We do run reviews of pretty much anything-- shorter is better, though as the 'Key Of Z' review below indicates, longer is a possibilty. If you're planning to go over 200 words it's best to enquire first.Again, most of the examples here are by your editor, but as permissions trickle in, we'll post stuff by other writers. Honest.
McSalad Shake ($2.50, at McDonalds) Or maybe it's called a Salad McShake. But whatever the hell it' s called, it's the GREATEST IDEA EVER. You get a salad in a big clear cup, with a tightly fitting dome cap. You pour your dressing over the salad, snap on the cap, and shake it up for about 30 seconds, and EVERY FRAGMENT OF THE SALAD has dressing on it! I 've been bringing the empty cups and caps home and then buying those BAGS of salad at the supermarket and making my own McSalads. The first life-changing innovation of the new millennium. Yeah!
Songs in the Key of Z by Irwin Chusid
About 38 years ago, or exactly 1000 years from now, depending on how you look at it, The Legion of Super Heroes was the back-of-the-book feature (the comic book equivalent of the bottom half of a double bill) in Adventure Comics. Set in 3000 AD, the Legion consisted of a dozen or so super-powered teenagers from all over the solar system. The nominal leaders were Cosmic Boy and Saturn Girl, but star power was provided by Superboy, who could travel into the future by flying very quickly in tight clockwise circles (and of course, counter clockwise to return to the present). Even at the age of seven it was apparent to me that the kids in the Legion were a bunch of snots. Not just any super powere d teenager could get in; this exclusive clique held regular auditions. Eventually, a bunch of the rejects banded together as The Legion of Substitute Heroes. The one I remember most vividly was Polar Boy, who was obviously rejected because he was short. H is freeze-power was much more striking than the powers of the regular members who blackballed him (I couldn't tell you what Cosmic Boy's power was-- my best guess is that he was boffing Saturn Girl, who had the power to make her breasts defy gravity) .
The editors encouraged readers to send in ideas for teenage superheroes who would audition for membership in the Legion. These vignettes, a regular feature of the Legion stories, were studies in humiliation; in one memorable panel-- and it really was memorable, because I was present 10 years later when Chuck Ward mentioned it one evening at the Park Theater and EVERY USHER IN THE PLACE remembered it-- a kid carrying what looked to be a large colander full of feathers and a bottle of Peptol-Bismol tells the assembled Legion, "I have invented a formula which makes feathers as heavy as lead." Saturn Girl gently (or perhaps smirkingly) says "That's very impressive... but it's not really super power ." Your heart just bled for the poor guy, I swear.
Okay. If your favorite musical group of all time-- The Miles Davis Quintet of 1960, The 1941 Ellington Orchestra, The Beatles, whoever-- corresponds to the Legion of Super Heroes, and your not-quite-faves-but-you-still-collect their-records-type bands correspond to t he Substitute Legion, then that garage band rehearsing behind the Pizza Place, those poor schmucks trying desparately to figure out the chords to Come As You Are and Glycerin but not quite nailing them-- they're the kid who can make feathers as heavy as lead.
Now imagine that back (?) in the 30 th century there's some clueless pimply kid with Coke bottle lenses who actually aspires to be the guy with the lead-feather formula. He's been down in his basement dumping vinegar and baking soda over a bowl of feathers for two weeks with nothing happening except a lot of pointless fizzling, but he takes a look at the soggy bubbling mess, cries "YEAH!" and races down to the Legion Hall, absolutely certain he's no more than 45 minutes away from a skin tight lycra suit , a snappy nickname, the perpetual adulation of the hoi polloi, and, with luck, a locker right next to Saturn Girl's. What is the musical analog of this poor bastard?
Welcome to what Irwin Chusid, in his new book Songs in the Key of Z, calls "...the curious universe of Outsider Music, a mutant strain of twisted sonic art so wrong-- it's right." In twenty brief chapters we are introduced to a wide variety of these folks -- they range from near-total naiffs like The Shaggs and Wesley Willis to rogue jazz composer Robert Graettinger and microtonal music pioneer Harry Partch.
The assorted outsiders come in a variety of flavors. There are a pair of precursors, The Cherry Sisters (a sort of Ur-Shaggs) and the tone-deaf soprano Florence Foster Jenkins. There are some genuine schizophrenics, such as Wesley Willis and Wildman Fischer; any number of drug casualties, most notably Syd Barrett; and a whole slew of people who are totally uncategorizable . Most of these people have never had anything resembling a recording contract, though some have; most of them display a lack of self-consciousness (or awareness), but some obviously know both what they are doing and how it appears to the general public; and A LOT of them are absolutely incapable of staying on the beat . The Shaggs, Lucia Pamela, Eilert Pilarm, and B. J. Snowden have especially interesting idea about just where the downbeat happens to occur in any given bar of music, though they all have their charms.
