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Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  439 Ratings  ·  27 Reviews
Outsider musicians can be the product of damaged DNA, alien abduction, drug fry, demonic possession, or simply sheer obliviousness. This book profiles dozens of outsider musicians, both prominent and obscure—figures such as The Shaggs, Syd Barrett, Tiny Tim, Jandek, Captain Beefheart, Daniel Johnston, Harry Partch, and The Legendary Stardust Cowboy—and presents their stran ...more
Paperback, 272 pages
Published April 1st 2000 by Chicago Review Press (first published January 1st 2000)
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Paul Bryant
Nov 25, 2007 rated it really liked it
I have to tell you this one, I know my friend Raymond won't mind. This is a true story. Raymond has five jobs and one of them is busking. He busks, playing his folky stuff on the melodian or concertina and singing mellifluously. So one day he's busking and it's getting late-ish in the afternoon and a woman has been watching him for quite a few minutes now. He decides to pack up and finishes his song. She continues to stand in front of him. He thinks she looks a little familiar but he can't quite ...more
Ed Wagemann
Jan 24, 2013 rated it really liked it

To pin down an exact definition of Outsider Music is like trying to turn a bottl of ketchup into a tomato. If you define it as music that is outside the mainstream music industry, then that could include anything from punk to polka. If you define it as music that is recorded not for popular consumption, then that too is not exactly correct, since Outsider musicians often dream (perhaps delusionally) of mainstream success. If Outsider music is defined i
Jul 26, 2007 rated it liked it
Most people were introduced to the concept of so-called "Outsider Music" through this book. It is alternately fascinating, informative and pretty darned irritating.
The chief annoyance: The author doesn't draw a distinction between a talentless goofball, of which there are many in this book (I've heard many of these "artists", and many of them are essentially the equivalent of godawful American Idol rejects, or worse, one or another variation on crazy), and a gifted avant-gardist like Captain Be
Ben Arzate
Jan 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: books-i-own
Full Review

Some of his choices for who he writes about are a bit odd to me. Beefheart for the reasons I previously mentioned. It also seems odd that he gives two sentences to the Chipmunks but only mentions Anton LaVey at the end where he names some other artists that might fit in the genre. It seems like music by the founder of the Church of Satan would be worth more than a mere mention. I also noticed the complete absence of Y. Bhekhirst and JW Farquhar. Though I'll grant it would be impossibl
J.T. Wilson
Jul 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
Outsider music is a slippery category to define. It's not to do with sales: Syd Barrett and Captain Beefheart sold loads. It's not to do with aptitude: Robert Graettinger was apparently very talented as a musician and composer. It's to do with a certain uniqueness of style or approach which has little to do with anything in the mainstream. Rebecca Black is not an outsider artist, Jan Terri is. It's one thing to unsuccessfully ape the mainstream. It's another to sound like you have no idea what t ...more
Mar 18, 2007 rated it it was ok
Shelves: music
I loved this book when it was first published, but I revisited it recently and was disappointed to find a lot of pointlessly nasty comments and an overall snide, sneering tone that seems really out of place, since Irwin Chusid was apparently fascinated enough by these artists that he decided to write an exhaustively researched book on them.
Jul 24, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone
I know that the pallor of "laugh at the freaks" hangs over this book, but it inspired me to take up the mantle of "outsider" music (don't we have a better term yet) and even buy a couple of Jandek records. Fascinating stuff. I've read this thing a bunch of times.
May 27, 2013 rated it really liked it
Chusid provides some brief sketches about the music and lives of a number of outsider musicians, ranging from Captain Beefheart to the Legendary Stardust Cowboy to Shooby Taylor, and many others. Like me, he has a fascination with the fringes of music. However, he points out that all of these "musicians" are generally oblivious to how strange their music is perceived by 99.9% of the population, as opposed to say, the music of the Butthole Surfers, which is deliberately weird. I had to do interne ...more
Malini Sridharan
Aug 08, 2007 rated it really liked it
I picked this book up because I wanted to read about Florence Foster Jenkins without spending too much time on it (my father makes occasional references) and it had pieces on a few other artists I like. I expected the tone to be uppity and cooler than thou, but it was mostly thoughtful and informative (the intro and afterword were somewhat irksome). I was annoyed by the chapter on Jandek, but, in the author's defense, I have always found the whole corwood industries man of mystery thing a bit su ...more
Jul 19, 2013 rated it it was ok
Devoted more to biography and anecdotes than it is to a serious discussion of the music itself, Songs in the Key of Z presents little, if any information that would not already be known by a fan of Daniel Johnston, Wesley Willis, Syd Barrett et al. It is a serviceable introduction to this bizarre corner of the music world--choppy, bullet-point prose notwithstanding.
Feb 04, 2008 rated it it was amazing
This is great with the companion CD. I love strange artists in all genres, and I LOVE strange music!
Jun 03, 2010 rated it liked it
It was about the end of spring 2008 when I first became aware of this study of Outsider music. I was at my local noise fest and in between one of the random audience members getting on-stage to do their pre-show assigned sign-up set and one of the various random activities that cropped up around the backyard of White Bitch (local noise artist who organizes the fest) such as getting a random noise box handed to use so you too can be an expert knob-twiddler in an impromptu noise session, that I no ...more
Jan 12, 2013 rated it really liked it
I've always been drawn to these type of artists, so this book was pretty much a slam dunk for me. The writing style is at the level of a magazine article and sometime the author's choice of comparisons or use of humour falls flat. In the end, it's really the subject that you read this for. The variety of artists here covers quite a spectrum. I still have trouble with his categorization of "outsider music"(and still think that Sun Ra should definitely made the cut) as many of the artists included ...more
Sarah Funke Donovan
Apr 03, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: music
Irwin Chusid is a radio host and journalist with an interest in "outsider music." Composed by the insane, the amateurs, and the just plain clueless, outsider music is not just "anti-establishment" (like the avant garde), but simply fails to enter the establishment in the first place. Chusid looks at characters ranging from manic depressive alt-rocker Daniel Johnston to egotistical opera singer Florence Jenkins. Besides the fact that outsider musicians tend to be rather colorful, the book appears ...more
Oct 14, 2011 rated it really liked it
Chusid’s concise study of artists in the realm of Outsider Music is a must-read those seeking an introduction to the music of “non-musicians” (by the accepted standards music theory & mainstream taste) and those who already know about it. Profiling “big names” (The Shaggs, Daniel Johnston, Wild Man Fischer), the obscure (Lucia Pamela, Eilert Pilarm, Jack Murdurian), and others (The Cherry Sisters), Songs... offers a broad peek into the Outsider Music spectrum. Yet while revealing what it is ...more
Mar 16, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: music, gift, nonfiction
Published in 2000, this book would now work better as a multimedia work on the Web.

