New Talent Needed All the Time
A Study of Outsider Music by Jeff Grimshaw

Delaware Valley News
(reprinted by permission)
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f all the books published in this millennium, my favorite so far is Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music by Irwin Chusid, which concerns the bizarre music composed and performed by homeless schizophrenics, nursing home residents, drug burnouts, and other folks who tend not to show up on TRL or get major label recording contracts. I recommend it highly; for one thing, it's often very funny, and for another, I finally found out what musical genre I've been toiling in all these years. I'm sorry to say I don't even show up in the index, but after reading the chapter on "The Song Poem Industry" I had the feeling I came pretty close.

- - If you've spent as much time as I have scrutinizing the ads in the back of comic books, you've come across advertisements that say "WANTED: YOUR POEMS" and invite you to send in your lyrics for a 'free appraisal.' If you do, you'll get a letter back telling you that your stuff has real hit potential, and for around 200 bucks, a demo with the full studio treatment will be made and distributed. This 'industry' thrived for decades, and needless to say not one of these potential hit songs (hundreds of thousands? millions?) came within a mile of hitting a radio station playlist, but the songs actually were set to music and recorded though distribution was pretty much limited to the folks who paid for the full studio treatment.

- - Not even hinted at in the book, however, is the song-poem SUB industry. After all, not everyone can afford 200 bucks for the full studio treatment. It's so unfair. All these mute inglorious Miltons, don't THEY deserve to have their worthless lyrics set to music too?

- - You bet. As I discovered in the late 1970's, when my friend Chuck Mulrooney decided to have his words set to music.

- - He came across a company willing to set his poems for a mere 20 bucks. It was called STERLING MUSIC and located in Texas. Chuck sent in his two poems and his 40 bucks (nothing about "free appraisal" at Sterling; you sent in the money, they set your words to music).

- - The tape he got back was quite something. The house composer at Sterling sang both of Chuck's songs-- acapella. 'Sang' might be the wrong word; they were sort of chanted, in what sounded to me like the Texas equivalent of someone doing a Peter Lorre impression. It was actually kind of scary. When it was over, Chuck excitedly told me, "And for another 20 bucks, he'll add a GUITAR TRACK with [he glanced at the cover letter] AN ORIGINAL MUSICAL CHORD PROGRESSION."

- - For reasons now lost in the dim mists of time, I told Chuck to save his money; I would add guitar chords for free. To my mortification, at first he balked-- "Well, I mean, that's really nice of you... but I mean... it's not like you're a professional..." I pointed out that since I was doing it for free, he had nothing to lose and if he didn't like it, he could always pay to have the creepy Texan add his own (undoubtedly creepy) chords. With enormous reluctance, he finally agreed.

- - I jettisoned the Texan's 'melodies' and sang what amounted to a couple of default tunes over a couple of standard I-IV-V progressions. I had a lot of fun with it, despite, or perhaps because, of couplets like "To be a man who can find his own truths / Now I'm willing to win and lose." Chuck was delighted. "The tunes sound TOTALLY DIFFERENT when you play the guitar with them," he said. At this point it occurred to me, as it has to so many others throughout history, that I was GIVING away something people were willing to pay for.

- - Thus was born SWELL MUSIC INC. I already had a guitar, a crappy electric keyboard, and a mailing address. I bought about 50 of the cheapest cassettes I could find, took out an ad (I was going to charge 15 bucks for the full treatment) in a couple of give-away weeklies, and waited for the money to pour in.

- - After six weeks, 11 customers, 3 bounced checks, and one death threat, Swell Music Inc.-- which of course was never incorporated-- closed up shop forever, but not before I encountered the amazing lyrics of Irwin Mitchell Johnson.

- - Irwin Mitchell Johnson sent me four songs to set; three of them were 'title songs' to 1950s Sci-fi movies: "I Married a Monster from Outer Space," "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," and "Invaders from Mars." The fourth was a song called "The Only Irwin in the World," a plaintive ditty about how there were several kids in his school named Bill or Tom, but he was the only Irwin. ("Should I fly my Irwin Flag Unfurled? /Am I the Only Irwin in the World?")

- - In all honesty, I did a great job with these. Especially considering the words I was working with:

"Invaders from Mars"

It looks like mommy but it's not
It looks like daddy but it's not
See their eyes? It's very plain
Someone else controls their [sic] brain!


Invaders from Mars! They've landed! They're here!
Invaders from Mars! They're under the ground!
Under the golf course is where they are found
Invaders from Mars! They've landed! They're here!

Why won't you believe me? Does nobody care?
Invaders from Mars! Run! Get away! Scream!
Invaders from Mars-- or is it a dream?

[dreamy instrumental music]
(repeat chorus).

- - IMJ was so delighted by my work on these that he asked me to set a poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky called "Brooklyn Bridge." (Apparently he didn't have enough songs to fill out a 5 song set.) "You will find a copy of Mayakovsky's book The Bedbug [a play] and Selected Poems at the Barnes and Noble sale annex on 18th St.," he wrote. "It is 25 cents. Go to the wall of 25-cent books. Third shelf from the top, all the way to the right. So that it will not be purchased by another, I have secreted the book behind three diet books with pink covers. The poem is one pg 173." Why he didn't simply buy the book himself and send it to me-- or just send me a copy of the poem-- is another of those mysteries to which we will never know that answer, but it was right where he said it would be, and I did the best I could with the poem. Since it's a translation from the Russian, it neither rhymed nor scanned, which made things kind of difficult. About two weeks after completing this job I got a tape from Irwin, with HIS performances of the songs, which he sang with my tape playing in the background. Before each song he had a long explanation of why he had written it; I remember he saw the three sci-fi movies as an "unofficial 1950's paranoia trilogy, from the viewpoints respectively of a bride, a man, and a child." The tape was labeled "Opus One."

- - Shortly after that a disgruntled customer (incredible as it sounds, not everyone appreciated my talent) wrote a letter to the (non-existent) president of Swell Music complaining about my work. "THIS BUM HAS MADE A MOCKERY OF MY WORDS, MRS. YAMAMOTO!" (For some reason I felt that company would seem more, I don't know, classy, if it were run by an elderly Japanese widow. I'm not sure why.) "While I harbor no ill will towards any living person, I sincerely hope he dies.") and I decided to close up shop.

- - Somehow I always expected to hear more about Irwin Mitchell Johnson some day. I'm almost surprised he didn't make an appearance in this book by this other Irwin. Who knows what opus number he's up to by now?


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