Ever listen to the radio and notice how everything
sounds the same? Ever wonder where the real musicians are, the ones who are
more interested in originality and honesty than in selling records?
Turns out some of them are right in your own backyard.
They're not easy to find, though. Their albums aren't stocked at Tower
Records, and they don't get asked to appear on late-night talk shows. Some of
them won't play for audiences at all. They are Long Island's so-called outsider
musicians, people who operate outside the conventional music world - sometimes
so far outside that they seem detached from reality. They follow their own
visions, disregarding established ideas of song craft or instrumentation. Their
music may be catchy and hummable, or it may be virtually unlistenable. It is,
however, completely their own. That's something Ashlee Simpson, to name just
one popular "artist," cannot claim.
"There's something noticeably askew about these people," says Irwin Chusid,
who literally wrote the book on outsider music, "Songs in the Key of Z."
"Besides the genuineness and the sincerity, they tend to lack a certain
Some would say the only true outsiders are mentally ill (like Wesley
Willis, the late schizophrenic street performer) or socially withdrawn (the
singer Jandek, who during nearly 30 years of recording has never revealed his
identity) or somehow ignorant of the larger world (Shooby Taylor, who for years
had no idea that his bootleg scat recordings were being circulated among
But the definition of outsider is changing. Increasingly cheap recording
technology is making it easier for even the most marginal artist to distribute
his music to a wider audience. And the Internet has made it nearly impossible
to remain obscure: Even if a musician himself doesn't want to post his song on
the Web, someone who has a copy of it probably will.
These days, an outsider could be Bay Shore's Capt. Joe Buser, the
63-year-old blind sailor whose hip-hop discs are available at the online store
CDBaby.com. Or Steve Lieberman, the Freeport punk-rock bassist-flutist whose
discs have been reviewed on the popular Web site All Music Guide. Or Melville's
Doug Milman, who makes homemade copies of his highly accessible dance-rock
albums - complete with carefully designed cover art - and distributes them
mainly to friends.
What, then, does it mean to be an outsider musician? If outsiders are no
longer separated from the mainstream world, then the definition of the term
begins to blur. But one thing hasn't changed: Outsiders will always express
themselves through music, whether they're heard or unheard. That's what sets
them apart from the dull masses of radio-driven, approval-hungry rockers.
A crowd of seven
One recent Thursday at the University Cafe in Stony Brook, Steve Lieberman
- aka the Gangsta Rabbi - played a free concert for a crowd of about seven
people, including the bartender. He began each song exactly the same way.
First, he switched on a drum machine. Then he laid down a barrage of thunderous
bass notes and snarled unintelligibly in a gravelly, slurred voice. Each song
also featured a wild, high-pitched flute solo, with Lieberman occasionally
slapping the bass to sustain the rumbling feedback.
The faces in the crowd looked variously amused, baffled or pained. But one
young girl in wire-rimmed glasses watched Lieberman intently. Musically, she
acknowledged, he was abysmal. "But that's the point. It's more about his
emotions and his message than his talent."
Lieberman, 46, has little musical training. He never learned guitar, so
instead he strums his bass and turns the distortion up too high. His flute
features a U-shaped mouthpiece designed for children. As for the drum machine,
Lieberman virtually ignores its rhythms. Because he has high blood pressure,
his live shows tend to be short: After about 45 minutes of playing, his hands
Rich Hughes, who books shows at the University Cafe, first heard Lieberman
on a local radio show in his car. "I nearly drove into a tree," he recalls. But
something about the music stuck with him. "I like the way he follows his own
muse. He's playing what he wants to play, and I respect that."
With his black trench coat, snaggly teeth and wiry black hair and beard,
you'd never guess that Lieberman is the comptroller for the Village of
Freeport, a job he's held for about 20 years. He has two daughters and is on
his fourth marriage. "I don't like not being married," he says.
In 1995, Lieberman, who is Jewish, created his own religion, The Badlan'im,
or Isolationists. It includes a new numbering system for the years (we're now
in 3455) and a 52-character alphabet. He coined his nickname The Gangsta Rabbi
because he likes to pick theological fights with actual rabbis. His songs
tackle Jewish themes ("Skinheads in My Yard Oy Vey!") and politics ("Unholy War
in the Holy Land"), but also more universal concerns such as pets ("Dogpark")
and romance ("Bonkey on the Donkey").
Lieberman released about 38 cassettes between 1991 and 2001 and put out
five CDs in 2002. His sixth and latest album is "Arbeiter at the Gate," and
he's working on a seventh. He is the only artist profiled in this article who
is listed on All Music Guide, the online music encyclopedia ("Arbeiter" earned
an impressive 3.5 stars out of five). Still, none of his albums has sold more
than 100 copies, and he's so far made $91 selling discs and downloads through
That doesn't bother Lieberman. His philosophy stems from his Isolationist
religion, and it's as good an outsider manifesto as any. "I broke away, or
isolated myself, from what was out there," he says. "I needed something better,
Nobody wanted him
The cover of the CD "Bear Hunt" looks like an old punk seven-inch single,
with black-and-white collage art and bold lettering. The song titles are
evocative - "Svetlana at the Beach," "When I Lost My Head," "Prostitution and
Surfing" - and the music is unexpectedly poppy, though with a bitter
undercurrent. The singer's deadpan, laconic voice is far back in the mix, as if
demanding that the listener meet him halfway.
The album is ascribed to Chemicals Made From Dirt, which sounds like a
band. But the liner notes contain only one credit: "Songmusic D. Milman."