But it is a decent survey of outsider music — Wesley Willis, Syd Barrett, the Shaggs, Captain Beefheart, Jandek, Daniel Johnston, Tiny Tim are some of the more well-known artists profiled. The better chapters cover the wilder personalities — Harry Partch, Joe Meek, Robert Graettinger — and subjects with more available research — Daniel Johnston, Tiny Tim, Captain Beefheart.

The author is neither condescending nor p
Sep 18, 2007 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: outcasts, weirdos
This is an interesting book relating stories of several eccentric musical figures. There is not much distinction between the "serious" avant-garde (Harry Partch, Captain Beefheart, etc.) and the merely insane, talentless types. It's still interesting and it makes you want to figure out who Jandek is especially. Quite funny as well.
Jul 26, 2011 rated it really liked it

One of the best books about outsider music. The book focuses on some personalities of the genre and then talks about their life - which are equally interesting and their music. There are some interesting choices too like Nick Drake and Captain Beefheart but it's very readable and seek out the accompanying compilation, which is superb.
May 23, 2012 rated it really liked it
Pretty decent beginner's guide to "weird" music. I think this is how I was turned on to song poems. It's not super deep though. Doesn't get to far past song poems and stuff Dr Demento's covered already.
Greg Fanoe
Feb 21, 2012 rated it liked it
A little disappointing but for the most part interesting. The accompanying CD is a must-listen though.
Peter Lehu
Jul 28, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: music
A shallow read on an interesting subject. Chusid tries too hard to be witty and more interested in mocking these artists than trying to understand them.
Feb 19, 2012 rated it it was ok
Informative at times, but written poorly with a bad sense of humor.
Oct 25, 2012 rated it really liked it
Great introduction to some amazingly talented, yet bizarre, musicians.
Gunnar Hjalmarsson
Dec 24, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Grundvallarrit "hamfarapoppsins".
Ethan Smith
Jul 03, 2016 rated it it was amazing
love outsider music, lots of great info, well written, rock on brother
Craven Lovelace
Jan 27, 2008 rated it really liked it
Chusid's style is a tad snarky for me, but he knows his stuff. I appreciated the mini-bio on Buddy Max.
Tyson Brinacombe
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Jun 20, 2017
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“Outsider music sometimes develops naturally. In other cases, it could be the product of damaged DNA, psychotic seizures, or alien abduction. Perhaps medical malpractice, incarceration, or simple drug-fry triggers its evolution. Maybe shrapnel in the head. Possession by the devil-or submission to Jesus. Chalk it up to communal upbringing or bad beer. There's no universal formula.” 0 likes
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