Monday, August 07, 2006

The Strange Case of Outsider Music

I spent about 20 minutes on the Internet today reading about "Outsider Music", mostly following Wikipedia links. It is a phrase for a genre of music made by people who have no ties to the mainstream music industry, or who live on the absolute fringes of society. The recent deaths of Syd Barrett and Arthur Lee may bring some attention to this phenomenon, though I doubt it. It seems to me that the people most interested in this genre are people for whom indy rock is too mainstream. I got to thinking about why this genre would catch on, even for a small subculture. One possible answer: it is the archetype of the holy grail-- the pervasive belief that the best can't be the most obvious, that it must be hidden and elusive. But I think there might even be more to it than that.

The two biggest champions for outsider music in the mainstream rock industry would probably be Frank Zappa and Kurt Cobain. Zappa championed The Shaggs, a group of four New Jersey sisters who's father pulled them out of school and made them start a rock band in 1968. They are considered by many to be the worst rock band of all time. When they were recording their album, they would occasionally stop and ask to start over, stating that they had "screwed up." The bewildered engineers wondered how the girls could tell. Yet Zappa apparently saw something in the band that allegedly inspired him to call them "better than the Beatles." Cobain listed them in his personal journals as having created one of the top 100 albums ever.

Cobain also wore a Daniel Johnston T-shirt. Johnston is a bipolar musician/painter in Texas who often writes about Casper the Friendly Ghost. Other "famous" outsider musicians include long time mental patient Roky Erikson, former Jefferson Airplane musician Skip Spence (who once tried to kill his bandmates in Moby Grape), Wild Man Fischer (who Zappa discovered living on the street), Wesley Wills (an obese schizonphrenic who like Johnston had an interest in McDonalds), and a guy named Jandek who has put out 47 albums over the last 28 years but refuses to give his real name and hardly ever goes out in public (He's given one interview in his career).
The common thread here seems to be mental illness (except in the case of The Shaggs, who's father was probably not all there, and Jandek, who we don't know enough about to know his mental state).

Knowing a bit about Cobain's and Zappa's aesthetic, it seems to me that what probably drives most enthusiasts of this genre is the belief in these recordings as the ultimate in authenticity. On one level, they are right-- art created by mentally ill people is probably the closest we can find to art that is free of any shred of commercial consideration, which is one definition of authenticity. (Even The Shaggs' father was more interested in fulfilling a prophecy than getting rich, if the stories about that bands' mythology are to be believed).

On the other hand, what could be more inauthentic than art that comes from a madman? The earliest theories about art, coming from the Greeks, involved art as "mimesis," or reflecting reality. How can the realm of the psychotic speak to the real?

It is also worth noting that the perception of madness has changed dramatically over the last few decades. For years, madness was a theme explored in art, particularly in literature (think of Hamlet and King Lear, perhaps the two plays at the center of the entire Western canon). However, madness was thought of as, if not exactly a choice one makes, at least the consequence of choices that one makes. Today however, we view madness for the most part as a biological circumstance.

I wonder if outsider music is the last vestiage of a long held belief that madness is not only a choice that one makes, but a romantic choice...the noble decision to live outside of society's constratints, despite the hardships that necessarily follow. For fans of outsider music, that choice is best made vicariously.


Blogger Enjoy_Every_Sandwich said...

what's the difference between outsider music and indie?

6:04 PM  
Blogger Azor said...

Indie musicians are usually sane.

3:51 PM  
Blogger Michael G. Breece said...

It's not that simple...not always at least.

5:15 AM  

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