Legend, On Everything
In 1981 a friend and fellow lover of all things strange and Texan turned me on to a bizarre and basically indescribable single called “Paralysed” by the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, a.k.a. Norman Odam. Monica put this single on the turntable, cranked it up, and — well, if you’ve heard “Paralysed”, you’ll never forget the first time it rattled your eardrums. It was bizarre in a way that expanded one’s sense of what is possible in the universe. All laws of relativity went out the window.
It was also out the window, by the way, that noted music critic Ed Ward’s first copy of “Paralysed” went sailing, according to the legend, after his first listen upon its release as a novelty tune in 1968. He ripped it off the turntable, pronounced it the worst song he’d ever heard, and flung it as far as it would go. Which of course only added luster to the legend of “The Ledge” (and left Ward kicking himself years later — damn, wouldn’t it be cool to have that 45 now!).
Having been inducted into the pantheon of “people who know about The Ledge,” I proceeded to inflict “Paralysed” on friends in my University of Texas dorm who I thought might be ready. I’d build up to it with a quick rap that started with the Ed Ward story and then went into something like, “And this guy is from Lubbock” — now that gave him credentials you couldn’t buy — “and Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock and all those guys remember him jumping up on top of his car at the Hidy-Ho and blowing on his trumpet…”
If, during the mandatory second listening, an inductee was reduced to writhing on the floor in hysterical laughter by the end of the drum solo — which sounded like a hundred drum kits being kicked down a flight of stairs — well, he was clearly a soulmate. And a true Texan.
When I heard recently about Anthony Philputt’s documentary Cotton Pickin’ Smash: The Story Of The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, I was tantalized, but a bit apprehensive as well. There was a charm to the mystery of The Ledge’s origins, and the idea that he was still out there — waaaaay out there — somewhere. I was afraid to find out that it was all a clever joke, or that he was tragically confined to an institution.
I’m happy to report, then, that Cotton Pickin’ Smash is a delight, a real labor of love that only enhances Odam’s unique place in Texas music history. Philputt tracked down The Ledge in Northern California, where he’s now a security guard but still dreams of the real stardom that seemed a heartbeat away when “Paralysed” propelled him to a surreal appearance on “Laugh-In”. He’s not shy about discussing his life, and he comes across as the real article — baffling and brilliant, a kind of musical example of the Outsider Artist everyone loves to write about and collect nowadays.
The film is rough around the edges and maybe a bit too long, but those are minor concerns; more important are the wonderful interviews with Joe Ely (who has vivid memories of Odam’s striking presence in 1960s Lubbock), the producers of “Paralysed”, and other eyewitnesses to the spectacle. And one interviewee is a typical Texas-like surprise — it was none other than T Bone Burnett who performed that famous “Paralysed” drum solo, in a tiny Fort Worth recording studio, hours after Odam pulled into town and got “discovered”. Burnett simply happened to be working at the studio at the time (it seems it was all meant to be). The result was an amazing confluence of gifted, interesting people: With Odam bellowing cowboy yells out in the lead, they took the bull by the horns and created something special.
As the film ends, you can’t help but feel that a journey such as Odam’s, from Lubbock to “Laugh-In”, could never happen today the same way, with the same innocence and courage. It’s enough to make you holler a High Plains “yaaaahhhhhh-hoooooooo!!!!!” into the night for Norman Odam.
(For information on ordering the Cotton Pickin’ Smash video, contact Anthony Philputt at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 8918 Compton A, Indianapolis, IN 46240. To contact The Legendary Stardust Cowboy directly — we’re assured that he loves to get fan mail — write Norman Odam, P.O. Box 36305, San Jose, CA 95158.)