In the key of Z
Irwin Chusid is a fan of what he calls “outsider music.” Ninety percent of this music is so far off the beaten path as to be entirely unknown to the average music listener, despite there being some “professional” musicians among the bunch. By Chusid’s definition, outsider musicians are fundamentally different from the mainstream in some important way: Some (like Daniel Johnston and Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett) suffer from mental illness, others (like weird garage-rock act the Shaggs) suffer from parental freakiness, and others still (like Lucia Pamela and Jandek) are simply weird.
In 2002, a sampling of Chusid’s collection of outsider music was released on CD under the title Songs in the Key of Z. The picture painted of outsider music is unnerving, to say the least, but it is also fertile and creative. What interests listeners in such musicians as Johnston (perhaps the most well-known of the group) is precisely the fact of his fundamental difference from the mainstream: As a man who has been treated (and institutionalized) many times for mental illness, there is no chance whatsoever that he could be mainstream, and, furthermore, there’s a very good chance that his music will provide some new perspectives—on music and perhaps on life itself.
This is not to say that local songwriter Danny Offer is mentally ill, but his music and performance style do seem to reference Songs in the Key of Z in important ways. (And it probably doesn’t hurt the comparison that during Offer’s recent solo performance at Tone Vendor, Chusid’s collection was directly facing me on the CD rack.) Offer’s music is in many ways formless, jagged, sung poorly (at least in the sense of what the average listener might think of as a “good singing”) and played with a certain ham-fisted franticness, like he knows the chords but can’t make his hands play them quite right. What does all of this equate to? Brilliance.
What Offer’s music does is push the listener out of the passive and comfortable easy chair and press him or her into an active role. As with outsider music, one cannot simply ignore Offer. Instead, listeners are forced to make some kind of judgment. How many local musicians can make such a claim? (Philip Flathead comes to mind, but few others.)
An out-of-date but suitably lo-fi Web site can be found at http://webpages.csus.edu/~sac16050/. It’s worth a look, but you really need to see Offer live to get the whole picture. It’s not something you’ll be disappointed by—even if you hate it.
As a quick side note, Sunday night also saw something of an outsider performance at Harlow’s by Pedro the Lion opening act Tilly and the Wall, an Omaha, Neb.-based teenage quintet of weirdness that kept the audience in smiles. Imagine the fun party atmosphere of the B-52’s mixed with the bizarre Jesus Christ Superstar vibe of the Polyphonic Spree, all performed by teenagers who looked like they had stepped off the soundstage for a film adaptation of Heidi. Bizarre, entertaining and wonderful. Check out www.tillyandthewall.com.