The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century – Part 5

Welcome to Part 5 of The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. Here we count down from number 8 to number 5. Please visit Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 for more of this series. So, to continue…

8. Andy Kaufman (1949-1984)

Andy Kaufman

You know how comedians like to rip humor out of thin air? In unscripted routines they always try to one-up each other with jokes or put downs. You have to be very quick-witted to pull that off. But that’s how Andy Kaufman was all the time. He never, ever stopped looking for The Funny. “He was always on,” a friend once said. Even those who knew him weren’t always sure if he was putting them on. Therein lies his genius, and his weirdness. “Where is the real Andy?” they’d ask. The answer was never clear.

Welcome to Part 5 of The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. Here we count down from number 8 to number 5. Please visit Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 for more of this series. So, to continue…

8. Andy Kaufman (1949-1984)

Andy Kaufman

You know how comedians like to rip humor out of thin air? In unscripted routines they always try to one-up each other with jokes or put downs. You have to be very quick-witted to pull that off. But that's how Andy Kaufman was all the time. He never, ever stopped looking for The Funny. “He was always on,” a friend once said. Even those who knew him weren't always sure if he was putting them on. Therein lies his genius, and his weirdness. “Where is the real Andy?” they'd ask. The answer was never clear.

Andy Kaufman found ways to make people laugh that no one had ever imagined before. His schtick, if you can call it that, would typically involve assuming some bizarre yet wholly original persona who attempts some kind of ill-conceived performance art…and fails miserably.

KaufmanPersonae

Foreign Man (i.e., Latka Gravas from Taxi), with his excruciating naiveté and his pathetic “eemeetations” and his “Tenk you beddy much.” The “Inter-Gender” World's Wrestling Champion, with his flagrantly chauvinistic taunts and his “I'm from Hollywood” claims and his farcical feuds with professional wrestlers. Tony Clifton, the shrill, obnoxious and phenomenally untalented nightclub singer with his appalling salmon-colored tuxedo, uninterrupted stream of crude insults, and his wholly unsubstantiated delusions of grandeur. The list goes on.

Kaufman would even appear before audiences as “himself”, unshaven and forlorn, bemoaning his career misfortunes and his recent divorce and then panhandling the audience for pocket change.

Andy Kaufman on skid row
Andy Kaufman on 'skid row'

His idea would be to bomb and bomb and bomb some more, and then, when the audience couldn't possibly hate him any further, he would kill. He would do a spot on imitation of Elvis, or something devilishly clever with the congas, or speak gibberish to the audience for 8 minutes and make it work. “You're funny, kid,” Johnny Carson once told him. “I don't know how you do it, but you're funny.”

Neither do we, Johnny. Neither do we.
Neither do we, Johnny. Neither do we.

Of course, it wasn't really Andy. But when was it ever really Andy? On or off the stage, Andy Kaufman stayed in character no matter what. As Foreign Man he'd ask a string of inane questions before a long line of people while ordering ice cream. He'd walk around in his wrestling tights under his clothing. As Tony Clifton, he antagonized his Taxi co-stars to the point of being forcibly thrown out off the set. He would pick up girls in character and spend entire weekends with them never once letting on. Andy Kaufman never let on.

Somehow this must have had a cosmic connection to the Transcendental Meditation movement, which Kaufman joined as a youth. He would spend hours mediating every day. He once hectored the Mararishi himself about comedy and sex.

Noted Comedy Philospher and Concupiscence Pontificator
Andy Kaufman’s personal comedic philospher and concupiscence pontificator

Kaufman also subscribed to an odd “macrobiotic” diet of fruits and grains and vitamins and whatnot. This was perhaps why he was so confident the cancer in his lungs wouldn't kill him. The first thing he wanted to do after the diagnosis was to go on television and brag about how he got cancer for Christmas.

Ironically it was Elvis himself who pegged Andy when the two met in the early 1970s. “Man, this guy’s got a weird mind,” said the King of the Knave. For Andy Kaufman, all the world really was a stage, and he never left it. Except he did. And when he did at such a tragically young age, many thought it was just another one of his ingenious pranks. Only Andy Kaufman would be brilliant enough, and weird enough, to fake his own death. He actually had done that. In the early 1970s, he once bombed so badly that he put a cap gun to his head and pulled the trigger, to his audience’s horror. So it was understandable if people saw his cancer as just another prop in the ongoing comedy routine that was Andy Kaufman's life. And in some ways they were right. Andy Kaufman did fake his own death since the comedy he gave us will never die.

7. Philip K. Dick (1928-1982)

PhillipKDick

Philip K. Dick has established his own place within the pantheon of science fiction writers by basically asking two questions over and over: what makes us human? And what is real? He explored these issues in his stories while touching upon elements of theology, metaphysics, dystopia, paranoia, schizophrenia, transcendental experiences, and drug abuse. This all sounds pretty weird because it is pretty weird. But what makes Dick a weird guy rather than merely a writer of weird stories is that he lived all these things. In a sense he was a very autobiographical writer. To him, his themes were real. In his own life he really didn't know whether [insert science fiction trope A here] was really [insert science fiction trope B here] and how this would affect [insert science fiction trope C here]. It's a tough way to live. Despite what one would think about his chosen genre, there was nothing fanciful about Philip K. Dick.

Mind-bending, yes. Fanciful, no.
Mind-bending, yes. Fanciful, no.

