Profiles in Outsider Music “Songs In The Key Of Z” by Irwin Chusid (Book Review)


 Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music (2000),

published by A Cappella Books

We print junkies divide books into different categories. There are the books you commit to out of respect for the author or because you don’t want to wuss out before you see what happens (Wuthering Heights and any Tom Clancy Novel). There’s good fast-food reading that you can joyfully wolf down in a day (On The Road). Then, there is that rare book that you force yourself to ration because you want to savor it, and prolong the journey. It’s that good.

Irwin Chusid’s “Songs In The Key Of Z” falls into the last category.

“Songs In The Key Of Z” is a page turner about Outsider Music and the bizarre, wonderful, and fascinating characters who are its practitioners. The term Outsider Music is relatively new and Mr. Chusid is credited for coining it. Mr. Chusid has hosted a radio show for WFMU in Hoboken, New Jersey since 1975. It is on this show he curates the music that he loves. However, the genre itself has been around for some time. The definition of Outsider Music (per say) is amorphous and still evolving. But in brief, it is music that falls outside the mainstream of musical taste, performed and/or conceived by musical artists who exist apart from the pack mentality of polite, conformist society. These artists can include the mentally ill, the criminally insane and others who are impelled to create musical sound informed by any combination of innocence, incompetence and/or genius. Outside Music artists also share a heroic confidence or self-delusion that allows them to carry on despite normal society’s discouragement.


Commercial Pop Music as practiced by Elton John, Styx, Celine Dion, Kenny G……etc, is externally focused. It may or may not be calculated or jaded. But, it is written, recorded and intended for a target market and is commerce driven. Outsider music is the antithesis of all the above.

Irwin Chusid is a knowledgeable musicologist whose narratives and observations are laced with humor without condescension. Because, humor is a basic tenet of Outsider Music. Not in the wacky Dr. Demento sense. But, a kind of self-deprecating humor that only the thick-skinned Outsider artists possess. Accustomed to ridicule and guffaws, Outsider artists are heroic in their persistence and are more purpose driven than the normal wanna-be rocker. Many musicians give up the battle for a wife and a day job. Most Outsider artists are bereft of those options. That’s the X factor that allows this bizarre, ignored subculture to defy prevailing trends and survive against seemingly insurmountable odds. They create because they must, not because they lust.

Mr. Chusid plays it smart and never buries the lead in his profiles. It’s the artist and back story in Outsider Music that is crucial to the appreciation of the music itself. And, it’s on the humanity that Mr. Chusid aims the spotlight. Sadly, there is the aspect of the car-wreck mentality that reveal some Outsider Music enthusiasts to be voyeurs of human misery rather than connoisseurs of art.  But, Mr. Chusid acknowledges that, and never heaps false praise on his subjects.


The Outsider Artists come in all shapes, sizes and genres. They sometimes are plucked from obscurity and absorbed into the mainstream, only to be expelled from the tribe once again (Tiny Tim). Or they can be wandering savants who are enabled by admiring patrons and well meaning benefactors who unwittingly poison their innocence with the fools-gold of minor celebrity (Wild Man Fischer). Some are relatively well-adjusted refugees from musical academia, hell-bent on changing the world (Harry Partch). However, there are no archetypes in Outsider Music. No two artists are the same. They are as different and impermanent as falling snowflakes.

Irwin Chusid knocked it out of the park with this one. And, the only criticisms I can muster is the book’s relative brevity and Irwin Chusid’s decision to never write another.


JANDEK – “Maze Of The Phantom” (Record Review)

Reviewed by Dale Nickey:


Jandek – “Maze Of The Phantom” (2012)
Corwood Industries (0808)

Jandek is the most compelling indie artist at this particular moment in human history. Jandek captures your imagination. In Jandekland, imagination is the only tool you have to appreciate and curate the music. Jandek does no interviews. Nor does he provide biographical information.  No mission statement. No digital domain.  No contact information other than the P.O. Box address of Corwood Industries.  If you want to buy a Jandek record, you can go to the Corwood Industries web page and purchase records by mail-order at a very reasonable price.  But the Corwood Industries webpage contains only a stark list of titles and catalog numbers. No artwork or photos.  It has all the pizzazz of a police rap sheet.

I obtained a review copy of his recent (2012) double CD release “Maze of the Phantom”. Again, no artwork, musician credits, studio information or locale of recording was provided. No one-sheet.  No song titles. The individual tracks are designated, “Number One”, “Number Two”, etc… Perhaps Jandek knows what he’s doing. Because, the dearth of ancillary information forced me to look to the music exclusively for my answers.

Expect the unexpected with Jandek. “Maze Of The Phantom” is a mature, considered work.  Just my guess, but most of it seems like free-form improvisation.  Above all, it’s musical. It mines the outer limits of the Ambient genre. But, that’s where categorization ends. The representative of Corwood Industries uses liberal amounts of space, air and light. The pieces are non-figurative, alien soundscapes. But, beautiful in the way the vast empty expanses of New Mexico or Arizona are beautiful. An endless horizon of tone and mood. Occasionally clusters of musical activity will appear and recede like jagged rock formations or outcroppings of spikey cactus whizzing by your field of vision on a long car drive. Percussive sounds skitter across the audio spectrum like spiders on a hot plate. A female voice occasionally scats a siren wail. Flutes, harps and other musical ephemera weave in and out of the mix.  In the Ambient genre, “Maze Of The Phantom” manages to stand apart from the flower arrangement sonics of Enya, or the candle-shop ambiance of Patrick O’Hearn. And, it has none of the smarty-pants pretentions of ENO either (as brilliant as he is).

What stuns me about this album is how diametrically opposite it is to his earlier period. Jandek’s first 8 or 9 albums (for the most part) featured the snap, crackle and pluck of a twig-dry acoustic guitar; which was the lo-fi bedrock for his primal vocalizing. The music was atonal and hard listening. Delta-Blues from the twilight zone. Horrible background music for anything. You either listened up close or sprinted to the turntable to take it off. But where you might walk away and forget another artist,  Jandek keeps pulling you back in.

Research on the internet rewarded me with the album art for “Maze of the Phantom”. Jandek is one of the artists whose album art looks like the music sounds. Or is it the other way around? The cover to “Maze….” is a bleak winter landscape without visible signs of life, except the leafless trees and a body of water with a smooth, unbroken surface. However, what Loch Ness monster lies beneath?

Unlike previous Jandek albums, this one sits comfortably in my CD player and is in regular rotation on my I-Pod.  It doesn’t give me nightmares or sweet dreams.  It gives me Jandek. And it gives the world something it never tires of….a good mystery.


To purchase Jandek’s music click here >>>>>