Inevitably, the portrait gallery begins to take on the aspect of a freak show. Chusid is well aware of this and does what he can to mitigate it, but there's only so much you can do when you're writing about Wesley Willis, Wildman Fischer, and Shooby Taylor the Human Horn. Some chapters (The Cherry Sisters, for instance) are extensively researched and others are largely persona l essays about how he first encountered and reacted to the music of these artists. Both approaches work pretty well. Though the book is often funny (sometimes laugh out loud funny), few of these artists came / have come / will come to a happy end; Chusid commendably does not downplay (or romanticize, which would be worse) mental illness, which in the case of Wildman Fischer, has manifested itself in such acts as hurling a wooden toy at Frank Zappa's toddler son and shitting in a stranger's hall closet. He a lso amply documents an unappealing bitterness and sense of entitlement that many-- not all-- of these outsiders share. He does not claim these outsiders are BETTER than the folks with major label deals, only that they are different, and worth hearing. And having heard them on the companion CD, I can only say: You bet.
Anything I take issue with? Sure. "Everybody's compilation sucks but your own," as Chusid's fellow archivist and drummer Dennis Diken says in the intro.
Chusid allows that we might question the inclusion of Partch and Graettinger, whose work, however outre it is, can hardly be called naive or unselfconscious, and of Florence Foster Jenkins. I don't know Graettinger's work at all, but Partch, whose music is quite delightful, is probably MORE accessible to ears attuned to pop music than most 20th century classical composers. If some people check out his music because of this book so much the better; He's a colorful character and a genuine American original.
If this were my book, I would have hesitated before including any non-Americans at all; the assorted musical dysfunctions chronicled here seem uniquely American to me, though perhaps that's just my provincialism showing. After due consideration I would have admitted two of the three fer'ners -- Swedish Elvis "channeler" Eilert Pilarm and British record producer Joe Meek, both of whom are virtually Artificial Americans. If, pace William Carlos Williams, the pure products of America go crazy, these impure products are not exactly poster children for sanity. On the other hand, Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett seems to me quintessentially English. Syd is representing all the rock music acid burnouts. Brian Wilson was rejected because, as Chusid says in the intro, it's really hard to make a case for h im being an outsider when his music-- even some of the very weirdest-- is so ubiquitous it's practically in our DNA by now. I would have gone with Skip Spence or (better) Roky Erikson, both of whom are briefly treated in a concluding catchall chapter (Or Arthur Lee, who isn't, though he gets a couple of passing mentions.) Syd is here because Chusid really likes his music (and he writes about it quite well) ( In fact, Chusid is the drummer on the Krystyna Olsiewicz/R. Stevie Moore cover of Syd's "Baby Lemonade.")
And though Bobby Vee's deplorable vocal version of "Telstar" gets mentioned, Julius LaRosa's incredible rendition, played over the credits of Mr. Mike's Mondo Video does not. ???
AND he prints the cover of Bingo Gazingo's CD but NOT the cover of Jessica Kane's Varicose Days.!!!
Most egregiously, Chusid does not show proper respect for Mel Tormé.Otherwise his taste is pretty impeccable.
The companion CD, also entitled Songs in the Key of Z, contains 14 tracks by various subjects of chapters in the book, plus 6 tracks by people profiled in the concluding "Snapshots in Sound" section. The CD is skewed much more towards novelty and humor than the book-- no Partch, no Graettinger, no Syd Barrett; many of the songs included are mainstays of Chusid's "Incorrect Music" hour on WFMU. It opens with "Philosophy of the World" by the Shaggs, who sound like nothing else on God's Green Earth, and th en into "Walking the Cow" by the unhinged but gifted Daniel Johnson-- a really catchy number, expertly structured and weirdly affecting; you can understand, if the rest of his songs are this good, why half the bands in the country line up to cover his stuff. Next up is Lucia Pamela's berserk "Walking on the Moon" (there's a cow in that one, too), then Peter Grudzien's gay reworking of Elton Brit's WWII era C&W standard "Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere" ("Though I realize I'm homo that is true, sir / don't judge me by my preference or sex/ Let me show Uncle Sam what I can do, sir/ Let me help to bring the terrorists down a peg").