Dick wrote 44 novels and 121 short stories over a 30 year career. But his star really began to shine towards the end of it and beyond with the large number of cinematic interpretations of his stories. Blade Runner, Total Recall, and other popular and lasting films as well as standout novels such as The Man in the High Castle and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said make the emphatic argument for the man's greatness. Also, in his best works his themes throb bloody hot without ever becoming too obvious. Take his later work, VALIS, in which the protagonist is convinced a young girl is the Gnostic Christian Messiah. When the girl dies, we're never really sure if this is true or if the protagonist is suffering from delusions. Any story in which a hero embarks on a strange journey in which he finds the truths he holds close to his heart to be challenged and twisted, often in cruel and inexorable ways, owes a great debt to the unparalleled imagination of Philip K. Dick.

But, oh, was he weird. This was a guy who would obsess over his dead twin. The poor thing, named Jane, died at two months. A frequent sufferer of panic attacks, Dick visited his first psychiatrist at 6 years old. He was agoraphobic and had fears of certain kinds of food as well. His paranoia is legendary.

At least he wasn't superstitious
At least he wasn't superstitious

He also was an amphetamine fiend, which no doubt fueled his prodigious drive to create. He had secret prescriptions to all sorts of medications. One of his wives discovered this only after their divorce….when she received the equally prodigious pharmacist's bill!

This was the same wife Dick pulled a gun on in a fit of ugly paranoia.

Good thing you didn't zap your wife, Phil
Good thing you didn't zap your wife, Phil.

He also experienced amazing visions which often burned brightly in his fiction. He once claimed he saw an evil, metallic face in the sky, which inspired him to write The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Most famously, when a woman came to his home, sunlight flashed off of her Jesus Fish necklace and left him spellbound. After that he claimed he was clairvoyant.

Have you noticed how artists never seem to run out of ways to visualize the work of Philip K. Dick?
Have you noticed how artists never seem to run out of ways to visualize the work of Philip K. Dick?

Was Philip K. Dick insane? If he wasn't, then he was real close. For example, when his home was ransacked in paramilitary fashion in the early 1970s, he was actually relieved. Why? Because now he could justify his long-standing paranoia. He really did have enemies. And who were these is enemies? Depending on the day, Dick would blame the FBI, the KGB, the Black Panthers, the Nazis, drug dealers, and God knows who else.

Philip K. Dick: With enemies like mine, who needs friends?
Philip K. Dick: With enemies like mine, who needs friends?

But none of that mattered. How much of the truth can we really know anyway? How much of reality can we really trust? These were questions Philip K. Dick never stopped obsessing over. In the end, however, the only realities about Philip K. Dick we can trust are that he was a great writer, and that he was really, really weird.

6. Michael Jackson (1958-2009)

 michaelJackson

No-brainer here. This is one entry that practically writes itself. The “King of Pop,” Jackson is considered the most successful entertainer of all time by the Guinness Book of World Records. He's won 26 American Music Awards, 46 Billboard Awards, 13 Grammies, and many, many others adding up to a whopping total of 495 music awards. He was inducted into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame twice, once as part of the Jackson 5 and once as a solo artist. He is the only pop star inducted in the Dance Hall of Fame. He's sold over a billion units worldwide. His 1982 album Thriller is still the number one selling record of all time (and is at least 15 million sales in front of the second place seller) and is widely considered a classic. He has five albums among the top 75 biggest selling records of all time, including two in the top ten.

Michael Jackson's Mighty Handful
Michael Jackson's Mighty Handful

From 1987 to 1989 his Bad tour spanned 15 countries, reached 4.4 million people, and grossed over $125 million. It was the most-attended, highest grossing tour of all time.

No musical artist is more famous than Michael Jackson. No musical artist has been nominated or awarded more times than Michael Jackson. Indeed, no musical artist has ever been more successful than Michael Jackson.

King of Pop
The King of Pop in his early 1980s heyday

And no major musical artist is weirder than Michael Jackson. The corrosive facial rhinoplasties, the gradual paling of his skin, and the rumors of anorexia were fodder for tabloids and mainstream news for decades.

It seems MJ felt that less was more
Michael Jackson: 1970s to 2000s. The 'Less is More' tour

Neverland Ranch, his personal residence in California, with its private amusement park and exotic petting zoo as well as the giant floral clock and statues of children everywhere, wasn't exactly a bastion of normalcy either. Let's also not forget his ridiculous charges of racism against Sony, his record label, in 2002 which even his attorney Al Sharpton didn't want to get behind.

Then, of course, there were the children. Aside from dangling his newborn son (nicknamed “Blanket”) out of a 4th story window in 2002, Jackson was notorious for his sleepovers with young children. He would fly whole families thousands of miles to his home and go on trips with them and spend hours on the phone with their children. And he would sleep with them. Whether or not he was truly guilty of molesting them remains unclear. In 1993, he was sued for sexual abuse of a minor and then settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. In 2005, he was acquitted of 7 counts of child molestation and 2 counts of giving an intoxicating agent to a 13-year old boy. Since then two jurors say they regret their decision. So who knows?

It's a long way down, Mike.
It's a long way down, Mike.

Perhaps Michael Jackson's intentions all along were noble. Perhaps he never had sexual interest in children. But it was all the hand-holding, and the cuddling, and the intense, intense attention that he gave them (along with all his other excesses) that makes him, well, weird, even with the benefit of the doubt. And consider this: Michael Jackson better be weird. Because if his claims of innocence are not true and he really did molest those children, he wouldn't be merely weird, he'd be a criminal.

