Irwin Chusid is a radio personality, journalist, and author whose controversial book and CDs Songs in the Key of Z (Chicago Review Press, 2000) explore the works of cult outsider musicians Daniel Johnston, Florence Foster Jenkins, Tiny Tim, and others. In 2002 he produced the much lauded Langley Schools Music Project disc for Bar/None. Chusid recently screened an evening of documentaries about some of his favorites at New York’s American Museum of Folk Art.
1. Wherever do you find these recordings? On the scrap heap of music history, where they don’t belong. Years ago I scavenged tag sales and used-record shops—not in the bins, but under them, where the supposedly “worthless” discs were tossed. Now, with the Web, it’s easier.
2. What element of “outsider music” strikes you first? Sincerity. It has to be genuine. And it often reflects a lack of self-awareness. If the artist tries to “play down,” or be comical, it’s usually obvious. Not interested.
3. What set you off on this path? The Shaggs’ Philosophy of the World. My buddy R. Stevie Moore had an original LP he played for me in 1978. We acknowledged the playing was “bad,” but there was also something extraordinary about it. It had a purity and guilelessness that transcended mere incompetence.
4. What’s your latest discovery? I recently obtained the Shooby Taylor master reels—18 of them—from his son. Shooby, who called himself “the Human Horn,” was a weird-ass scat singer who wailed along with LPs in low-budget New York City studios in the ’70s and ’80s. He has an amazing virtuoso style that sometimes borders on the ridiculous, but hearing Shooby is an analgesic for existential pain. You can read his story in my book and at keyofz.com.
5. You’ve said that outsider music is the “real soul music”—how so? It comes from the heart, not from an A&R committee.
For more on Irwin Chusid, see “People Are Strange.”