Bright Lights Film Journal

Outside In: Three Documentaries on Gary Wilson, Jandek, and Song Poems

“We accept you, we accept you, gibble gobble, gibble gobble…”

Outsider art as a visual medium — from anonymous 19th-century tramp art to Simon Rodia’s obsessive Watts Towers to unintelligible drawings produced in psych wards — has been established, documented, and recognized for so long (Raw Vision magazine traces this recognition back to the early 20th century) that its existence as a discrete form is unquestioned, though the definition remains controversial and contested.

Outsider music is, if anything, even less quantifiable. There’s the same emphasis on authenticity, naivete, cluelessness, mental illness, eccentricity, lack of formal training or even discernible talent that’s found in outsider art. But fans of the form have embraced everything from drug addict choral groups to Christian puppeteer singers to little kids playing psychedelia to Phyllis Diller doing send-ups of standards. This is a very widely cast net.

The informative Yahoo Group devoted to Outsider Music offers a useful definition.

The site goes on to list once-obscure singers like The Shaggs, Florence Foster Jenkins, Jandek, Shooby Taylor, Wesley Willis, Fran Baskerville the Singing Psychic, and others who are the objects of cults of varying intensity as acceptably outsider.

The crucial caveat on the site is “Anybody *trying* to be strange is not an outsider.” Authenticity is perhaps the single most important trait in the definition. But authenticity alone obviously isn’t enough. Musical incompetence is equally valued (the Outsider Music stresses “incompetent but sincere,” perhaps the most succinct workable definition.) But is this too limiting? What about the musician who is obsessional, obscure, and uncommercial, but also unquestionably talented? This is certainly the case with Gary Wilson, a legendary punk-era figure who self-released his first album, You Think You Really Know Me in 1977 and vanished without ever having made it. Jandek (above), an ultra-reclusive singer-songwriter specializing in unnervingly bleak psychodramas accompanied by an out-of-tune guitar, has been read as both incompetent and musically avant-garde. He has more in common with a certain strain of nihilistic modern art than with the amusing/endearing model of outsider music represented by Florence Foster Jenkins or B. J. Snowden. Closer to standard definitions are the song-poem artists, anonymous poets and lyricists who send their words, along with a fee, to companies created to put them to music and perhaps — this is the lure — make them a hit. This is a hybrid form, with homely or inspirational or downright bizarre lyrics wedded to competent, workmanlike music created in the studio. The overall effect, despite the slick music, is often indeed “incompetent but sincere.”

Wilson, Jandek, and the song-poem industry are the subjects of three excellent recent documentaries that may herald the beginning of a wider acceptance of outsider music, one that could help the form achieve some of the status given to outsider art.

You Think You Really Know Me: The Gary Wilson Story

I was lucky enough to find a copy of Gary Wilson’s debut LP in a Hollywood record store in the early 1980s. Significantly, it had been dumped by a reviewer and came complete with poster, a set of disturbing color polaroids showing a guy with a plastic bag on his head, a lyric sheet, and a handwritten letter from Wilson to the reviewer — a tidy précis of the DIY musical movement’s commercial hopes at that time. What initially attracted me, besides the promise of a new and unknown artist, were the images. The black-and-white cover showed a hip-nerd guy in Teddy Boy jacket, tie, and girl’s sunglasses standing in a creepy basement. The back cover showed him nearly naked, entangled in heaps of recording tape, covered in flour dust, looking more like a murder victim than a musician.

Punk? Poseur? Avant-garde hipster? Who could tell? The music was a hypnotic blend of jazzy riffs, funk grooves, synth washes, John Cage-like experimental clatter, and Wilson’s strangled voice mouthing desperate lyrics about “groovy girls who make love on the beach” and how to connect with them. A typical lyric, shrieked against a seductive musical drone: “She’s a real groovy girl / And she’s got red lips / She’s so real / Don’t you hear me God? / She’s REAL!” Some of the lines — most notably “6.4 = make out” — are unexplained and perhaps unexplainable, opaque signifiers of a rich interior world.