Numerous times the man was called the artist of the century. To his credit, he deserved that distinction. The numbers are impossible to deny. Further, he had a tremendous artistic impact on the world of pop, merging R&B with rock in a very singular way, and, in so doing, unifying millions through music. But like his greatness, Michael Jackson's weirdness was impossible to ignore. Consider the Google searches below, which was performed on February 24th, 2013. Apparently many others feel the same way.

MichaelJackson_WeirdVsNormal 

5. Jack Parsons (1914-1952)

jackparsons

Philosopher Thomas Kuhn described the history of science as undergoing periodic “paradigm shifts.” As anomalies persist within a normal science paradigm, certain bold and creative individuals begin to promote a competing paradigm which may eventually replace the existing one. A classical example is the Copernican Revolution, in which scientists finally accepted that Earth revolves around the Sun. A more recent revolution occurred in rocketry in the 1930s. The bold and creative individual responsible for it was Jack Parsons. Well, in this case, “bold and creative” is just a polite way of saying “really, really, weird”.

Before Parsons rocketry was barely even a science. No university offered rocketry courses. Hardly any scientist took it seriously. Parsons, however, fed almost exclusively on science fiction and equipped with a genius for chemistry that matched his intrepid abandon, decided to experiment on his own near his home in southern California. Working entirely out of the confines of mainstream science (Parsons couldn't afford to attend college), Parsons amassed a body of knowledge that laid the groundwork for the space age. It took an obscene amount of trial and error, which Parsons happily endured. He liked blowing things up, you see.

I'd, uh, stand back if I were you.
I'd, uh, stand back if I were you.

In the 1930s Parsons attracted the attention of the scientists at Caltech, and later, as fascism grew in Europe, the military. He co-founded both Jet Propulsion Laboratories and the Aerojet Corporation, two important scientific organizations still going strong today. He made numerous contributions to the science of rocketry, most notably in 1941 using rockets to assist airplanes during takeoff.

The first US plane to fly on rocket power without a propellor
The first US plane to fly on rocket power without a propellor

After the war, he discovered how to launch rockets using solid fuel. This accomplishment was so revolutionary most scientists didn't even think it was theoretically possible. It led directly to the creation of the Polaris and Minutemen rockets of the 1960s. Without Parsons always thinking outside the box, putting US spacecraft in orbit, let alone the Moon, would not have happened when it did, if ever.

Parsons' colleagues always knew he was eccentric. He'd decorate his walls with swords. He'd wear snakes like scarves. He'd stage “duels” in the desert with live ammunition (the man whose bullet gets closest to the other man's head without killing him wins). Then there were all the sick practical jokes with the explosives. But it wasn't until Parsons joined famed occultist Aleister Crowley's Church of Thelema (called Ordo Templi Orientus, or OTO) when things got really weird.

Before every rocket launch you must recite the Hymn to Pan so not to incureth the wrath of the Dark Lord.
Aleister Crowley: Magick guru and triangular fashion consultant

First, there was the wife swapping and the free love. Then there was the rampant drug abuse. Most to the point here however were the Satanic sex magick rituals which led to some truly bizarre behavior. Summoning a redheaded “Moonchild” from the 4th dimension. Baking cakes with menstrual blood. Incarnating earth goddesses. Reciting obscure scripture in obscure tongues. Impregnating statues with vital forces. Dancing naked within pentagrams. Spraying blood intently within pentagrams. Masturbating intently within pentagrams. Yeah. The less said about this very weird chapter in Parsons' life, the better.

Behold the ancient mystery and Satanic splendor of my moobs!
Behold the ancient mystery and Satanic splendor of my man boobs!

Apparently Parsons' colleagues at JPL and Aerojet felt the same way. A weirdo like Parsons could not be expected to front reputable institutions. After World War II (once rocketry became a legitimate science), Aerojet asked him to sell all his shares. Parsons readily agreed since he was shouldering the finances of his OTO lodge in Pasadena. The FBI also had a file on him and ultimately revoked his security clearance. So no more JPL either.

Jack Parsons was a pioneer of a new scientific paradigm. He did this by always shooting from the hip and following hunches rather than working in tandem with other scientists. Ironically, this very same trait also caused his downfall since it prevented him from getting work once this new paradigm has been established. By the end of his life he was making explosions for Hollywood movies and storing chemicals in his home. This was how he met his untimely end, in a horrific accidental explosion. It was the tragic death of a brilliant and fearless man who was just too darn weird for his own good.

Painting of Jack Parsons by his widow Marjorie Cameron
Imagine this gracing the hallowed halls of NASA. Painting of Parsons by his widow Marjorie Cameron.

Next: Weirdos Part 6.

The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century – Part 4

Welcome to Part 4 of The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. Here we count down from number 12 to number 9. If this is your introduction to the series, please visit Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 for the rest of the story thus far. You will notice that from here on our subjects will be become more famous and, in some cases, more historically important. I hope you’ll agree with their weirdness as well.

