Musicians, artists and writers have a world-wide reputation for eccentricity. As Oscar Levant so famously said, "there's a fine line between genius and insanity."
In order to create great art the artist must be outside of the norms. So before I get into my top picks for "weirdest musicians" I want to make it quite clear that being "weird" is not in itself a bad thing. Weirdness is just behavior that the majority of the population finds foreign, unnatural or strange.
In some cases weirdness can be a bad thing -- For example, if I ran around a shopping mall slapping old ladies across the face while screaming profanities, you could not only classify my behavior as weird, you could also classify it as a crime. On the other hand, if I spent my days collecting cigarette butts from the ground and gluing them together into sculptures that bring attention to the dangers of smoking, I may be considered weird, but in this case, the end result is positive. Finally, weirdness can also be neutral, or "art for art's sake". If I chose to dress up like Liberace, stand on one leg and recite the Iliad I could certainly be considered "weird", but the action is neither positive nor negative, it just is.
Another thing to consider before reviewing this list is the motivation behind the weirdness. In the majority of cases, the strange behavior exhibited by these artists is due to verifiable mental illness. In other cases the weirdness is completely contrived as a gimmick to gain attention, and in still others the artist is simply breaking new ground. Or in other words, a genius before his or her time.
Many of the artists I have chosen are household names who have sold millions of records, while others as obscure musicians who live(d) on the edges of popular culture as "outsiders". However, they all share one thing -- They're weird.
Please note: I freely admit that this is in no way a definitive list, so please add your selections to the comments.
1. G.G. Allin
G.G. Allin's (birth name Jesus Christ Allin) whole shtick was to reclaim rock & roll as the music of rebellion by being so vulgar, so shocking and so anti-establishment that no parent would allow their children to listen to him in good conscience. His complete lack of boundaries led him to defecate and urinate on stage then roll in it and eat it. He is also well known to commit violence and engage in a wide array of sex acts on stage as part of his performances. He died in 1993 of a heroin overdose.
2. Tiny Tim
People remember Tiny Tim for his hit "Tiptoe Through The Tulips" and for his falsetto voice. But many do not know that Tiny Tim had vast knowledge of music history. In fact, much of his work was reviving lost music of past generations. He had a flamboyant stage presence, but Tiny Tim also came across as meek and insecure at times, wearing white makeup on his face to help himself "feel pure". In his private life Tiny Tim was actually a conservative Christian. He died from a heart attack suffered while performing "Tiptoe Through The Tulips."
2. Wesley Willis
Wesley Willis was a diagnosed schizophrenic from Chicago and was a very large man -- standing 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighing 350 lbs. Willis' music featured stream-of-conscious lyrics sung over the preset auto chord features of Technics KN series keyboards. Some of his songs include "Rock & Roll McDonald's", "The Vultures Ate My Dead A** Up", "They Threw Me out of Church" and "Suck a Caribou's A**". He had a habit of lovingly headbutting his fans which created a distinctive callus in the middle of his forehead. Wesley died in 2003 from leukemia at the age of 40.
4. Syd Barrett
Syd Barrett was a founding member of Pink Floyd and his descent into madness is well documented in both the printed word and in post-Barrett Pink Floyd albums. Many feel his insanity was created by the large amounts of psychedelic drugs he used regularly. Barrett was the key songwriter and artistic visionary for Pink Floyd's debut album The Piper At The Gates of Dawn, but as his behavior and ability to perform went downhill he was removed from the band after their second album, A Saucerful Of Secrets. Barrett died in 2006 of pancreatic cancer.
5. Michael Jackson
Not much needs to be said about MJ that is not already known. His trial after being accused of sexually abusing children brought much of his bizarre behavior to light. Michael Jackson has been a "star" since he was a child and I can't help but think that his life of being adored and idolized contributed to his oddness. With millions upon millions of records sold Michael Jackson is without any doubt, the most successful musician to fall into the top weird musician list.
If I had to guess I would say that most of Buckethead's weirdness falls into the "gimmick" category. And that underneath the plastic mask and Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket is just a guitar-obsessed virtuoso. In 2007 Buckethead released 27 discs including the 13-CD set In Search Of The. This kind of output is weird in and of itself, but throw in the freaky costume and Buckethead makes the list without any question.
7. The Shaggs
The Shaggs are one of the best known "outsider" musical artists in history. Formed by the three Wiggins sisters of New Hampshire at the direction of thier father Austin Wiggins. Their self-produced album Philosophy Of The World was hailed by Frank Zappa as one of his favorite records. It features what is obviously amateur musicians, but the lyrics and direct honesty of the record make it not only weird, but pure and immediate in a way only outsider art can.
Jandek is another "outsider" who is prolific to the point of compulsive. He has released 53 albums to date over a period of 30 years. His music is completely inaccessible due to its atonal nature, but he has gained notoriety for refusing to give any interviews or provide any background on his music. This has led to a strong desire on the part of the music press to find out more about him, which has attracted more publicity than he ever would have gotten had he not taken the approach. His reclusive nature is weird and his music is weirder, but in the last few years Jandek has been coming out of hiding and performing live.
9. Throbbing Gristle
Throbbing Gristle is an Avant-Garde musical group from London that was formed in the mid-1970s. The group has rejected the notion that music should be "attractive" and their improvisational sound is never the same twice. The group admittedly cannot play instruments in the traditional sense. TG has a notorious reputation for their use of disturbing imagery during live performances, including the use of pornography and images of death.
