Chusid, a radio host, record producer, and self-described music historian, may be the world’s foremost authority on outsider music. Since 1997 he and his colleague Michelle Boulé have hosted a weekly radio show called “Incorrect Music” which showcases the same strange material profiled in his book. (The show plays on WFMU-FM, an independent station in Jersey City, New Jersey.) Taking a cue from the field of outsider art, which scrutinizes visual artworks created by self-taught, incarcerated, mentally ill, or otherwise marginalized individuals, Chusid insists that outsider musicians not be confused with the merely ” ‘unpopular,’ ‘uncommercial,’ or ‘underground’ artists” (p. xiv) who deliberately oppose themselves to the mainstream. This emphasis on the artist’s intention—as opposed to the resulting product—is not accidental, for Chusid locates marginality in the mind of the artist, who, in order to be classified as an outsider, must fail to display “overt self-consciousness about their art” (p. x).
Songs in the Key of Z is not a scholarly study, but it is diligently researched and engagingly written. Its twenty chapters focus mostly on individual musicians, from Swedish Elvis impersonator Eilert Pilarm to British rock producer Joe Meek, who is described as “a cross between Thomas Edison, Phil Spector, and Ed Wood, Jr.” (p. 26). A final chapter briefly considers a number of additional figures, including the invariably inebriated Les Wilson, the celebrity amateur William Shatner, and the “singing psychic” Frances Baskerville (p. 201). Although most of the music could be categorized as vernacular, if not strictly “popular,” there are exceptions, among them the cranky experimentalist Harry Partch, the wealthy would-be diva Florence Foster Jenkins, and the perplexing jazz composer Robert Graettinger. More typical, though, is a notoriously incompetent band called the Shaggs, whose “so-bad-it’s-good” music, originally recorded between 1969 and 1975, now serves as a siren song for outsider- music aficionados. +