12. Captain Beefheart (1941-2010)

CaptainBeefheart

If the Kingdom of Weirdness needed a drill sergeant, it could do a lot worse than Captain Beefheart. Born Don Vliet in Glendale, California, Captain Beefheart found a way to merge his delta blues roots with free jazz, modern classical, and rock n’ roll in a way no one could ever have imagined. Indeed, with a distinct soulful croak which spanned four and a half octaves, he is perhaps the only rock singer worthy to be mentioned in the same sentence with blues icon Howlin’ Wolf. There was really not much of a rock avante-garde prior to the startling arrival of Captain Beefheart in the mid-1960s. But hearing his music, you knew the man was weird. No human being can make music so bizarre and so powerful and still be normal.

Welcome to Part 4 of The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. Here we count down from number 12 to number 9. If this is your introduction to the series, pilule please visit Part 1, doctor Part 2, sickness and Part 3 for the rest of the story thus far. You will notice that from here on our subjects will be become more famous and, in some cases, more historically important. I hope you'll agree with their weirdness as well.

12. Captain Beefheart (1941-2010)

 CaptainBeefheart

If the Kingdom of Weirdness needed a drill sergeant, it could do a lot worse than Captain Beefheart. Born Don Vliet in Glendale, California, Captain Beefheart found a way to merge his delta blues roots with free jazz, modern classical, and rock n' roll in a way no one could ever have imagined. Indeed, with a distinct soulful croak which spanned four and a half octaves, he is perhaps the only rock singer worthy to be mentioned in the same sentence with blues icon Howlin' Wolf. There was really not much of a rock avante-garde prior to the startling arrival of Captain Beefheart in the mid-1960s. But hearing his music, you knew the man was weird. No human being can make music so bizarre and so powerful and still be normal.

His band members knew it. During late 1960s, while recording his abrasive masterpiece Trout Mask Replica, Captain Beefheart gained the reputation of being an overbearing perfectionist with unorthodox composing techniques. He would basically tinker on the piano, an instrument he could not play, until he found ideas he liked. Then he would bark at his band members to write them down and arrange them while he scribbled out evocative lyrics that often made no sense at all.

“A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous, got me?”

Aside from all the negative reinforcement, bullying, and humiliation, here's some of the things Captain Weirdo put his band members through while making Trout Mask: He kept them in a house for eight months and forced them to rehearse his idiosynchratic compositions 12 to 14 hours a day. They were not allowed to leave except to buy groceries. He deprived them of sleep and food in order to brainwash them into accepting his musical visions. He encouraged them to get in violent altercations with each other and would reward the winners. He locked a band member in a closet for humming a C. He kept him there for five hours, forcing him to listen to a blues song called “Red Cross Store” nonstop. He forbade them to urinate for certain stretches of time. He threw his drummer down a flight of stairs for not being able to “play a strawberry” on the drums.

What you mean you can't play a banana E flat?
What do you mean you can't play a baloney sandwich in E flat?

While Beefheart's weirdness mellowed as he grew older, his march to greatness only accelerated. True, his music career had its ups and downs in the 1970s. But by the mid-1980s, when he was already suffering from the multiple sclerosis which would eventually kill him, he reinvented himself as a serious abstract expressionist artist, turning his back completely on music. He also became a recluse.

Don Van Vliet before one of his paintings
Don Van Vliet before one of his paintings

Art was nothing new to Captain Beefheart. He had been painting and sculpting since early childhood and even won a children's sculpting competition when he was nine. He was considered a child prodigy in art. Today, his paintings are in high demand, and he is well-regarded in the art world as a primitivist whose works, like his music, are utterly original.

What makes Captain Beefheart even weirder in retrospect was that he often craved commercial success, but would always smother his chances with a wet blanket at just the right moment. At the onset of his career, Beefheart received a lot of attention as the American answer to the Rolling Stones. During a warm up performance for his scheduled breakthrough at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, Beefheart decided that no, he did not need commercial success after all. Believing that he just witnessed a girl in the audience turn into a fish, he suddenly stopped singing, straightened his tie, and dove head-first off the ten-foot stage, thereby killing his dreams of fame and fortune and simultaneously launching one of the weirdest music careers of all time.

11. Sun Ra (1914-1993)

SunRa

Sun Ra embodied weirdness like an out-of-body experience, if that makes any sense at all. Born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, he claimed he was a citizen of Saturn, played some of the most spaced-out jazz there ever was, walked around town in full costume (robes, tunics, helmets, you name it), and was basically the founder of his own otherworldly musical cult which lives on to this day. This wasn't an act. Sun Ra had been traversing the astral plane on moonbeams years before the mainstream jazz world began taking notice of him in the early 1960s. And he only got weirder after that.

It would be a lot harder to write about wasn't weird about Sun Ra. He would constantly lecture his band members on his elaborate cosmic theology. He called himself not a musician but a “tone scientist” who brought messages from another realm. He claimed they would ultimately belong in the private library of God. He was a obsessive bookworm, collecting the most arcane and obscure volumes he could find. He would fixate for days on some of the cloudier passages of the Bible and other holy texts. He taught himself hieroglyphics and even taught a course on the subject at Berkeley in 1971. He abstained entirely from drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, women. He obsessed over color and on any given day might not talk to you if you were wearing the wrong one. He was not above wearing the solar system as a hat.

Thought I was kidding, did you?
Thought I was kidding, did you?

He also had a thing for technology and space travel. His compositions could just as easily be inspired by NASA news stories, science fiction, and articles in Popular Mechanics as they could by Duke Ellington or Egyptian mythology.

Why yes, they did wear muumuus in ancient Egypt. What of it?
Why yes, glittering robes like this were worn in ancient Egypt. They also allow air-flow and do not restrict the waist.

