In praise of weirdos.

A relatively youthful Lester Young, holding his tenor sax like a flute, which is in fact the sound he was after.

A relatively youthful Lester Young, holding his tenor sax sideways, much like a flute.

One thing that strikes us about the current state of American audio culture is the conspicuous lack of weirdos. We’re not talking about people who simply dress weird, or those who act weird due to mental impairments or disease. And we aren’t talking about “weird” when it becomes some sort of mainstream thing, like “alternative” music did in the early 1990’s. That was an alternative to what, exactly? And we don’t mean the kind of weird that breeds violent, criminal behavior, no matter how much fun that might entail. No, what we’re after is creative weird. The kind of weird that a true weirdo just can’t suppress. As John Lee Hooker growled in his famous 1948 blues rant “Boogie Chillen”, “let that boy boogie woogie … it in him, and it got to come out”. It do, John, it do. Whatever it is.

Real weirdos don’t follow trends. Not even weird trends. Scaring your grandmother doesn’t make you a weirdo, even if she calls you one all the time. It simply means that you’re having a quite normal adolescence. Goth kids aren’t weirdos, even though there are less of them than there are, say, dweebs or jocks. They’re simply very pale sheep. Satanists, likewise, aren’t real weirdos. They’re just piously needy followers of Old Nick. Lady Gaga dresses weird, but that doesn’t make her a weirdo. It makes her a vaudeville act. What we prefer is something much more suited to sideshows than to the main stage. Freaks, man.

Weirdos make their own way in the world, oblivious to fashion and convention, and that fits our model of creative perfection to a tee. Weird is an especially valuable trait in music, which is as susceptible to fashions and convention as any other endeavor. One doesn’t have to be weird to be talented, of course. Or even to be creative. It does help, however. Lester Young, in addition to being the most influential jazz musician of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, was also one of the most influential auteurs of alternative language and mannerisms in or out of jazz. His behavior was unique, as was his dress, and one supposes that a conventional man could not have achieved what Young did musically. The converse happens, of course, as in the case of a doting family man like Bach or a genuinely regular guy like Count Basie, but the strange ones like Mozart and Young seem to be responsible for many of the revolutions that take place in creative culture. Young’s pork pie hat, his almost poetic use of the phrase “motherfucker”, the way he held his horn, and especially the language he created—like calling police “Bob Crosbys” and white folks “grey boys”—all set him far apart from anything resembling “normal”.

As jazz became codified, more complex and more genre-centric in the 1950’s, weirdos became somewhat marginalized. Among the exceptions was Thelonious Monk, a wonderfully strange man. Although he battled mental illness late in life, the off-kilter, skewed behavior of his most creative years was more about choosing a path of his own design than any inability to toe some psychological center line. His dress, his language and, most markedly, his music all oozed a unique oneness that defied imitation. Some weirdos, like Lester Young, create utterly new musical languages that are so compellingly sensible once heard as to become the inevitable next step for all who follow. Monk, conversely, created music so jarringly different and personal that it almost defied imitation. Bits of his influence can be found all over jazz, but the generally wonderful weirdness of it all is still being absorbed.

Even more aberrant was Sun Ra, who led various incarnations of his orchestra from the late 1940’s into the ’80’s, and created some of the most oddly unique sounds to ever emanate from a jazz big band. Claiming to be from Saturn, he espoused a philosophy he dubbed “Afro-futurism”, dressed the band in gold lame space suits and drew on influences as varied as stride, ragtime and atonal European music to create absolutely compelling, but genuinely weird, music. More recent jazz weirdos include the delightfully odd John Lurie and his various bands which have included The Lounge Lizards.

Sun Ra

Sun Ra

Jazz history is peppered with all sorts of talented weirdos, and we encourage you to seek them out. Rock and roll has certainly had its share of crazy bastards, but not nearly as many genuine weirdos as one might suppose. Phil Spector has enough weird buried beneath his various toupees for an entire culture, but that’s the kind of weird we don’t advocate. Instead, think of folks like Roy Orbison and Brian Wilson from the mainstream, or Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart from the fringe. Waits, especially, operates in ways for which “regular” folks just aren’t wired.

We need to clarify the inclusion of Wilson who, while genuinely talented and certainly weird, has had issues with mental health that might make his inclusion unfair. We don’t mean to imply that one needs to exhibit symptoms of psychosis or any other serious psychological issues in order to be creative. These qualities do, anecdotally at least, often go hand in hand, but there’s no evidence that mental illness is any sort of gateway to great art. Likewise, the prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse and addiction among creative types is coincidental at best, and doesn’t—in and of itself—make one a “weirdo” by our flippant definition. Nor does it help much with making music, as any recovered junkie—from Charlie Parker to Stevie Ray Vaughan—will attest.

The great NRBQ. Click the pic to see a video.

The great NRBQ. Click the pic to see a video.

Again, we’re not asking for more crazy bastards. We’re simply looking for more weirdos. By its very nature, rock and roll—and to be fair, any performing art to at least some extent—is all about a sort of “look at me” ethos. Acting the fool, the freak or the dangerous outsider is all part of the drill. Little Richard, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Iggy Pop or any number of other flamboyant acts could easily be labeled as “weirdos”, but in each case, that weirdness is quite calculated for effect. We love ’em, but true weirdos they are not.

Frank Zappa made “weird” music, but it often seemed calculated to make listeners squirm, so we’ve never been sure just how visceral his creative process might have been. He’s one of our faves, either way, but not really a weirdo. Our preferred weirdness needs to be inherent and unintentional, and it needs to permeate the music as well as any sort of “act” or “show” that might be a coincidental feature. It doesn’t have to come from an individual weirdo, either. NRBQ is an example of an entire band full of weirdos. There are dozens of others, of course, but they all operate as far off of the pop radar as these boys did.

We’ve almost certainly forgotten some obvious and wonderful examples of weirdos past and present, but what we’re really hoping for is an influx of new freaks. Odd ducks. Goofballs. Nut jobs. Malcontents. Throw in a mad genius or two, and we could be talking non-dead music! One can hope.

2 Comments on "In praise of weirdos."

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  1. Jay Knipstein says:

    Did I see NRBQ on Robin Seymour’s “swinging time”?

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