Wilson’s music is not sui generis like that of some outsiders — Shooby Taylor comes to mind here — but it also could not be mistaken for the work of anyone else. The record got a few good notices (especially in the reliable Op magazine and the first edition of Ira Robbins’ Trouser Press Guide) and became a cause celebre among a few devotees. Wilson might have gotten some street credibility from his gigs at CBGB’s, but the only thing he shared with punk was the DYI attitude. And the punk regulars at this seminal club apparently didn’t appreciate the broken mannequins, “keeping time with flour dust,” the sophisticated but otherworldly sound, and general onstage dementia of Wilson and his band the Blind Dates. With the failure of the record and no momentum from the gigs (“Most people left after the third song” was the band’s typical lament), he moved from his hometown of Endicott, New York, to parts unknown.

Like many outsider artists, Wilson’s obscurity was key to his legend. Was he as strange as those album photos indicated? How could such a brilliant musician simply disappear? Director Michael Wolk wondered too; so much so that he put a private investigator on the case after meeting the owners of Motel Records, who wanted to reissue You Think You Really Know Me. The P.I. failed to find him, but he was eventually discovered in San Diego in appropriate decline, playing keyboards in a lounge band and working in a porn shop.

Wolk’s documentary, You Think You Really Know Me: The Gary Wilson Story, respectfully demystifies Wilson, who emerges as a sweet, soft-spoken, gifted man who seems grateful for his rediscovery but stoic about the limits of his success. Wolk corralled many of Wilson’s old friends, admirers, band members, critics, girlfriend, and present and past concert and home-movie footage, for this affectionate portrait.

The Wilson seen here is eccentric, but hardly the “Steely Dan on crack” that one critic describes. A multi-instrumentalist in high school, he played bass, guitar, keyboards, wind instruments, you name it. He created clubs based on obsessions like Frank Zappa (he was “Zeus Wilson, King of the Prunes” in one persona), and (contradicting the Outsider Music rule about “not trying to be strange”) cultivated a bizarre public image, wearing lipstick, putting scary plastic bags over his head, and walking his mean pet duck (“Ducky Doo”) around the neighborhood. (This aggressive creature still inspires fear in one of his old bandmates: “It was like a pit bull duck!”) Wilson and his pals (and unlike the standard image of the outsider, he had many) made and starred in amusingly theatrical experimental movies. Perhaps inspired by a meeting with John Cage, who took an interest in him, Wilson and his band began throwing paint and flour all over each other onstage, breaking instruments, and generally terrifying the Endicott locals. He comes off in the early footage as a kind of naïve Andy Kaufmann, unpredictable if not as threatening. At a “battle of the bands,” as recounted by a witness, Wilson sank the show by playing tapes comprised of “the most horrific sounds, screeches.”

Wilson cites two horror films, the 3-D The Mask and Carnival of Souls, as major influences (“I watch them over and over again,” he says), and the documentary lets viewers make the connection by sampling them visually and aurally. Carnival of Souls‘ creepy church organ music is echoed in Wilson’s work, as is the eerie electronic riffing found in the very Freudian The Mask.

Another major influence was the torpid atmosphere of Endicott itself, seen throughout: “real cloudy … kind of a depressing place, cold, damp … rusty pipes.” The music has the kind of alienation the words suggest, though it’s too vibrant to be called bleak. At home, Wilson’s mother offered unstinting support, even curling his hair as a pre-teen so he resembled his idol Dion. His father, a musician by profession, had no clue what his son was about, and early footage of teenager Wilson and his pals sitting around the living room half naked wearing monster masks gives a clue why.

Unlike the artist missing for the last quarter of a century, Wilson is seen throughout the film in interviews, at leisure, and in intriguing performance footage. Until the documentary, he was “outside” even to the lounge bandmates he’s known since the 1980s. Only one knew he had a different early career and cult status that eventually gained him glowing reviews in The New York Times and fans like the editors of Absolute Sound and Stereophile magazine. In rehearsal for his recent performances (he dislikes the word comeback), he’s very much the maestro. The documentary captures that sense of edgy creativity that marks his work, but also the wistfulness that must follow years of toiling away from the limelight that Wilson craved, and as the film shows, deserved.