Sun Ra never wavered from the weirdness in a career that lasted more than 50 years. But was he great? Well, the critics have mixed opinions about him. Allmusic.com gives 36 of the 88 albums released in Sun Ra's lifetime 4 stars or higher (out of 5).

Some of the best of Sun Ra
Some of the best of Sun Ra

Sun Ra's contemporaries all attest to his talent as a musician and composer. In fact, he often had a hard time finding musicians who could play his pieces. His rather unclassifiable jazz is certainly not for everyone, but if anything, it could keep you guessing. He could fly with the avant-garde (check out The Magic City) or write some jumping swing or even do doo-wop. Sun Ra was also a recording studio pioneer, experimenting with reverb, feedback, fade ins, and distortion as early the mid-1950s, more than a decade before it was cool. He was extremely well regarded among other jazz musicians, and, in the end, even his critics had to admit his music had staying power. Like it or not, the music of Sun Ra was definitely sui generis, one of a kind. But as for the man, the word 'weird' suits him just fine.

Now, if I could just figure out how to put this thing on...
Now, if I could just figure out how to put this darn thing on…

10. William S. Burroughs (1914-1997)

Burroughs1

William S. Burroughs seemed to take his weirdness out on everyone through his books. If you're more than a little weird yourself or sympathize with weirdness, then Burroughs is your man. He revolutionized how novels are written and read. He fearlessly championed the rights of gay people and minorities (we live in “a nation of finks”, after all). Along with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg, Burroughs initiated the Beat Generation. He has also served as an inspiration for countless writers, filmmakers, and musicians. There were no rules of fiction he could not break and get away with (check out the in his Nova Trilogy). There was no humor that was too black for him (check out his digression on immortality and mummies in The Place of Dead Roads). There were no social mores he could not deconstruct and thereby subvert (check out Naked Lunch, the novel which effectively ended obscenity trials in America). Truly, the influence of William S. Burroughs on modern artistic life is vast.

Burroughs with: David Bowie, Tom Waits, Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, Hunter S. Thompson, Francis Bacon, John Waters, Norman Mailer, Alan Ginsburg, and Curt Cobain
Burroughs with: David Bowie, Tom Waits, Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, Hunter S. Thompson, Francis Bacon, John Waters, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsburg, and Curt Cobain

On the other hand, if you're not weird or don't have much time for weirdness, well, then you may lament the tremendous effect Burroughs did have. A promiscuous drug addict with a high IQ, Burroughs wrote novels that some considered pornographic, and many considered offensive or unreadable. Graphic depictions of pedophilia and child murder tend to make one a wee bit controversial after all. It's funny how these things work.

Any biography of William S. Burroughs reads like laundry list of weirdness. He did an inhuman amount of drugs. Really, it’s a miracle he lived as long as he did. It is said he was interested in the addictive properties of snake venom. He didn't go from boyfriend to boyfriend as much as from obsession to obsession. He once hacked off part of a finger just to impress a man.

He was paranoid about self-defense and kept a copious amount of guns. He installed a shooting range in his basement using what he called a “silencer tube” so he wouldn't wake his neighbors. He was into swords, knives, and snakes as well. Then there was his “shotgun art.” Burroughs would take a shotgun, some plywood, a bunch of paint cans, and, well, you get the picture.

It was all in self-defense, I swear.
It was all in self-defense, I swear.

He also constructed his own orgone box in his backyard. It is said he would crawl into it whenever he couldn't achieve an orgasm.

Oh, and he just adored his cats.

It was purely Platonic, I'm sure.
It was purely Platonic, I'm sure.

What sets Burroughs apart from almost anyone was a radical and rebellious audacity masked by an off-the-rack film noir deadpan. This made him the ultimate misfit. He dressed like a square, but was as round as you could get. He was a homosexual, but disavowed the gay movement. He inspired the beats, the hippies, the punks, but never joined their ranks. He staunchly supported the Second Amendment, yet was no conservative. Even as a junkie, it seemed he took his body to the chemical limit just to prove it should not be done. If William S. Burroughs had been born in a world where everyone was as weird as he, he'd probably strive to be normal, just because.

But that wasn't his world. While it is unclear exactly what world William S. Burroughs did live in, perhaps the following tidbit can offer a clue. In 1951 while drunk at a party in Mexico, he accidentally shot and killed his wife in a game of William Tell. Living something like that down for forty-five years can make a man mighty weird.

9. J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972)

Hoover

Imagine 200lbs of weirdness stuck in a 150lb man. Hoover was normal, see? Through sheer force of will he made it so, despite the fact that he was definitely not normal. Hoover's mark of greatness is uncontested. “Singlehandedly” is an overused adverb, sure. But in Hoover's case, he really did singlehandedly convert a small and corrupt Justice Department agency into the FBI, the greatest, most expansive crime fighting force of all time. He also revolutionized crime fighting techniques with his introduction of a vast, intricate filing system as well as fingerprint labs. Sure, by the 1960s he had grown autocratic and corrupt and abused many of his powers. He stayed on as FBI director maybe a decade too long. But in his heyday, when roving gangsters and communist cells were real threats to national peace, Hoover was there to stop them. He also contributed a great deal to domestic security during World War II.

So why is he on this list? It's not merely because he was a closeted homosexual who insisted that his colleague Clyde Tolson follow him around everywhere he went. The two men would ride to work together, dine together, and vacation together even to the point of sharing the same hotel suite. When at the horse races or out for the evening the two were often seen wearing the exact same outfit.