It turns out that Doug Milman wrote every song and played every guitar and
keyboard (and programmed the drum machine). But he's not a young garage-rocker
- he's a 51-year-old psychologist who lives on his own in Melville and splits
his time between clinics and private practice. When he's not doing that, he
creates his own brand of singular, quirky pop-rock. And he doesn't seem to care
whether anyone hears it or not.
"I've tried to become part of the system in the past," Milman says, "but
nobody wanted me to."
He's referring to the first incarnation of Chemicals Made From Dirt, a punk
band he formed with two friends in the late 1970s. The group never gained more
than regional fame, but Milman recently discovered that some old Chemicals
tunes were being included on a compilation CD put out by a collectors' Web site
called Hyped2Death.com. That nugget of positive feedback inspired Milman to
start recording new material. He's now working on his third disc.
Milman doesn't much care for being interviewed - he admits he's more
comfortable asking the questions. Asked about his sources of musical
inspiration, he says that his songs are born out of experiences, dreams and his
subconscious. Asked whether his divorce, which took place about 10 years ago,
has any bearing on his lyrics, he replies, "Probably."
"Doug was always unknowable to most people," says David Kilmartin, who grew
up with Milman and played drums in Chemicals. "Even in high school, he had a
really absurdist, dark, strange side to him." Kilmartin, a painter and curator
who now lives in British Columbia, says that even after the band split, he knew
Milman would eventually return to music. "He has to do it. If he wasn't in
touch with his creative side, he'd be in the shop for repairs himself."
In some ways, Milman is the least "outsiderish" musician interviewed in
this story. He doesn't care for the label (given its stigma of mental illness
and his profession, it's easy to see why). But he does make music purely for
his own enjoyment. He refuses to play live and seems ambivalent about getting
his music heard by others. He's considering sending copies to small labels, but
the boxes of discs in his house seem mostly full.
So why play music at all? "I'm just trying to make myself happy," Milman
says. "I want to get something that pleases me that I haven't heard before. I
don't know if I can do that, but I can try."
White Stevie Wonder
On first listen, Capt. Joe Buser's disc "Come On Rain" (subtitled "The
Blind Sea Captain With His Romantic Rap") sounds like the house band at a
beachfront hotel: Top 40-style ditties, lots of keyboards, and Buser's deep,
rumbling, sometimes off-key voice.
But the songs have one impressive quality: They're honest. Buser sings
about his dead friends, his blindness, even his sex drive with frankness, humor
and, at times, poignancy. Clearly, this music comes straight from his heart.
Buser can't play an instrument, but he knows a bit about rock music. In the
1960s, he ran a small label called Frog Records and managed a handful of Long
Island bands. He even owned an Islip nightclub called The Swinging Soiree. When
the clubs and bands ran their course, Buser and his wife, Sue, opened an
interior decorating business in Bay Shore, which they still operate.
Soon after, at the age of 37, Buser was found to have retinitis pigmentosa,
a degenerative eye disease. His sight began to fade. Eight years later, he
was, as he says, "totally black blind."
Despite that, Buser seems positively jolly, walking around wearing his
captain's hat and a pair of sunglasses with the initials "J" and "B" taped over
the lenses. You'd never suspect that his blindness initially left him
depressed and apathetic. "I was just rotting away, emotionally and mentally,"
he recalls. "I had to come up with something totally impossible and ridiculous,
and accomplish it."
Buser decided to pilot a boat. In 1989, after completing a naval safety
course (complete with Braille maps) he and three friends sailed from Bay Shore
to Montauk Point and back - a round trip of 212 nautical miles - while another
boat trailed them and issued instructions by radio. ("I cheated," Buser
admits.) Afterward, the Coast Guard awarded him the title of honorary sea
"I thought, if I can do this, maybe I should stick around," Buser says.
"Maybe there's something out there for me."
That something, he claims, is a singing career.
Ideas for songs usually come to him while he sits in the back office of the
decorating shop. Armed with an old metronome and a portable tape deck, Buser
will bang away on a tambourine and shout out anything that rhymes. "Friends?
Ends? Bends? I won't even make any sense," he says. "I'll go on like that for
half an hour." (His wife hung red shag carpet in the office as soundproofing.)
Buser wrote more than 60 songs that way, then called old musician friends
to play guitar, drums and keyboards. Two songs, he says, include three onetime
members of the Del-Vikings singing backup. Another friend, Bert Lawther,
recorded some tracks at his Bombay Studio in Islip. Buser even shot a video
with a trio of thong-clad women he hired through an acquaintance.
"Joe has some rough edges on the singing side, but he can talk a good line
[in song] and he's enthusiastic," says Lawther. "He knows his capabilities, but
he still forges ahead. He's not embarrassed by it whatsoever."
Last year, Buser was found to have had a minor heart attack. Because of hip
trouble, he needs a walker. But that hasn't stopped his musical career. He's
working on a rap song called "What Is Peace" (with a musician friend known as
Nasty Cuz), and he is writing tunes for a young local singer named Samantha
Carlson. He also retained an entertainment attorney in New Orleans who is
attempting to find him a record deal. Recently, when Buser appeared on CNN as
part of a segment about the arthritis medication Celebrex - which he believes
caused his heart attack - he told host Paula Zahn that he was "a hip-hop
What does Buser hope to get out of all this? In his song "White Stevie
Wonder," Buser lays out his hopes to become a rich and famous blind pop star.
"I'd dress all in black and ride a big black car," he croons, "'cause that's
the only color I can see."
"I'd love it to say on my epitaph, 'He Was a One-Hit Wonder,'" Buser says.
"I've been a crazy guy all my life, and I'd finally like some recognition."