Well I woke up this morning with a pain in my neck,
A pain in my heart and a pain in my chest,
I went to the good doctor and the good doctor said,
You gotta slow down your life or you’re gonna be dead,
Cut out the struggle and strife,
It only complicates your life.
Ray Davies, “Complicated Life” from The Kinks LP, Muswell Hillbillies, 1971
Well, I did not wake up with a pain in my neck, heart, or chest. I didn’t have to see a doctor. I do have a pain in the heel of my left foot, probably a mild fracture or bruise from over use or from…never mind…it’s complicated.
People are complicated. Sometimes it is difficult to predict the response you get from them. I think that makes life interesting. But when the response is unexpected, perhaps unconsciously, it is a way for the other person to say “don’t seek a response from me!” Make sense? As social, communicating creatures we spend too much time trying to elicit a response from others, whether it be verbal or nonverbal. The reason I say this is because I think too often what we are doing is seeking self-affirmation from the other’s response. By nature, we desire control and predictability in our environment, and that includes our interactions with the people around us. When thrown off balance by not getting what we expect or want, we often become frustrated. To complicate matters even further, there are some who expect the unexpected in their quest for self-affirmation. And, since we often assume a person we are communicating with is like-minded, we give them what we desire to get back. Perhaps unconsciously we assume everyone is just like us, or in some cases, not like us. See how complicated this gets?
It is the same with music. I do believe that people, including myself, play certain music, or certain styles of music, over and over again because we are seeking self-affirmation in its predictability. For some people, when I put on an unfamiliar piece of music, especially if that music is unconventional, or as some describe “too far out,” they become frustrated; maybe even upset. Then there are those who love the unconventional, and for them when I put on a commercially successful piece of music, something that is overplayed in the media, they become bored and that brings frustration. For them unpredictability has become self-affirming. People are complicated. They think they like what they like and that is all that they like. For many, there are no strange familiars. There is just black and white, sacred and profane, good and bad, yin and yang. In reality it is all gray; all a blur. The big paradox for me is that the more you try to drill down and focus, seeking clarity, the more things blur. This is a crudely simple example of the application of the uncertainty principle.
But for me what keeps life fresh and exciting is opening myself up to something new; new sounds, new people, new places, new ideas, new sensations, new ways of doing something. When there is too much sameness in my life I become restless. Yet there are times I seek refuge in the familiar and the conventional. It is complicated.
When I was just five years old, I liked putting dissonant and discordant sounds together. The abrupt and unfamiliar excited me. I’ve never changed. When I was five, I was not seeking a response from anybody else in these aural explorations. I was simply entertaining myself. At that age, I remember hearing a certain song on the radio that I fell in love with. I have since found that we call the style of that song “exotica” and I later found out that that particular song was “Quiet Village” by Martin Denny. It was interesting to me because of the incorporation of frog and bird calls into the music. Yet there were other songs that were quite conventional that I have continued to enjoy such as Percy Faith’s “A Summer Place”. A few years later, on Pittsburgh radio station WRYT, there was a classical music program, which often played selections of modern 12-tone classical composers such as Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. That was exciting for me because it was different and very much what I imagined in my head when I was just five years old – had I been a composer when I was five, I would have written similar music. But yet I also was very much at home with Brahms’ Fourth “Tragic” Symphony.
When I was in grade school, in the evenings I would play with the knobs on our AM radios and pull in distant stations (none of our radios had FM until my freshman year in high school.) Living in southwestern Pennsylvania, we were in the skip zone for many Canadian radio stations, from Ontario (CJBC, 860 AM from Toronto) and Quebec (CBF, 690 AM from Montreal). A characteristic of the French service of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was that they had an evening jazz program that played a lot of free jazz, such as Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Pharaoh Sanders, and John Coltrane. Being broadcast in French I did not understand what was said, or which artists were being played. I just knew I really loved these wild sounds. It was only later that I was able to put names to the artists I had heard.
When I was in junior high psychedelic rock began to affect contemporary rock music. This was a welcome treat for me with all the mixes of instruments from the Near East, Middle Eastern scales, odd time signatures, found sounds, swirling Farfisa organs and fuzz drenched guitars.
