In 2012, an online retailer called Woot had a great idea: They published a list of the 50 Greatest American Weirdos ten at a time. As soon as I found out about it, I was hooked. How could you not be? First, I just love lists. Really, Woot was serving up smoking hot slices of Americana Obscura in every installment. Some weirdos I knew. Most I didn’t or had forgotten since departing from the period of my life when I took notice of such things. It’s hard to describe why the strange habits of famous people captivate me. Perhaps it’s because I was always a little off-kilter myself when I was young. I probably had an undiagnosed case of ADHD and just had to live with it. I always knew there was something wrong with me but I never knew exactly what. Overcoming such things is slow and difficult and never fully accomplished. I’ve always admired people who were quite a bit different than everyone else (and not necessarily in a good way) but still went on to do great things.
Well, having seen Woot’s list I have decided to make my own. I offer 20 names, not 50. Given my time and resource limitations, I will limit my selections to weirdos active and in their prime during the 20th Century. They also must be born on American soil (so no Charles Bukowski, who was born in Germany). Of course, I often disagree with Woot. They seem more interested in chronicling the weirdest or quirkiest American weirdos, not necessarily the greatest ones. Of their 39 weirdos from the 20th Century, I include only 5.
So what should my criteria be?
Two good examples of top-twenty caliber non-Americans would be classical pianist Glenn Gould and mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turing. Both were brilliant and successful. Both made lasting contributions to their fields. Both were great men. Yet they were both very, very weird. Eccentric would be the nice way of putting it. Gould with his obsessive self-medicating and the scarves and gloves he always wore even in summer and that horrid chair he insisted on carrying around with him. And Turing, with that staccato “Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah” he’d start his sentences with, and the gas mask he’d wear on bicycle rides, and that tea mug he’d chain to a radiator to prevent it from being stolen. Yes, Glenn Gould and Alan Turing were a couple of weirdos. And I mean that with the deepest, most sincere respect. Gould’s 1981 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is on my desert island list, and Turing’s work as a cryptographer at Bletchley Park was instrumental in determining the outcome of World War II. I know what geniuses both men were. I also regret the early demise of both of them. So I posit that Gould and Turing set the gold standard for any list of great weirdos. The weirdos have to be great. And the great ones have to be weird.
Excluded from such lists, of course, would be those with high marks in one and not the other. I had a neighbor once who seemed to suffer from Asperger’s Syndrome or some sort of personality disorder. He never held a job and would scream into his walls at night. Once he told me that in order to prevent identity theft he’d first shred all his discarded bills and then burn them. No one ever stole this weirdo’s identity. No sir. But like most of us he wasn’t great. So no appearance on the list.
A weirdo must make a lasting impact in order to belong. Roky Erickson is a good example of a near-miss.
Erickson is a well-known weirdo who, in my perfect world, would rank as number 43 or thereabouts on such a list (Woot, alas, neglected to include him). He was a member the 1960’s psychedelic rock group 13th Floor Elevators. He made strange music, was a vocal proponent of illegal drug use, and suffered from schizophrenia. That lead to some weirdness for sure, such as signing a legal affidavit claiming a Martian was living in his body. But despite being a cult hero in rock music for the past 30 years, he isn’t quite great enough, in my opinion, to crack the top twenty.
Also excluded are criminals, rapists, pedophiles, and murderers. I’m sure Jeffrey Dahmer engaged in some very strange behavior as well. But once you start killing people, or robbing banks, or blowing up buildings, you are not great. You are bad. You have a net negative impact on the world. Therefore, no appearance on the list. There will be no infamy here.
Further, you can’t just be merely odd or have a few strange habits. Comedian Jerry Lewis, according to IMDB, is known for never wearing the same pair of socks twice. Lewis, no doubt, is one of the funniest guys who ever lived and as the former chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association he is certainly a prominent humanitarian. He is great enough to make the list. But 14 socks per week does not a great weirdo make. Being a consummate showman of any stripe will not automatically land you on the list either. You can’t just affect weirdness, you have to be the weirdness. So no Liberace, no Madonna, no Alice Cooper, no Lady Ga Ga. Nor will being flamboyantly gay, sexually ambiguous, sexually deviant, incessantly annoying, or simply an asshole. So fortunately, people like Divine, Marilyn Manson, Pee Wee Herman, Richard Simmons, and Roseanne Barr will be ignored as well. Mental illness alone is also not enough. Ignatius J. Reilly might have made the list, had he, you know, been a real person. But his creator John Kennedy Toole was just not weird enough. Sure, Toole fell into depression and eventually killed himself. It’s sad and tragic, but while he lived, Toole was a fairly normal guy. Or at least tried to be. This last point is important. If someone says “I’m weird, but I’m trying like heck to be normal,” then that pretty much disqualifies them off the bat. A weirdo must either be unwilling or unable to get over their weirdness. I’m sure with all her cow-hugging contraptions and bizarre dietary rules and cowboy uniforms, Temple Grandin comes across as plenty weird. But she has spent much of her adult life developing ways for autistic people like herself to function productively in the real world. That is not weird. That is awesome. What about those who make weird art or hang out with weird people? Well, what about them? Frank Zappa sure made weird music. His work is basically a cosmic amalgam of rock, blues, doo-wop, modern classical, avant-garde jazz, satire, and God knows what else. He also had the baddest soul patch ever seen on a white man. But from what I’ve read the man himself was fairly normal. Regardless of whether one enjoys his music or agrees with his politics, Frank Zappa’s decisions at least made sense and he acted more or less rationally for his own good and the good of others. A guy like that really isn’t weird at all.
My final caveat is to stay away from the living. Their stories aren’t over. 35 years ago, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys would have been a shoe-in for such a list. He exhibited all the strange behavior of a great weirdo. He was a paranoid, reclusive genius who often did unpredictable and bizarre things. So what happened? . Today he’s a man dealing with mental illness while still performing quality pop music. I wouldn’t dare call Brian Wilson a weirdo now. Still, I want it to be an honor (to some extent) to make it onto this list. So before we move to my top twenty we will need to list Woot’s top 50 Weirdos. Please click over to Woot for some fascinating stuff.
Not a perfect list. There are some omissions, and some folks in my opinion are either not weird or noteworthy enough to belong. Jim Henson? No way. I think G.G. Allin, revolting punk that he was, doesnâ€™t deserve to be there. Emily Dickenson was a recluse, sure, but is that enough to put her at number 12? And Ben Franklin at number 1? Please. Just because he was sexually promiscuous and liked to try weird ideas on for size every once in a while does not make him worthy of topping such a list. Tune in later for Part 2 of my top twenty Greatest American Weirdos.