to view these odd sounds as novelty proved tough to shake. In fact, when he was playing much of this material on a WFMU show he hosted in the '80s called Atrocious Music, he was doing it "more for the laughs."
"At the same time, I was not playing comedy records," he says. "Never. Atrocious Music was really kind of a forerunner to the whole outsider-music thing."
The show's whose playlist tended to include the latest from singing celebrities like William Shatner and Phyllis Diller or random music by religious zealots, singing children, über-patriots. "It was adored," Chusid says.
There was really only one guiding principle: The music had to be sincere. "Anything that was too arch, that had its tongue in its cheek, I wasn't interested in," Chusid says. "Unless it had its tongue in its cheek in an exceptionally clumsy way."
After about two years of hosting Atrocious Music, two things happened: It became difficult for Chusid to listen to all the mediocre material he had to sort through to find something worthy of the show. "We're talking about one tune out of 20," he says. Then he met Lucia Pamela, whose space-themed barrelhouse jazz was an Atrocious mainstay.
"She was in her 90s then, and she was the sweetest woman," Chusid says. "I came away feeling a bit sheepish. 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, 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 Chusid stopped hosting Atrocious Music. But he has stuck with his freeform radio program since 1975. He'll be celebrating his 30th anniversary as a WFMU DJ any day now.
Outsider music remains an ephemeral and slightly dodgy term. But that hasn't stopped all manner of wannabes from taking a leap at the scrap heap.
Shortly after our telephone interview, Chusid forwarded an email from an aspiring outsider:
"i wondered if you could tell me if i qualify as an 'outsider' artist. i have been writting and recording since the mid eighties, mostly bedroom 4-track recordings, all music is purely for my entertainment with no regard to outside interest/influence (apart from a merging of my various tastes). though some friends over the years have really liked my stuff and asked me for more tapes to listen to etc, but i have never exceeded that level of notoriety.... i have around 500 songs and have just recorded another album (in my bedroom). please can i send you a disc to listen to?"
It's an attractive proposition: Make unaccepted music, show up in a book or on a CD compilation. And Chusid is receiving these unsolicited missives as if his seal of approval is what it takes to go outside.
But sadly, at least in the case of this bedroom artist, Chusid doesn't think true outsiders would ever approach him.
"No one aspires to be an outsider musician," he says. "If anyone said they aspired to be an outsider musician, I'd be very suspicious."
Then there are the outsiders Chusid anoints who'd rather not be lumped in with the others included in the Key of Z. BJ Snowden, who attended Boston's Berklee College of Music, once confided that she didn't like being included in such company.
"A friend of mine, a filmmaker named Doug Stone, was doing a movie about her," Chusid says of Snowden. "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 Alvin was basically the only musician on the album. So even among outsiders, there's disagreement over the value of each other's music."
Irwin Chusid presents Songs in the Key of Z: A Celebration of Outsider Music on Thursday, February 17, in the Dryden Theatre of the George Eastman House, 900 East Avenue, at 8 p.m. 271-4090. $6For the complete transcript of our Irwin Chusid interview click here!