Take Me to the River

Rock & Roll Books

Take Me to the River

Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music

by Irwin Chusid

a cappella, 271 pp., $16.96 (paper)

There's something compelling about that which we can't fathom. That's what makes Songs in the Key of Z by Irwin Chusid -- noted New York musicologist, journalist, and guru of the strange and obscure -- so engrossing. Composed of 20 chapters about different "outsider" musicians, as well as a final chapter featuring short pieces on dozens more, Songs is an invaluable and entertaining source of information about these characters. Not all of the artists are underground -- the book's "flagship" musicians include Syd Barrett, Captain Beefheart, Wesley Willis, and our resident outsider, Daniel Johnston -- but all of them are unforgettable characters who inhabit a world all their own.

Chusid relates his unique personal correspondence with the Houston hermit Jandek, who since 1979 has all but given away 20 albums' worth of spartan desolation but never been formally interviewed or photographed or documented performing in public. "What Garth did for country, Jandek could do for suicide hotlines," Chusid writes. On colorful Lubbock crackpot Legendary Stardust Cowboy (who inspired Bowie's Ziggy Stardust): "When the Ledge goes mano a mano with a song, melody goes home with a broken nose every time."

Chusid even harkens back to the horrendously provocative Cherry Sisters of Iowa, who were forced to perform behind large fishnets at the turn of the 20th century because the large riled-up crowds they drew had the proclivity to hurl massive amounts of rotten foodstuffs at them.

Obsessive record collectors beware: This book will have you frothing at the mouth for some of the one-off anomalies Chusid brings to light. From Eilert Pilarm, the "Swedish Elvis," to the eccentric Contance Mallis, who squandered his inheritance recording dozens of carefully catalogued and notated albums on obsolete media (all unreleased) for his own amusement, to mysterious armless guitarist Ray R. Myers, Chusid has assembled a veritable three-ring circus. Songs in the Key of Z will surely stand as the definitive index to "outsider" musicians, "freak" being too restrictive a term.

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Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music, Irwin Chusid

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