The suits just happened to be on sale at Bloomingdales. Honest.
We just happened to be at Bloomingdales at the same time, and the suits were on sale. Honest.

More importantly, Hoover's suppressed urges grew into bizarre and sometimes dangerous obsessions. He would feed these urges through excessive wiretapping of the private lives of Americans: politicians, actors, celebrities, activists, even ordinary citizens. He did it for the sake of doing it. He couldn't help himself. He would spend hours at home listening to sex tapes or reading steamy transcripts. He had a thing for obscenity, or vicarious sex, really. By 1962 his obscenity files would encompass 18 filing cabinets.

Then there was the casting of himself in his own line of comic books that glorified law and order, the FBI, G-Men, and, most importantly, J. Edgar Hoover.

If the dialogue in that last one was photoshopped I sincerely apologize.
If the dialogue in that last one was photoshopped I sincerely apologize. Found it here.

Of course, if anyone challenged his claim to being normal he wouldn't hesitate to sic the FBI on them. He was like a bulldog that way, looking to crush or humiliate his enemies with the same tireless passion he used to build the Bureau. Many today blame Hoover for the death of poor Jean Seberg, the actress most famous for starring in Jean Luc Goddard's 1960 French New Wave film Breathless. J. Edgar Hoover was Mr. All American, see? It didn't matter that he insisted the shutters in all FBI offices be raised to a certain height, or that his agents be clean shaven and dressed to the nines, or that all his toilets be raised to protect him from germs, or that he liked to sunbathe all day in the nude, or paint Clyde Tolson's toenails. He was, or tried like hell to be, the standard bearer of normal American life. It's just ironic that stuck inside this icon of American normalcy was one of the biggest weirdos of them all.

What, Me Normal?
What, Me Normal?
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Next: Weirdos Part 5.

The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century – Part 3

So here we are, Part 3 of the Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. We bring to you numbers 16 to 13. (In case you haven’t noticed, I’m doing installments of four at a time. Why? I figured five would make each post too long, two would be too short, and three does not evenly divide into twenty, so…) Click here for Part 1 and Part 2. Now, on with the list…

16. Moondog (1916-1999)

Moondog16

They do not get much weirder than Moondog. The consummate New York City street musician, proto-hippie, and counterculture symbol, Louis Thomas Hardin was a blind classical and avante-garde jazz composer and poet who is now considered one of the important figures in 20th century music. He spent three decades playing on the streets of New York where he became Moondog. He had a foot-long beard and dressed like a Viking, complete with helmet, horns, spear, the whole bit. At six foot eight (including headpiece) his appearance was so striking he became one of the most photographed New Yorkers of his time.

So here we are, Part 3 of the Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. We bring to you numbers 16 to 13. (In case you haven't noticed, I'm doing installments of four at a time. Why? I figured five would make each post too long, two would be too short, and three does not evenly divide into twenty, so…) Click here for Part 1 and Part 2. Now, on with the list…

16. Moondog (1916-1999)

Moondog16

They do not get much weirder than Moondog. The consummate New York City street musician, proto-hippie, and counterculture symbol, Louis Thomas Hardin was a blind classical and avante-garde jazz composer and poet who is now considered one of the important figures in 20th century music. He spent three decades playing on the streets of New York where he became Moondog. He had a foot-long beard and dressed like a Viking, complete with helmet, horns, spear, the whole bit. At six foot eight (including headpiece) his appearance was so striking he became one of the most photographed New Yorkers of his time.

All Moondog, all of the time
All Moondog, all of the time

He moved to the Big Apple in 1947 and New Yorkers recognized his raw talent almost immediately. It wasn't long before he could actually make a living on the streets performing and selling his poetry and recordings. He invented several musical instruments including something called the “oo” and, most

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famously, the trimba.

The trimba
The trimba

His reputation as a fearsome percussionist and innovative composer grew such that within 5 years, he was recording his own works, composing for orchestra, running his own radio program, being profiled in magazines, and being feted by giants in the music industry. Over the years he became friendly with such music luminaries as George Szell, Arturo Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Benny Goodman, and Phillip Glass. By the mid-1950s everyone knew Moondog.

He took it to another level in the 1960s as the hippie counterculture really got rolling. Allen Ginsberg and Lenny Bruce performed with him. Bob Dylan wrote about him. An early incarnation of the Beatles was called Johnny and the Moondogs. His song “All is Loneliness” was covered by Janis Joplin. Moondog even made an appearance on “The Tonight Show”. In fact, the spot where Moondog most often worked, 54th Street and 6th Avenue, became known as “Moondog Corner”. In 1989 he conducted a series of concerts with the Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra.

A one, and a two, and a...
A one, and a two, and a…

According to allmusic.com, Moondog produced 12 albums in his lifetime, 7 of which they give ratings of 4 stars or higher (out of 5).

18.5 stars for Moondog
That's 18.5 stars of Moondog right there

Just looking at him however, you knew he was weird. He made all his own clothes, or costumes, really. Togas, tunics, thongs, cloaks, cowls, you name it. He wanted to be the incarnation of the Norse God Odin (but with additional blind eye), hence the nickname “Viking of 6th Avenue”. He didn't wear shoes, just leather squares that he wrapped around his feet. In the snow, in the rain, it didn't matter, he was always on the streets. He actually preferred the streets to any comfy domicile and by 1960 split with his wife and child as a result. He was a tad anti-Semitic and didn't care too much for black people either. Then he would complain about how all his best friends are either Jewish or black. He would also drink from a hollowed-out antler. Where does a blind man find a hollowed-out antler in New York City?