Go to the Gary Wilson home page, which features news, views, reviews, pix, and a free download of his masterpiece, “6.4 = Make Out”!

Jandek on Corwood

If Wilson was elusive, Jandek has been a veritable ghost. Most musicians, including outsiders, want recognition, and at various times in his career Jandek has made desultory efforts to get it, mainly with cryptic notes sent to a few critics or fans, or a very occasional answered phone call to his ominous-sounding company, Corwood Industries. But no artist in memory with such a long career (his first album, Ready for the House, was released in 1978, and 34 more have followed as of this writing) has gone to such extreme lengths to keep his image away from the public. A few connections have been made: a 1985 phone interview with John Trubee and a 1999 article in Texas Monthly that scrupulously avoided any information about his work or life (he and author Katy Vine discussed allergies and drank beer). But it’s a measure of how impenetrable the Jandek image is that even Vine cannot absolutely declare that the guy she interviewed was Jandek. His biography, such as it is, is entirely interior, hypothesized from his stark, grim, surprisingly affecting recordings.

Director Chad Friedrichs and producer/interviewer Paul Fehler, both dedicated Jandekites, have attempted the Herculean task of defining — or perhaps more accurately, paying homage to — this most hermetic character. The lure? A man and a music that critics and fans have variously described as “weird, unusual,” “a lonely voice accompanied by an acoustic guitar,” “really talentless,” “a 33-volume suicide note,” and the capper, “the appeal of the records is how unappealing they are.” Commentators include critics Byron Coley and Gary “Pig” Gold; Jandek interviewer Katy Vine; and a slew of DJs, record-store owners, the staff of Op magazine, and others.

Divided into sections that comment on different aspects of the music and expound various theories about Jandek’s significance, the film features sad images of ramshackle houses, lonesome landscapes, empty fields of grass, along with the desolate album cover art — reproducing photographs presumably taken by Jandek — that offer a visual correlative to the performer’s mysterious inner world. Theories about what drives Jandek litter the film. Is he a sociopath? a mental case? a constant incipient suicide? Katy Vine confounds such theories in her account of her meeting with him. The Jandek she saw was well dressed, lives in an upscale Houston neighborhood, apparently has a regular job (he’s not the drone in a record-pressing plant that some of the commentators have speculated). Certainly eccentric and private at their meeting, he’s nonetheless forthcoming in some areas, discussing food, gardening, and movies like The Matrix, only drawing the line, quite firmly, when she attempts to dig into his personal life or identify his friends.

The always reliable Byron Coley offers one of the film’s most useful insights when he divides the work into three distinct periods that also point to a different Jandek than commonly noted — one whose solitude has been interrupted by collaborators like the singer “Nancy” and perhaps even a drummer and a bass player here and there.

A highlight is the John Trubee telephone interview that ends the film. The silences between the usually voluble Trubee and the determined-not-to-be-nailed Jandek are as instructive as the conversation itself. When asked about drumming or bass playing on some of the records, Jandek identifies his collaborators only as “an individual” whose names “I don’t remember.” He refuses to say even how he met them. He takes a nihilistic view of nature and life, connecting them to loss and death: “A rock, that was one thing, eventually crumbles … that’s what happens when a person leaves … they evaporate…”

It’s a critic’s job to try to analyze and uncover, but it’s a measure of Jandek’s power that the commentators here are respectful and even reticent, as if there’s something so pure — also, perhaps, frightening, a recurring word in describing him — in this reclusive image that they should not attempt to probe too deeply. Jandek, at least, can remain inviolate in a world where everything is commodified.

Jandek on Corwood is not available yet (as of May 2004), but go here to sign up to be notified when it’s released. Expect some juicy extras.

Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story

One of the most prolific genres has also, until recently, been one of the least noticed, despite its longevity (dating back to 1900, apparently) and those ubiquitous advertisements in the back of magazines and comics. The “song-poem” lets people pay to express themselves musically, to see their poetry and lyrics turned — potentially — into hit records. Like vanity publishers, music recording companies fill that need, in the process providing hope for a career (or even a little neighborhood recognition) to thousands and sometimes handsome profits to those who run these businesses.

This little-known history is engagingly told in Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story. Director Jamie Meltzer proposed the film to his teacher, noted indie producer Henry Rosenthal, after listening to one of the song-poem CD compilations. In his own words, Meltzer became a “private investigator. Finding the song-poem writers was a huge challenge: all I had to go on were their names and the names of the songs.” He did locate many of these people, along with song-poem business owners and studio players who put the lyrics and poems to music. The result is a highly personal survey of dreams of creativity and success by those who may have one or the other, or neither. It’s equal parts sadness, comedy, and inspiration.

The ads entice with names like “Magic Key Productions” and urgent demands like “Song Poems Needed Now!” Those who bite run the gamut. Typical is Caglar Juan Singletary, whose “Non-Violent Tae Kwon do Troopers” lyrics became a song after Caglar paid the fees to make them one. A sample of the lyric: “I am sitting on my Super Bicycle / “Angelaria” / And I’m dressed like Captain Bicycle / ‘Angelaria’ / Show me yourself / … Thank Jehovah / for Kung Fu Bicycles / and Priscilla Presley.” Caglar also confesses his love for Annie Oakley, referring wistfully to her as his “historical honey.”.

The ever-present John Trubee (perhaps taking time off from his interviews for the Jandek doc) is here, amusingly recounting his own experience with the genre when he improvised the poem “Blind Man’s Penis” and sent it off for song-poem treatment (with a check for $79). Sample lyrics: “I got high last night on LSD / My mind was beautiful, and I was free / Warts loved my nipples because they are pink / Vomit on me, baby / Yeah Yeah Yeah.” Meltzer found the man who put it to music, veteran of the field Ramsey Kearney, and plays it for him to hilarious effect. The egalitarianism of the song-poem genre was never more evident.

Also interviewed here are the alternately amused and bored studio musicians responsible for creating, according to “King of the Demo Singers” Gene Merlino (left), as many as 82 of these songs in 4 hours. Watching him render “Digging Ginseng All Over the Land” straight-faced is a highlight.

Grimmer moments occur with Gary Forney, a likeable but clueless talent who created one of the great song-poem titles in “Chicken Insurrection.” Forney is seen thumbing through mysterious playlists based on supposed indie play that show one of his songs bounding up the charts. When he performs “Chicken Insurrection” during his “Iowa Mountain Tour, Live!” (actually a three-song set at a low-rent campground), his son forgets to play. Most pathetic is a phone call Forney makes to a mystified Dutch DJ about “how my records are doing.” Equally downbeat is the section on song-poem genius and drug casualty Rodd Keith, whose musical gifts made his interpretations easy to distinguish from those of his colleagues.

Despite the relatively brief running time (58 minutes), Off the Charts covers a lot of ground. Interviews with Tom Ardolino (“the Columbus of song-poems”) and other fans offer useful context. In a fascinating split-screen sequence (below), song-poem composer/musician Art Kaufman passionately performs “The Thing from Another World” while its lyricist, Nilson V. Ortiz, apparently irritated that Kaufman added a word or two to make it scan, reacts befuddled on the other screen.

The DVD ($19.95 list price) doubles the running time with a wealth of extras. They include an informative commentary by Meltzer and producer Henry Rosenthal; “The Sunburst Studio Sessions” (17 minutes of song-poem creation by droll, testy Gene Merlino and a studio band); highlights of Gary Forney’s “Iowa tour”; “Columbine Records Presents ‘America Sings'” (a 24-minute unintentionally funny song-poem infomercial); and various deleted scenes.