Graded on a Curve:
The Legendary
Stardust Cowboy, Paralyzed

Where to begin the saga of The Legendary Stardust Cowboy? Well, outer space—which is where some are convinced he had his beginnings, although let the record reflect that he was born Norman Carl Odam in Lubbock Texas, where he grew up and which he so hated he never went back—is as good as place as any.

Seems back in 1973 some braniac at NASA got the bright idea to rouse the astronauts in space by playing “the Ledge’s” brilliantly awful (and awfully brilliant) “Paralyzed.” Trouble is it left them so discombobulated there was fear they’d lose their minds and set the controls for the sun, which led NASA to promptly put the kibosh on the practice. Any half-assed song can get itself banned in Boston. “Paralyzed” is the only song to ever be banned in space.

And speaking of the Great Out There, everybody’s favorite Space Oddity David Bowie was a fan, and even went so far as to slap a cover of LSD’s “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship” on 2002’s Heathens. And where do you think Ziggy got that “Stardust”? That’s right. From the bugle-playing maniac with no apparent sense of rhythm and melody and a singing style that can only be described as enthusiastically deranged.

The Legendary Stardust Cowboy has been called a pioneer of the “psychobilly” movement, but let the evidence show that despite his apparent derangement, the artist formerly known as Norman Carl Odam went on to become a productive member of society working as a private contractor for, you guessed it, NASA. Although he still occasionally takes his show on the road, generally with a rotating band of admiring indie notables backing him up under the name the Altamont Boys. The Lonesome Stardust Cowboy is not devoid of a twisted sense of humor.

Another sign of apparent normalcy: Odam didn’t start playing music out of some weird compulsive need to express himself—he saw it as a means of impressing girls. “Paralyzed” itself, which is easily one of the strangest songs you’ll ever hear, was about his unrequited love for a Lubbock High School cheerleader. And how better to win her over than by writing a song that, in his own words, “would captivate everybody”?

He succeeded beyond his wildest imaginings, although perhaps not in the way he intended. I would hesitate to call “Paralyzed” captivating. I would call it “mind-altering.” Plenty of people demand that it be turned off. Others think it’s a sick joke expressly designed to cause people to demand that it be turned off. The Lonesome Stardust Cowboy, and this is what makes his so great, just thinks of it as seductive.

The Ledge recorded “Paralyzed” in 1968, that annus mirabilis over the course of which he released a sum total of three singles. And that was all he committed to vinyl until 1989, when he made his big comeback with the “Standing in a Trashcan”/”My Underwear Froze to the Clothesline” single. In short, during his Golden Age, The Legendary Stardust Cowboy recorded a mere six songs, all of them for the fledgling Mercury label. He’s released material since 1989, including a couple of albums and such memorable singles as “I Hate CDs” and “Hot Tub Teddy,” but you’ll have to look hard to find another legend with such a slender discography. Which makes him just that much more mysterious and endearing.

It’s the 1968 recordings, cut when he was truly convinced that he was destined to become a glittering rhinestone cowboy in the big rock ’n’ roll rodeo, that interest me. I don’t find his naive belief that he could actually make the bigs ridiculous, because in a way, if not exactly the way he imagined, he kinda did. Made his way onto a major label and from there to Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, where he got laughed at.

I doubt this bothered him any more than it did Tiny Tim. He knew what he was peddling wasn’t shoddy goods. What did bother him was when, during his second song (“Who’s Knocking on My Door”), members of the Laugh-In cast proceeded to make merry around him, japing and mincing and what not. This led him to storm off stage in protest. In his own words, “That wasn’t part of the act.” And if you check out some old videos on YouTube, you’ll understand his outrage. The man didn’t need help. His act was more entertaining than a Busby Berkeley spectacular.

If, like me, it’s the early stuff that matters to you, you’ll get it all on the 2023 compilation Paralyzed. It includes the six songs he recorded over the course of the year before man landed on the moon, and that’s all it includes. So if it’s “I Rode a Tractor,” or the gotta-hear intergalactic rumble that is “Bladerunner,” you want to hear, you’ll have to turn to one of the career-spanning compilations out there. He’s released at least two live albums as well, if you’re interested. I’m not sure you should be interested.

How to describe the compilation’s title cut? Well, people brighter and more articulate than yours truly have tried and failed, for the simple reason that it’s more than your average human brain can take in, a sui generis mind-boggler guaranfuckingteed to leave you temporarily slack-jawed with pure awe. Personally I think it marks the invention not of psychobilly but of noise rock—I can’t help but wonder if the Cows’ equally legendary frontman Shannon Selberg wasn’t inspired to pick up the bugle after hearing “Paralyzed.”

Suffice it to say the song came out of nowhere, without precedent or frame of reference, a completely new and original thing unto itself. And on the song The Lonesome Stardust Cowboy himself comes from out of nowhere, after a few stray dobro strums and some rustling cymbals, whooping and hollering and speaking in tongues without so much as a cowbell to accompany him. It’s startling, to say the least. He’s a one-man rodeo, and when the drums (which were played by a young T. Bone Burnett) come in for real you’re actually relieved.

Rhythmically what I hear is a far more twisted kissing cousin of “The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey Oswald’s Grave,” which I suspect was no mere coincidence because the Butthole Surfers are big Ledge fans. And it goes on like this, The Lonesome Stardust Cowboy just letting it all out over a drum shuffle that is actually more of a stagger, until Burnett abruptly ups and goes hillbilly free jazz on the kit, abandoning any pretense of producing a rhythm that will move the song along.

