Thursday, 30 June 2011

Wildman Fischer and the problem with "Outsider Art"

Wildman Fischer died a few weeks ago and it got some sympathetic coverage from music journalist Bob Lefsetz saying among other things;

"Wild Man Fischer was an institution. A club you became a member of in high school or your college dorm. Someone cool but friendly, not a football player or a cheerleader, would start talking about a record, with a smile on his or her face, and begin singing..."


"You remember the cover of that initial double album. With his electric hair?
Maybe you don't. Maybe you're just too young. Maybe you equate music with money, learning about the riches of Led Zeppelin or seeing all those acts on MTV.
But once upon a time, it was about music.
And it was certainly about creativity.
Could you question convention?"

Exhibit a)
Bongo George Coleman ~ "I wish I could sing";

For those who don't know, Wild Man Fischer was a mentally ill street person who was known for his off key singing for change on the streets of 1960's L.A. Back in the days of the hippie counter-culture some found this sort of thing endearing, or a refreshing change from corporate culture, or something like that. So Frank Zappa brought him into the recording studio for an album of off key caterwauling and rambling that some hipsters (including notably Dr.Demento) found, and still find endlessly amusing. It didn't last of course because Fischer was mentally ill and soon ended up coming to blows with Zappa who recoiled in horror, canceling his record deal. Turns out when a mentally ill street person is no longer amusing they are just crazy and actually scary. Who knew? In fact those records have been spitefully kept out of print ever since by Zappa and his estate which pretty much destroys any "but how else is Fischer supposed to make a living?" argument.

Exhibit b)
The Shaggs ~ "My pal Foot Foot";

Any of this sound familiar? Remember the late Wesley Willis? Another mentally ill street person brought into the studio to record a couple albums of demented, utterly talentless rambling. A few years ago, before Willis died, Jim DeRogatis wrote a thoughtful piece about this wondering about the ethics of a bunch of white middle class hipsters and fratboys openly laughing at the large lumbering brain damaged black man cavorting for their amusement. That's a question I had been wondering about before and since. And setting aside the issue of race which doesn't apply here since Fischer was white, Lefsetz' comments brought the issue back.

Exhibit c)
Hasil Adkins ~ "The Slop";

I get the theory of "outsider art" or "naive art" that Lefsetz is getting at here, that those amateurs who are untainted by "corporate culture" can give us an alternate voice untainted by the excesses of that culture. It's the basic message of "One flew over the cuckoo's nest" and to a lesser extent "To kill a mocking bird". But I don't buy it. This always seems to me to be a rationalization to give otherwise decent people an excuse to laugh at a geek show that would never be allowed in modern society.

Exhibit d)
The Legendary Stardust Cowboy ~ "Paralyzed";

I like some of Lefsetz's often insightful comments and I don't question his sincerity, besides anyone who despises Gene Simmons even half as much as I do can't be all bad. But I call bullshit on this bullshit. By any rational standard the actual music they created is terrible. If it were not coming from someone the audience is fully aware is mentally ill there is no way it would have been treated as anything other than a silly joke for the amusement of largely white hipsters and drunken fratboys. But since it's coming from an "outsider" their records are seen as an alternative to corporate music, which then gives the hipsters a chance to laugh "ironically" at the geek show? I think not.

Exhibit e)
Herbie Duncan ~ "Hot lips baby";

There are plenty of other examples of clueless amateurs who accidentally made some oddly cool records in the first three decades of rock and roll; Hasil Adkins, Jenks Tex Carmen, The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, The Shaggs, Lucia Palmoa, King Uszniewicz, Mrs. Elva Miller, Herbie Duncan, Bongo George Coleman, even Florence Foster Jenkins and I gleefully recommend them all without having to engage in the fetishistic worship of the mentally ill. And spare me the smug hipster "if you don't get it you just aren't as cool as us" implications of your "club". By the way Bob, "clubs" are not cool. Clubs exist to exclude people, and that's not rock and roll.

Exhibit f)
King Uszniewicz ~ "Doo Wah Diddy";

Exhibit g)
Mrs. Elva Miller (w/Jimmy Durante) ~ "Inky Dinky Doo";

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