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The worst of Irwin Chusid

Intriguing or just awful? A champion of 'outsider music' lets it speak for itself

They are the lost tribe of the music industry.

Shooby Taylor, a New Jersey postal worker who died in September, recorded his own bizarrely tone-deaf scat singing over prerecorded gospel and Tin Pan Alley songs. The Shaggs were three sisters from Fremont, N.H., whose stunningly inept 1969 aboriginal-garage-rock magnum opus, "Philosophy of the World," has been called "maybe the best worst rock album ever made" by The New York Times. Jandek is a mystery musician from Texas who has recorded and self-published more than 34 albums of tuneless, doom-laden anti-rock.

These and many more are the "outsider musicians" whose work has circulated for years among a small circle of mesmerized cognoscenti, fans not just of "bad music" -- whatever that may be in a world where Clay Aiken goes to No. 1 -- but of truly committed musical delusionaries.

The chief standard-bearer of outsider music, and the man who coined the term in a 1996 article, is Irwin Chusid, a Hoboken, N.J.-based record producer, radio personality, and music historian. Chusid for years promulgated the sounds of this atonal fringe on his weekly "Incorrect Music Hour" on the New York City-area radio station WFMU.

He has written a book about it, "Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music" (A Cappella Books, 2000), and released two compilation CDs guaranteed to clear house parties and frighten small children. Chusid also collects videos, and tonight at 9:30 he will present selected samples at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, along with a live performance by Billerica native and longtime Chusid favorite B. J. Snowden. The evening, which includes material by Taylor, the Frank Zappa-sponsored Wild Man Fischer, and Richard Peterson, a man who turns TV background theme music into personal musical statements, is the highlight of the Coolidge's every-other-Monday series titled "The World of Outsider Music." The series continues on Dec. 1 with a screening of the Oscar-winning documentary short "Thoth" and a live appearance by the titular musician, and it concludes on Dec. 15 with a documentary on the enigmatic Jandek and a performance by Queens, N.Y., street poet Bingo Gazingo.

A wander through the two "Key of Z" CDs is enough to permanently rearrange one's sensibilities. The playlist careens from the ridiculous to the sublimely ridiculous: Lucia Pamela's 1969 oddity "Walking on the Moon" (definitely no relation to the Police song) segues into the belligerent "Rock n' Roll McDonalds" by the late Chicago street musician Wesley Willis. Manic-depressive Texas songwriter and borderline genius Daniel Johnston chips in the early helium-and-Casiotone cut "Walking the Cow." There's "Jailhouse Rock" by Eilert Pilarm, "the Swedish Elvis," and an insane public-service-announcement ditty called "Cousin Mosquito #1," by Congresswoman Malinda Jackson Parker of Liberia. (Part two is on the second CD, and it's set to the tune of Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C-sharp minor.)

Then there's Snowden, whose song "In Canada" is on the first "Songs in the Key of Z" disc. Set to a boom-chicka beat and the hesitant but determined plinking of an electronic keyboard, the tune features childlike lyrics ("In Canada, folks treat you like a queen/In Canada, they never will be mean") sung by the middle-aged chanteuse in a defiant warble. It's funny, all right -- but then you notice that you cannot get the tune out of your head with a crowbar.

In other words, it's a good song. More than that, Snowden is a Berklee-trained musician and substitute teacher whose live performances are, by all accounts, immensely charming. "In Canada" cracks open the gnarly question that lurks behind the whole outsider-music genre: Can you listen to these songs without being guilty of condescension? Is it possible to laugh with these people instead of at them?

Chusid thinks so, but even he acknowledges that his sensitivities have evolved over the years, primarily because he has come to personally know and like many of the artists he celebrates. "When I first started, I made fun of these people because they were atrocious and funny," Chusid says in a telephone interview. "It wasn't until I met Lucia Pamela in 1991 that I had to do some soul searching, because she was just such a magical character. I had to admit that there was a talent there and an identity, which is something that every musican wants but very few have."

Throughout the 1990s, the radio host came to embrace a more protective stance. Chusid no longer uses the term "incorrect music" in describing or promoting his efforts. The WFMU show went off the air last year, and he stopped taking the videos around as a nightclub act with two fellow DJs, feeling that it accentuated the freak-show aspect too heavily. "I put my ears on differently and reprogrammed my brain," he says. "I realized that these are really special people. Some of them are damaged, but most of them just have different start-up software than the rest of us. They have to be judged on their own standards."

Not everyone agrees. Chusid has been taken to task both in the pages of the Village Voice and by relatives of the artists. "[Outsider musician] Alvin Dahn's wife cried when she first heard `Songs in the Key of Z,' " he says. "She couldn't believe he was in this category. But Alvin said, `I don't know what an outsider is, but if it brings me more listeners, I'm happy.' "

Which is pretty much how Snowden feels. "At first I wasn't too happy with [the CD], but I look at it this way: I'm getting gigs out of it," says the part-time musician in a phone interview from her home. Counting the Coolidge Corner tonight, she has four upcoming shows in the next month, and even her hippest audiences appreciate her good cheer and disarming sincerity. "I think what happens is that some people go to this show to laugh, and when they see what I'm about they see I'm serious," she says.

Snowden is skeptical about her fellow "Key of Z" artists. "I really don't consider myself in the same category," she says. "I'm an educated musician, and I don't think I'm on the same page." Chusid thinks that's just fine. "No one sets out to be an outsider," he says. "Wesley Willis never had a concept of being an outsider. Who knows what Jandek thinks. Dot Wiggins [of the Shaggs] admits they weren't very good, but she's missing what other people hear in the music, which is that it's not music by committee. It's organic. It comes from the heart and the soul.

"It's soul music in the best sense."

Ty Burr can be reached at

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