At which point LSD lets loose with a bugle solo that sounds like reveille on Mars, after which Burnett goes back to producing a poor simulacrum of a rhythm while the Ledge does his best imitation of a fella trying to rile up a herd of cattle to the point of stampeding. In fact I can’t help but think that “Stampede” would have been a better title, more appropriate, because if there’s one thing The Legendary Stardust Cowboy ain’t it’s paralyzed. The fact is that it would be humanly impossible for him to sound more animated. One listen and you’ll wonder why the astronauts trapped in that tin can far above Planet Earth didn’t just open the escape hatch and say Geronimo.

“Who’s Knocking on My Door” is almost as unhinged. Our boy sounds sane enough at the beginning, when he tells his fellow moosicians “You realllly got to rip on the brake. With the same, with the same tempo, the same tempo as I sing it.” Then the song kicks in and The Lonesome Stardust Cowboy goes berserk, letting out a wild war cry and following it up with lots of “Doo doo doo, doo doo”s and some mostly incoherent lyrics (“and drink root beer from a coffee cup” being a notable exception). And all of this to the accompaniment of a herky-jerky, crash-bang rhythm that I would call primitive if it weren’t an insult to your average primitive. It’s pure dead brilliant.

“I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship” is a slowed to a crawl slice of intergalactic genius. To the accompaniment of a guitar, some lackadaisical drumming and low-fi space washes The Legendary Stardust Cowboy talks in a lazy and laconic aw shucks drawl, occasionally bursting into weird song in a manner that demonstrates he has but a passing acquaintance with the concept of being in tune.

He’s “passing through the shadow of Jupiter” in his “Gem-in-i” (he pronounces that last syllable as a hard e) spacecraft, and he’s “feeling real blue” because he’s thinking “about yooouuuuu.” It’s a slow motion trek across the universe, this one, with touches of primal poetry along the lines of “Moon shining down/On some little town/And with each beam/The same old dream.” I doubt this was the first example of “space country” ever to fall to earth but I could be wrong, and either way it’s definitely one of the best.

“Down in the Wrecking Yard” is almost as good—same lack of attention to melody as “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship,” but on this one the Great One is about as far as you can get from the interplanetary wonders of deep space, namely a junked car graveyard. Where he’s meeting his true love “called a wrecked Chevrolet/Which I see every…..daaaaaayyyy.” The lyrics are great: “It has old worn-out tires/That was caused by some fires/And upon the seat/Is something to eat/Behind the wheel/Is a banana peel” and I think you get the idea.

Best thing about this one is the bugle, which The Lonesome Stardust Cowboy blows on as punctuation between lines, that is if you don’t count his deadpan Texas vocal delivery, which is a wonder to behold. Or the way he suddenly up and delivers what I’m guessing is his imitation of spaceship whizzing off (“Biiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeer!!!”) Love the way he makes the lines “Carrying a hoof/On a car roof” rhyme, almost as much as I love the fact that he’s standing on a car roof holding a hoof in the first place.

“Kiss and Run” was an obvious move towards a wider audience—it comes complete with strings and on it our boy tries to sing the way he thinks people are supposed to sing, but God bless him he just doesn’t have it in him—the Ledge is even more ill-suited to carry a tune than your average colander. Very endearing, this one, the Great One exudes real twisted charm as he tries to hit them high notes only to hit some innocent pigeons, metaphorically speaking, instead. Listening to him hang on to that “goodbye” in “You didn’t even bother to tell me goodbye” is something special—painful, sure, but you can’t help but root for him anyway.

“Everything’s Getting Bigger But Our Love” is an old school country love song, conventional in its way but further proof that The Legendary Stardust Cowboy knows how it’s done but can’t help but do it different. The little pine tree him and his love used to play around as kids has gotten bigger, their shanty’s a big house with a new-fangled television, and the old dirt road’s become a big highway, but something’s gone wrong between ‘em. The Cowboy puts in an impressively plaintive vocal performance, the piano and strings are pure sweet and sorrow, and there’s nary a bugle blurt in sight to make you question the sanity of the fella singing it. As for his sincerity, it comes patently through on every note.

Norman Carl Odam knew he was destined for great things—in high school he spray-painted his new name (preceded by a nifty “NASA presents”) in big gold and black letters across the side of his new Chevy Biscayne, which must have been quite a sight. And he knew it when, after recording “Paralyzed” in an impromptu recording session at a studio in Fort Worth Texas, he raced up the stairs to KXOL, the only Top 40 AM station in that fair city, and played it for the morning DJ, who promptly spun it and spun it until the phone calls from excited listeners damn near melted the switchboard. Hell, he added that “Legendary” to his name because, in his own humble words, “I am a legend in my own time.”

You have to admire the man’s confidence and sense of mission. He knew what he was. He knew what he had. And in the end it hardly mattered if hardly anybody wanted it. That wasn’t the point. He had a vision and he had a destiny and he had the All-American gumption to make the sounds he heard in his head a reality coupled with the cold-blooded ruthlessness to inflict those same sounds on an unsuspecting populace. And for one bright and shining moment he turned the world on its head. Exclaimed that morning jock at KXOL, “THIS IS IT! THIS IS THE NEW MUSIC!” I bet the folks on Saturn love it.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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