This is not to say that I never listened to or enjoyed popular and conventional music styles. But I would not say that I had a preference for any particular style. It was unavoidable that I would be subjected to traditional classical music, big band swing, cool jazz, and Dixieland from my family, plus the top contemporary hits in country, pop, rockabilly, and early 60s rock ‘n’ roll found on the radio and TV. By my freshman year in high school, my tastes ranged from Glen Miller, Burt Bacharach, Herb Alpert, Dionne Warwick, The Beatles, and The Association, to Krystof Penderecki, Albert Ayler, Ultimate Spinach, The Fugs, and The Mothers of Invention.
Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band
In my freshman year in college I remember hearing a lot about Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band being even more far out than Frank Zappa’s Mothers. My only exposure to “The Good Captain” before that was on the title track to Zappa’s Hot Rats LP where his Howlin’ Wolf-styled vocals were put to good use. So, without hearing the first note from the double LP, Trout Mask Replica, I just had to buy it. Man, that cover with the trout masked Captain in his top hat and coat, and the red-to-hot-pink background was such an irresistible attraction! When I got it home during break and put it on the turntable, I have to say that there was just nothing like it I had heard before. Abrupt time changes, odd mutated blues patterns, free jazz style horn blowing with a wild multi-octave Captain all over the map, sometimes not even able to fit in his obscure lyrics before the end of the song. There was a familiarity with the styles incorporated into his music, but the way they were pasted together came off like a quilt designed by the blind. The drumming was executed by the most capable John “Drumbo” French, who sounded like he was on some sort of maligned Motorific Torture Track. It took some time to warm up to this. The big lesson here was that there was music out there that could still challenge me. Another lesson was that if you listen enough, it becomes familiar; you begin to anticipate what is next, and then it does not sound so weird. You begin to hum his odd tunes and sing his oddball lyrics and it suddenly makes sense. However, in doing so I instilled fear and trepidation in all but my closest friends. I feel sorry for those who do not have the desire to take the time to push the envelope.
The multimedia performance and recording artists known as The Residents pushed the envelope much further than Beefheart. The Residents were very experimental and absurdist at first but things changed over time, just as The Beatles changed over time. Their thematic works became much darker and their music less unconventional. I first heard The Residents’ “Constantinople” on the Doctor Demento Show. This prompted me to seek out their music. The first LP I purchased was Not Available, shortly after it was released in 1978. I immediately fell in love with this, and still consider it one of their greatest achievements. It is true psychedelia in my book; conventionality slightly bent to put you a bit off kilter. The lyrics and the monophonic delivery is haunting. The spoken word portions sound mentally damaged. It is gripping in a waltz-through-a-slowed-down-world manner. After this I had to find everything they ever did. What I found was that each release was extremely different from the others until perhaps the last 10 years. I kept my collection complete up until the past three years when I decided the music was becoming a parody of itself. Hardy and Homer, if you are reading this, I am sorry.
The Mentally Ill and Developmentally Disabled
In recent years I have taken an interest in “outsider” artists who appear to march to a different drum or to no drum at all. The obvious ones that first come to mind are the supposed “acid casualties”: Pink Floyd’s Roger “Syd” Barrett; Moby Grape’s Alexander “Skip” Spence; Penny Arkade’s Craig Smith (aka Satya Sai Maitreya Kali); The 13th Floor Elevators’ Roky Erickson; and The Seeds’ Sky Saxon. All were already accomplished musical talents when they were diagnosed with schizophrenia (with the exception of Sky Saxon and perhaps Craig Smith) that manifested itself following years of hallucinogenic drug experimentation. In Craig Smith’s case it may have also been due to brain damage caused by a severe beating he experienced while exploring remote areas of Afghanistan in the early 70s. My feeling is that had it not been for the drugs the underlying mental illness for most of these artists may have been kept in check but then again, we will never know for sure.