10. Shooby Taylor
Shooby Taylor (insert Photo © Irwin Chusid) is also known as The Human Horn. His music consists exclusively of scat singing over various pre-recorded records by the Ink Spots and other oldies tracks. He recorded only 14 songs in the early 1980's, but they have become legendary. Shooby gave us his all, but the end result was a comical view into someone completely out of touch with normal perceptions of what makes music "good".
11. Captain Beefheart
Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, is a legend among the cutting edge in music. His 1969 album Trout Mask Replica is considered by many to be a masterpiece. It is said that the difficult music contained on the record took 8 months of non-stop practice by the band to pull it off in the studio. Beefheart became reclusive in the 1980s and began painting full time. His abstract expressionist paintings now command big money, but he is rumored to be bedridden.
Björk ranks number 36 on VH1's Greatest Women of Rock & Roll and she has seen impressive commercial success. Her music walks the line between art and the commercially viable, as does her image and behavior. She has been known to violently attack paparazzi with pit bull ferocity and is also known for wearing some of the oddest stage dress in the music business.
13. Eilert Pilarm
Eilert Pilarm is the world's most famous Swedish Elvis Presley impersonator. I would say that if you are an Elvis impersonator you pretty much already classify as "weird", but Eilert sings Elvis songs off-key, off-time and with a Swedish accent. Combine this with his middle-aged accountant-type look and the end result is complete and compelling entertainment.
14. Larry "Wild Man" Fischer
Larry "Wild Man" Fischer has the distinct honor of being the first artist to be released by Rhino Records with his 1975 album Go To Rhino Records. He was put in an institution at age 16 after he attacked his mother with a knife. Wild Man has spent much of his life homeless due to his battles with mental illness. In 2005 the documentary film Derailroaded: Inside The Mind Of Wild Man Fischer was released and is now available on DVD.
15. Alexander "Skip" Spence
Alexander "Skip" Spence has been a member of Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape and like both Wesley Willis and Wild Man Fischer he was a diagnosed schizophrenic. He even spent 6 months in Bellevue Hospital after an episode with a bandmate and a fire axe. Like so many, his mental illness left him homeless until his death in 1999 of lung cancer.
16. Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa named one of his children "Moon Unit" and another "Dweezil", this alone is worth an honorable mention in this list, but his far out lyrics and technically evolved musicianship, as well as his composing skills set him far apart from the pack. Sure Zappa was a weirdo, but he won a rabid fan base and Grammy awards on the more than his weird outlook.
17. Malinda Jackson Parker
A congress woman from the small African country of Liberia, Malinda Jackson Parker was one in a million. Her music featured mediocre piano playing and a stream of conscious vocal style that leaves the listener bewildered and wondering what the heck the point of the song was. Every person needs to hear "Cousin Mosquito #1" at least one time before they die.
18. Arthur Brown
English rocker Arthur Brown pre-dated shock rock artists like Alice Cooper and is best known for his hit single "Fire", which features the ominous line "I am the God of hellfire!" He had a notorious reputation for stripping naked at his shows (he was arrested in Italy for doing so) and for lighting a metal helmet on fire (while wearing it). These antics got him kicked off of a tour with Jimi Hendrix. Although Arthur Brown will always be a footnote in rock & roll history he makes the number 18 spot in our weirdest musicians list.
19. Brian Wilson
The Beach Boys are one of the most influential pop groups in history second only to The Beatles. As music fans know, Brian Wilson was the driving force behind their brilliance and like many of the other artists on our list suffered from mental illness for much of his life. Brian was eventually diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type and at one point spent 3 years locked in his bedroom doing drugs. Thankfully, this singular talent has regained his career in music with the help of managed mental health care.
20. Britney Spears
Britney is the second most commercially successful artist in our weird list after Michael Jackson. The jury is out on whether she has a verifiable mental disorder, but all signs are pointing that way. Attacking reporters, ugly divorce, losing her children, shaving her head, and other publicly visible strangeness have been front and center in the media and paint Britney as a complete train wreck. Time will tell, but hopefully she's getting the help she needs.
21. Florence Foster Jenkins
Florence Foster Jenkins was an American opera singer who was born in 1868. When her wealthy father died Florence's inheritance allowed her to pursue music without the need of making a living from it. Florence Foster Jenkins' singing was horrendously off-key, but she was nevertheless convinced of her own talent. The ironic thing was that she sold out all of her performances as audiences clamored to get a glimpse of the spectacle.
22. Daniel Johnston
Daniel Johnston is an outsider artist and musician that has influenced such important rock icons as Kurt Cobain and Pearl Jam. He is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Daniel's music, although childlike and unpolished, is filled with compelling pop hooks and intricate creativity. His artwork and famous tagline "Hi, How Are You?" can be seen on the t-shirts of throngs of musicians and fans across the globe.
23. Roky Erickson
Founder of 13th Floor Elevators and a pioneer of psychedelic rock, Roky Erickson is another musician whose "weirdness" can be attributed to schizophrenia. He was institutionalized for a time and subject to involuntary electro-shock treatment. Roky has been doing much better since his brother Sumner was granted legal custody and has worked to get him the help and support he needs. Roky is currently working on a new album with Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top fame.
Honorable Mentions: Alice Cooper, The Residents, GWAR, Slipknot, Marilyn Manson, Wendy O. Williams, Insane Clown Posse, Darby Crash, The Sex Pistols, Jello Biafra.