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Perhaps it was the elderly Tiny Tim gripping his ukelele for dear life with a rictus grin in the video of a punk band doing a rowdy travesty of his 1960s hit Tiptoe Through the Tulips.

Maybe it was the late Shooby Taylor in 1983, in his sole attempt at bringing his singular hyper-scat-singing-in-tongues act to Amateur Night at the Apollo in Harlem, being booed and then chased off stage by the nasty house clown called the Sandman. (You could have seen it coming when the emcee asked about his nickname, "the Human Horn," and Shooby answered with an unwitting double entendre: "That's what I do -- I blow me.")

But somewhere in Irwin Chusid's lecture with video clips, "outsider music" started to seem much less black-and-white than he painted it.

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A longtime broadcaster on free-form New Jersey radio station WFMU, Chusid has become the chief popularizer of outsider music, a category he defines in his 2000 book Songs in the Key of Z as music "so wrong it's right."

The book and its two companion CDs include the likes of Taylor, who taped himself bleating "swoop weeeep shap bloo" ecstatically over cuts by John Coltrane, Johnny Cash or even Mozart. There's the Cherry Sisters, the lousiest act in 19th-century vaudeville, and their 1960s counterparts, shambling family band the Shaggs (whose story is optioned for a movie). Maverick composers Harry Partch and Robert Graettinger join sixties casualties Joe Meek, Skip Spence and Syd Barrett (the founder of Pink Floyd).

There are recluses such as prolific groan-rocker Jandek and dysfunctionals such as the hulking black schizophrenic Wesley Wills ( I Whupped Batman's Ass) and the violent Texan manic-depressive and gifted pop writer Daniel Johnston (who prefers singing about Casper the Friendly Ghost).

Chusid has come under a lot of fire for lumping all these characters together -- is it just a freak show? Robert Christgau of the Village Voice called him "a tedious ideologue with a hustle." I have qualms too. So when Chusid went on a mini-tour of southwestern Ontario this week, I headed to the plucky Ford Plant club in Brantford to find out for myself.

What I found was a greying, soft-spoken fellow laced with contradictions. Chusid admitted he got into the area for laughs in the 1980s, poking fun at weird records on his Atrocious Music show. But in 1991, he met one of his targets, outer-space-obsessed Lucia Pamela, who sang "like an inebriated Ethel Merman." Eccentric as she was, Pamela was sweet and sincere. Chusid reconsidered his attitude, softened his show's name to Incorrect Music and started to emphasize the music's earnest emotions instead of its weirdness.

He parallels outsider musicians with outsider artists such as Henry Darger, the Chicago janitor whose epic word-and-picture saga about an army of naked prepubescent girls (often with penises) in the "Realms of the Unreal" was discovered after his death.

In the art world, the differences between naive folk artists, mentally ill outsiders and the sophisticated avant-garde are a matter of intensive debate. But like his subjects, Chusid has no feel for professional rules -- he's a raconteur at heart. As attacks on the "outsider" label pile up, he seems more inclined to abandon it than to reconcile its flaws.

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Like a bad anthropologist, Chusid blithely assumes his attentions are always in his subjects' best interest. But some musicians are upset to find themselves on Chusid's compilations. Unemployed New York music teacher B. J. Snowden, who sings clumsily catchy tunes about her love for Canada's provinces, was appalled because everyone else on the disc was terrible.

Chusid laughs: "Even among outsider musicians there's disagreement on the value of each other's work." But hold on -- there is no "among" here. These musicians think they're normal. Would you want to be told you're endearingly awful?

He's right that listeners don't come to outsider music merely to mock. It can be moving in its starkness or delightful in its unpredictability. Laughter may be a defensive recognition of how it evokes your own private madness.

But Chusid's roots in record-geek collector culture show up in his celebration of obscurity as tantamount to a moral value. His idealization of outsiders as vessels of purity in a world of phonies is demeaning to everyone: It inadvertently implies that eccentrics are enslaved by drive, never making choices, while skilled musicians are caricatured conformists.

He's hardly alone. Lots of people now assume art is either hustle or pathology. Yet I kept thinking how little divides Chusid's pantheon of loonies from the celebrities he sneers at. After all, in pop culture, there are no standardized credentials, unlike in high art (and increasingly not there either). What's inside or out changes weekly.

As the Michael Jackson trial wraps up, the deposed King of Pop seems about as heavy a bundle of damaged goods as Wesley Willis or Henry Darger -- his traumatized, twisted fantasy realm just happened to inspire million-selling albums.

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Think of his hit songs: Ben was about his pet rat; Thriller about horror movies; Billie Jean a paranoid ramble about a paternity suit. He might as well have sung about Batman.

Growing up, my generation thought of the obese, reclusive Graceland Elvis as if he were an outsider artist -- which is pretty much how he got started.

And today indie-rock stars such as Cat Power, notorious for her on-stage panic attacks, or Will Oldham, fixated on bodily fluids and death, seem as lumpily idiosyncratic as any itinerant ranter. (Though they may be more fortunate in birth or fashionability.)

Every artist is ultimately self-taught; every person is a self-taught human. "Outsider music" is mainly a reminder that there is no getting out of it: We all blow "me."

cwilson@globeandmail.ca

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