I feel a bit guilty about my interest in those who may have been victims of developmental disabilities or mental illness who found an avenue to record and express their musical talents. One such recording I acquired was by the Hi Hopes, from the Hope School in Anaheim, CA. This was a school for the developmentally disabled and it must have had a music program as several albums were pressed in the 1970s of performances by the students. Other recordings I have stumbled upon include those of Daniel Johnston, a singer-songwriter who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He produced several cassette tapes in the 1980s and marketed them himself. His earliest have been put onto a double CD titled “Songs of Pain”. There is a melancholy delicateness and childlike naivety, not dissimilar to that of Brian Wilson, to his songwriting and singing that draws me in. Another artist who is much different in style and is credited to founding the musical genre “psychobilly” is Norman Odam, aka The Legendary Stardust Cowboy. I am not sure what to make of him but his music is full of childlike enthusiasm, in the same manner as Jad Fair of Half Japanese. However, Jad is true to rock and is a bit more in touch with the rest of the world. The Cowboy, fondly referred to as “The Ledge” by some, recorded the song “Paralyzed” in 1968 and unbelievably it was released as a single on the Mercury label. The song is total vocal insanity with backup instrumentation that is nearly lost in the cacophony of sounds emitted from this man’s mouth. Every human sound imaginable by mouth can be heard in total free-form abandon. While Odam never achieves the extremes of “Paralyzed” on his subsequent numerous recordings, he relentlessly tries to find new vocal sounds for self-expression, but sometimes he transitions into a more normal baritone singing style and uses real words! Larry “Wild Man” Fischer is another victim of schizophrenia who was first recorded on the album, Bedlam, attributed to a band named The Crazy People back in 1967. The album was produced by a supposed DJ from Vancouver, BC who went by the name Johnny Kitchen. Kitchen’s real name is Jack Millman, an accomplished jazz trumpeter whose career began in 1948! Later in 1967 Frank Zappa “discovered” Fischer singing on the streets of L.A. and brought him into the studio to record “An Evening with Wild Man Fischer”. In the mid-70s Fischer signed a contract with Rhino Records and recorded four more albums which have been collected in a 3-CD box set titled “The Fischer King”. Fischer was known for his ability to create a song on-the-spot, and primarily sang unaccompanied. Many of his songs were autobiographical and presented a picture of a family that did not know how to handle a child with mental illness who primarily communicated with song. Wesley Willis was a Chicago street singer who also suffered from schizophrenia. He accompanied himself on keyboard and amazingly had a punk rock band, The Wesley Willis Fiasco. Most of his songs were quite funny as well as being grossly vulgar, but repetitive in style and lyrical structure. His most famous songs were “Kurt Cobain”, “I Whupped Batman’s Ass”, and “Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonalds”. Willis was also a compelling visual artist and much of his artwork appears on his album covers. He died from complications following surgery at the age of 40.
Drawing by Wesley Willis
A few more artists who were either “touched” or “damaged” that come to mind, whose albums I own include the following:
Jerry Rayson – The Weird Thing in Town (1969)
Kit Ream – All That I Am (1978)
Randy Rice – To Anyone Who’s Ever Laughed at Someone Else (1974)
Alter Ego and Friends – Obsessional Schizophrenia (1972)
Gary Wilson – You Think You Really Know Me (1977)
The five artists listed immediately above only recorded in limited pressings, and are not widely known outside the world of collectors. Each is quite different from the other but for all of them their problems are quite evident after a few minutes into these recordings.
I am not sure of the reason for my interest in such music. I certainly do not listen with the intention to make fun of their disabilities. I simply find them to be curious and interesting. Perhaps it is due to my psychology background. But my fascination for such things began long before I took my first psychology course, so I just don’t know. It is too complicated. I will end this entry here but I am far from done with this subject.
In my next entry I will discuss other outsider artists who are simply eccentric, or determined and accomplished experimenters.
A Final Note
This morning I woke up to the sad news that David Bowie had passed away. I guess you never expect this to happen, yet it is inevitable with all of us. Bowie was one of those artists for whom I feel a great loss. He was continuously creating and reinventing himself right up to the end. His contributions were enormous. I really cannot say any more than what has been said these hours since his demise. But I will just end by stating my favorite Bowie albums: The Man Who Sold the World, Heroes, and The Singles. My favorite song was a collaboration between Bowie and John Lennon, “Fame”. And then there was “Let’s Dance”. The Tin Machine era was really challenging and I thoroughly enjoyed that band. He was a true star, a true rock pioneer. I will miss him.