By the mid-1950s Moondog had the world at his feet. Recording studio executives really wanted to market him and put him on a coast-to-coast tour. But he walked away from it all. He was just too darn weird for success, it seems. It's ironic because he did like making money, just on his own terms. Moondog was famous for playing all sorts of exotic instruments, but when asked which one was his favorite, he replied with his trademark wit, “the box that collects the coins.”

So is that an antler in your tunic, or are you just glad to see me?
So is that an antler in your tunic, or are you just glad to see me?

15. Edgar Cayce (1877-1945)

Edgar Cayce

Cayce is mostly forgotten these days, but in his day he was one of the most famous psychics in America. Believers in his abilities claim that as a boy he could memorize books by sleeping with them under his pillow. He could also solve murder mysteries, revisit a person's past lives, predict the future, and offer uncannily sage business advice. But he was most famous for his healing abilities. Typically, he would hear or read about a person's ailment, and then fall into a hypnotic trance during which he would offer eerily accurate prescriptions for treatment. Some of which ran counter to the common medical wisdom of the day. For example, as a young man he reportedly saved an infant dying of convulsions with belladonna, a known poison. He eventually became so well known that he treated such luminaries as Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Edison, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin.

Cayce skeptics point to the fact that most of Cayce's prescriptions were common-sensical or involved standard osteopathic treatments of the time. They also point to the fact that Cayce was an avid reader of alternative medical texts and surrounded himself with medical practitioners who could at some point or another assist him with his diagnoses. He also didn't always get it right, such as when he prescribed eating almonds to prevent cancer. What they latch on to most however are his (such as China converting to Christianity by 1968), his bizarre ideas on race, and his intricate and wholly ridiculous opinions on the lost city of Atlantis. In fact, he predicted that by 1958 the U.S. would discover the Tuaoi Stone, the great cylindrical energy crystal which caused Atlantis to crash into the sea ten thousand years ago. Yeah. He also wrote a book about Atlantis but couldn't exactly predict when people would ever get tired of it.

Makes you wish they'd just find that darn island already.
Makes you wish they'd just find that darn island already.

Cayce skeptics of course reject all the folklore and anecdotal evidence supporting Cayce's healing powers. They ignore the fact that Cayce did make many accurate predictions, such as the Stock Market Crash in 1929 and World War 2 among others. They also reject as pure hearsay all the fawning newspaper articles, the thousands of pages of records kept by his wife Gertrude, as well as testimonials left by his patients. But what they cannot reject is the whopping amount of all this evidence. Cayce gave over 20,000 readings in his lifetime. Many, many, many people who dealt with him claimed he did what said he would do, which was successfully treat or heal them. Today, thousands the world over revere him as a prophet, and he has been the subject of numerous books and documentaries. Therein lies the man's greatness.

Why, yes. I did have my finger surgically attached to my earlobe. Why do you ask?
Why, yes. I did have my finger surgically attached to my earlobe. Why do you ask?

Another aspect of Cayce which was, um, weird, was his overall reluctance to benefit from all this. For much of his life, he insisted on working for free. He was also a devout Christian who had serious misgivings about the other-worldly aspects of his gift. His trances often left him physically and emotionally exhausted, but he kept working well into his old age despite knowing it would eventually kill him.

Cayce with his wife Gertrude in his final years
Cayce with his wife Gertrude in his final years

The irony about Edgar Cayce was that when he was awake he was actually a pretty normal guy. But whenever he fell into his famous trances, he became one of the weirdest people in the world.

14. Walter Freeman (1895-1972)

WalterFreeman

Nobody embodies both sides of the morality coin better than Walter Freeman. Having pioneered the lobotomy operation in America in the 1930s and then streamlined it into a casual 20-minute outpatient procedure, Freeman was the center of a truly fascinating yet mortifying chapter of twentieth century psychiatric history. Was he an angel of mercy or a diabolical monster? Did he help the incurably insane or was he preying on vulnerable innocents? People can debate either side, but what isn't up for debate is that he was a really weird guy.

We find his greatness in how he was one of the first to pinpoint a physiological etiology for mental illness. He was also truly moved by the suffering of the insane and wanted to do something about it. In his heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, Freeman sold lobotomy to the medical establishment as a procedure of last resort for only the most dire cases. And in those instances, lobotomy, more often than not, worked. The violent, the psychotic, the suicidal became more docile, more manageable, happier even. So what if they had to re-learn how to use the toilet and had difficulties holding down a job? They were in a better place, and so were their families. And if the procedure didn't work, well, it wasn't like the patients were going to get better anyway, so…

Before and after lobotomy, one of Freeman's success stories
Before and after lobotomy, one of Freeman's success stories

At a time when there was no alternative to treating the insane, the lobotomy was often the only option. And the public reaction at first was overwhelmingly positive. In 1949, Freeman successfully lobbied for António Egas Moniz, the originator of lobotomy, to receive a Nobel Prize. Once, when facing his critics (mostly Freudian psychiatrists questioning his ethics) Freeman produced a box of Christmas cards – hundreds of them – all from former patients and their family members. He then challenged anyone in the room to do the same. He had no takers.

