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)
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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).
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.
10. William S. Burroughs (1914-1997)
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
Next: Weirdos Part 5.