Then we move into the heart of the batting order: Jack Mudurian, a nursing home resident whose only claim to greatness-- bu t it'll do-- is a spontaneous 45 minute, one hundred and thirty song medley released on CD as "Downloading the Repertoire." We get three and a half minutes here; the first time I heard it, I nearly fell off my chair. Then Shooby Taylor, "the world's most o riginal scat singer," works his magic on 'Stout Hearted Men.' This is just WONDERFUL. No kidding. (The book includes a side bar of some favorite Shoobyisms, such as "la-dah-dah shree, lo poo pah" and "sidley doot-in-doot splaw"). B. J Snowden, who gets my vote for nicest person in the world on the basis of her chapter in the book, delivers her paean to the folks in the Great White North, "In Canada" ("In Canada/They treat you like a queen/In Canada/They never will be mean"). No sooner has this ended than Eilert Pilarm launches into "Jailhouse Rock," a song he appears to have learned phonetically, albeit none-too thoroughly ("You vas riddem section, uh, vas ya purpoo la gang"). This one doesn't hold up to endless repeating like some of the others, but the first few times it is an absolute killer. Next up: a representative "song poem"-- a professionally composed, arranged, and performed setting of a staggeringly opaque lyric. ("...the Virgin child of the Universe/Is swept up in her fierce drive of sex u al encounters/Orgasmic explosion of love, enhances the child/ While a floodgate of love circles throughout Saturnate..."). Then 300 pound schizophrenic Wesley Willis, composer of over 35,000 more or less identical songs, brings it home with "Rock N Roll McDonalds."
And there's a lot more, much of it uproarious. The second track from the end, however, "They Told Me I Was a Fool," by someone named Jandek, made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Sung-chanted over an out-of-tune guitar (or possibly it's differently tuned-- I got a similar (not identical) sound on my 6 string using a DADGAD tuning, which is useful for playing some kinds of modal music), this bizarre lyric-- "You got real fancy instincts /but your mouth is so large ..."--which I could not make sense of-- is utterly chilling. I listened to it over and over for about a week and then sent for a couple of this guy's CDs. I found them just as fascinating and just as creepy. THREE TIMES I've had the CDs playing when friends stopped by and THREE TIMES the reaction was: "What the fuck are you listening to?" (And one guy simply said, "I'm not into the blues." A reaction I occasionally get when playing Captain Beefheart records, which leads me to conclude that to folks who don't dig the blues, the blues sound like Jandek and Captain Beefheart. But if so, why don't they LOVE the blues??) Like IC says in the liner notes: "He isn't 'rock', he isn't 'roll', he isn't even 'and.' " I plan to get all 28 Jandek masterpieces when time and cash flow allow. GO, CAT GO!
Which brings us to the question: Is it any good? Is ANY of this stuff any good, or is it all just novelty songs by the terminally clueless? All through the book Chusid quotes assorted aficionados of the artists, and what most of them seem to respond to is the 'authenticity' of the material. Another word that gets thrown around a lot is 'sincerity.' But what does it mean to say that Jandek or Captain Beefheart or Daniel Johnston is authentic? Authentically what? I listen to the music I listen to because I like the way it sounds. (On the other hand, context does count for something. A legendary tale from the early days of the NYU Science Fiction Society: Guy brings a Leonard Nimoy album to a meeting. Everybody tells him to forget it, not even as a joke will they listen to that shit. Put on the new Mothers of Invention album. He says okay, puts the album on. Everyone is amazed. Zappa has outdone himself! The most incredible music of his career! Hilarious, yet moving. What's the name of that cut? Turns out to be "Music to watch Space Girls By"-- the lead off track on the Nimoy album). So I find myself asking: would I buy a Daniel Johnston record if I found out that he was really, say, Eric Carmen in a daffy mood?(Yeah, but not RETAIL.)
Some of these people are strictly novelty acts, but strange things can happen in the music-- usually in the rhythm section, for some reason-- and all of a sudden we're out of Dr. Demento territory and Somewhere Else. Around 50 seconds into the cacophony of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy's "Standing in a Trash Can" he bellows "Yeah, my baby found me in a trash can in some back alley in New York !" and for a few bars this band sounds for all the world like a close cousin to the early Modern Lovers or the first configuration of the Velvet Underground. The CD abounds with these moments.
Two things come to mind to explain this sort of thing: One is an anecdote in A. B. Spellman's Four Lives in the Bebop Business, (recounted by Lester Bangs in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: A guy with a double bass walks in off the street and asks Cecil Taylor if he can jam. Taylor says okay, and the guy gets on stage. After a couple of moments, Taylor realized the guy didn't know how to play, didn't even know how to hold the instrument, he'd just decided he was going to play. "He just explored as a child would, pursuing songs or evocative sounds through the tangles of his ignorance. And after a while, Taylor said, he began to hear something coming out, something deeply felt and almost but never quite controlled, veering between a brand new type of song which can't be taught beca use it comes from unschooled innocence... and chaos... Something was beginning to take shape which, though erratic, was unique in all this world." THAT'S what I hear in The Shaggs, Beefheart, Jandek, and some of the others. Sorta, kinda.