By mid-century, Freeman was a star. But that's when the weirdness crept in. After developing the “ice pick lobotomy” (in which he would hammer a long blade called a leucotome into the brain's frontal lobes through the eye socket), he seemed a wee bit too eager to perform his special operation.

This patient is still alive. Read his fascinating story here
This patient is still alive. Read his fascinating story here.

He had no license to perform operations, but would do them anyway, often in his own office. This alienated his longtime partner James Watts, but that didn't stop Freeman. Freeman also ignored his not-so-rare disasters, such as when he rendered poor Rosemary Kennedy permanently incapacitated.

JFK's younger sister before her lobotomy
JFK's younger sister before her lobotomy in 1941

He became a bit of a showman, arriving at hospitals in a wide-brimmed hat and brandishing a cane. He dubbed his own station wagon as “the Lobotomobile”. To mix things up, he would perform lobotomies right-handed, then left-handed, and sometimes with two hands at once. He would use ordinary carpenter's mallets instead of surgical hammers. He always played for the crowd or the press more than he sought the formal approval of colleagues. He ate up all the attention. Once he killed a patient when he carelessly stepped back to pose for a photograph during an operation. He let his leucotome sink too deep into the patient's brain.

No, Walter. Don't say cheese. Please.
No, Walter. Don't say cheese. Please.

Freeman also insisted on filming and photographing his operations and even talking to his patients as he severed their minds away. He referred to photographing his patients as his “magnificent obsession” since he felt before-and-after shots could help vinidcate lobotomy. Driving from town to town looking for people to lobotomize was what he called a “head and shoulder hunt”. He claimed that time passed more swiftly when he was head and shoulder hunting.

What makes Freeman even weirder is that he never let any of his colossal failings deter him, nor did he ever recognize how macabre his magnificent obsession really was. What started as a course of last resort became one of first resort by the mid-1950s, after antipsychotic drugs such as Thorazine were quickly rendering Freeman's ghastly procedure obsolete. Rather than concede to more humane measures to treat insanity, Freeman instead moved to California and started selling lobotomies to the unsuspecting public for twenty-five bucks a pop. At his nadir, he lobotomized a four year-old child. Walter Freeman died in 1972, still in touch with many of his patients, people who would have had nothing to do with him had they known exactly how weird he was.

13. Henry Darger (1892-1973)

Henry_Darger

Remember those weird Dungeons and Dragons geeks from our childhood? Remember how they would spend hours cataloging the minutest details of fictitious characters living in imaginary worlds? Henry Darger spent a lifetime doing that. And, reclusive weirdo that he was, he never seemed to come up for air. Self taught as a writer and painter, he left behind a body of work of such breathtaking power and scope that he is now considered one of the greatest if not the greatest outsider artist of the 20th century.

Darger's story is miraculous and tragic at the same time. Placed as a young boy in an abominable institution called the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children where he was worked like a slave, Darger escaped at 16 and walked over a hundred and fifty miles to his home in Chicago. There he got a job as a janitor in a hospital. Aside from a brief stint in the military during World War I, he stayed at this job until his retirement in 1963. His neighbors knew him as strange, reclusive, asocial. He could be heard through the walls of his apartment staging conversations with himself, assuming different dialects or accents for different characters. Yet he would never talk to people. And if you ever forced him to talk to you, he would respond with something completely unrelated. He collected trash. He collected rope and twine. He once started a weather journal of excruciating detail and kept at it for ten years. His autobiography spans 5,000 handwritten single-spaced pages. Only three photographs of Henry Darger exist.

Darger had two major obsessions, his faith in God and a desperate need to protect or avenge children. For years he tried unsuccessfully to adopt, but the state wouldn't let him. Some time around 1911 he lost a newspaper photo of a 5 year-old girl who had been kidnapped and murdered.

Elsie Paroubek, kidnapped and murdered in 1911
Elsie Paroubek, kidnapped and murdered in 1911

This sent Darger on a tailspin of grief and existential angst in which he petitioned God to return the photo. He built a shrine. He threatened to swear and throw things at the crucifix on his wall.

Henry Darger never found the photograph, but this episode inspired him to create his magnum opus, a novel entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. It is also known as In the Realms of the Unreal for short. This is a 15,145 page fantasy novel containing hundreds of panoramic illustrations and watercolor paintings.

Typical sweeping battle scene from Darger's work
Typical sweeping battle scene from Darger's work

It took him 60 years to write it. It's the story of the Vivian Girls from the Christian nation of Abbieannia. They lead a child slave rebellion against an evil people called the Glandelinians who murder, torture, and abuse children. The events in the story and in the illustratiins go from the beatific to the unspeakably violent. Darger would even catalog the names of the myriad slain as well as the cost in dollars of each battle.

The mythology is as complex as anything from ancient Greece, and at its core is an almost pathological compassion for children. In his paintings girls would often appear with penises. We are not sure if this was some hermaphroditic conceit on the part of Darger or if he was just unaware that girls do not have penises.

girlswithpenises

Throughout his sad, solitary yet extremely productive life, Henry Darger never told anyone about his work. He was just the oddball janitor who lived down the hall. Today however his works are shown in museums where a Henry Darger original can fetch over $80,000. A new copy of the only biography about Darger currently runs for over $2,000! This is testimony of the imaginative power of one very weird man who was broken as a child and spent the rest of his life picking up all the beautiful pieces.

Check out Weirdos Part 4.