The other thing is one of e.e. cumming's 'five simple facts no sub/human superstate ever knew': "first rate and second implies nonthinkable enormousness by contrast with the tiny stumble from second to tenth." Perhaps there is a nonthinkable enormousness between the 10 th and 11th rate, too, and most of us are as incapable of sinking below the 10th as we are of rising into the 1st . There are clearly some fascinating things in the chthonic depths, just as there are in the celestial heights.
The final cut on the CD belongs to Tiny Tim, dueting on Cole Porter's "True Love" with his last wife, Miss Sue. It's quite charming, though just about anything would be a relief after Jandek. (There's actually another song between them, but my brain is so fried after listening to "They Told Me..." that I still haven't been able to listen to it with any kind of attention). Once you read the book, though, it becomes really moving. While Tiny is surely the most famous fig ure in the book (his closest competitor in this regard is probably Captain Beefheart), and while I was aware of the bare outlines of his rags-to-riches-to-rags story, I didn't realize he put out something like 15 albums in the last decade of his life, work ing incessantly to the end-- he literally dropped dead on stage. Well, like many of the people in this book, he could no more stop performing than he could stop producing carbon dioxide. The world is full of has-beens playing Holiday Inns for chump change, and churning out records on tiny labels in the hope that lightning will strike again. But Tiny seems to have done this without bitterness or self pity. Who'd have thought this walking sight gag would soldier on for 30 years after his star fell, not complaining, playing to any audience that would sit still for him and doing his damnedest to give them their money's worth?Don't miss this one.
A CAPPELLA BOOKS / CHICAGO REVIEW PRESS / ISBN 1-55652-372-6 /272 PAGES, 6x9, 75 ILLUSTRATIONS PAPER, $16.95
WHICH RECORDS / WHI2367 / 20 SONGS / 63 minutes 15 seconds / $10.00 from WHICH RECORDS / PO BOX 659 VILLAGE STATION NYC NY 10014
JIMMY OLSEN #100 (March 1967)
In this issue, published at the height of DC's appalling "Go-Go Checks" era, Jimmy and long-time girl friend Lucy Lane finally decide to tie the knot, but spurned 5th dimensional imp Miss Gzplsnz (disguised as Supergirl) gives Lucy a magic lipstick; each time Lucy kisses Jimmy while wearing this stuff, Superman turns into a giant super mole, and finds himself compelled to burrow through the earth. Lots of celebrity s tudded vignettes along the way-- for instance, Jimmy bops briefly into the future so he can tell the girls in the Legion of Super Heroes that he's about to remove himself from the ranks of eligible bachelors, which he does with his usual sensitivity: "Fasten your seat belts, chicks. I have some bad news for you..." But of course it's the giant super mole material that make this ish indelible.
1993 MISS AMERICA PAGEANT (18 Sept. 1993, I forget what channel)
Writing this AS THE EVENT UNFOLDS... Swimsuit competition underway right now, 10:35 PM... best boobs, Miss Arkansas...Miss N.J. a little on the SCRAWNY SIDE... A MAD RAPIST is STALKING co-host KATHIE LEE GIFFORD, and we will be right here, letting you know WHAT HAPPENS AS IT HAPPENS... Miss South Carolina singing "Summertime" from Porgy & Bess.. gorgeous face, and the girls are doing THEIR OWN HAIR & MAKE-UP this year... Miss Georgia tap dancing to "Mack the Knife." Her black tights and shoes blend right into the background and you can't hear her taps over the amplified music, but the Atlantic City audience digs it... 11:01 PM...No mad rapist yet... Kathie Lee showing no signs of INCREDIBLE STRESS she must be under, God bless her... By my count she has the 5th best bod on stage right now, and these chicks have all got like 20, 25 years on her... And yet, SOME PEOPLE professed to be SHOCKED when Kathie Lee WON TV GUIDE READERS' POLL as the MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN ON TELEVISION... Miss Alabama dancing to Duke Ellington's "The River". Shedding beads from her costume as she twirls. Deliberately?... Miss Hawaii hula dancing. Jesus Christ... Not even dancing, just sort of moving her arms & hips ALMOST in time to the music... 11:27... Talent comp. over. MY PICKS: Miss Alabama (dance); Miss Wisconsin (violin); Miss South Carolina (good song); Miss Oregon (crummy song, from Chess , but she really sold the bastard...) ...I fell asleep... Judges conferring... Time running out for MAD RAPIST to show up... unless he showed up wh ile I was asleep and KATHIE LEE TOOK HIM OUT... with maybe, I dunno, one of those little chick-type guns... perspiration glistening on the TOP OF SOMEBODY'S BOOB... the winner is...ZZZZZ...[note: MAD RAPIST caught a week or so later, nowhere nearKathie Lee...]
--Wm. H. Garsi