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The 50 Greatest American Weirdos - Part 5

by Jason Toon

"When you're born, you get a ticket to the freak show. When you're born in America, you get a front row seat."
- George Carlin

Eyes thiswise, freaks, cretins, oddballs, and cranks! The long-awaited conclusion to our series celebrating the 50 Greatest American Weirdos is finally here! We've marveled at a parade of genuine bizarrity as we've counted down from #50 to #11. Now we get to the titanic weirdos whose overpowering freakiness shifted where America's collective head was at. Now we rescue these icons of iconoclasm from the Museum of Approved Culture and restore them to their true destiny of the truly weird. You probably think you're familiar with all ten of these weirdos, but I hope I can remind you just how strange they really are...

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4

#10. Jack T. Chick: If you've never encountered one of the millions of copies of Jack T. Chick's ridiculous fundamentalist mini-comics floating around the bus shelters and laundromats of America, I both pity and envy you. Dive in right now. Chick's Evangelical mind-meld of impeccable draftsmanship and insane theology celebrates a vindictive and pitiless God, eager to consign children to the pits of Hell for sins like playing D&D or listening to so-called "Christian rock". No interfaith prayer breakfasts for Jack. There's exactly one way to Heaven, and his fertile imagination maps out the myriad ways clueless sinners can wander from the path. Hilarity inevitably ensues. I'm partial to the comically dystopian The Last Generation myself, but there are hosts of laughs lurking in the Chick catalog.

#9. Ed Wood: Nothing could stop Ed Wood from bringing his cinematic visions to the screen: not low budgets, not the narrow strictures of film genre, not even his own ineptitude. His now-canonized trash classic Plan 9 from Outer Space doggedly pursues its cosmic storyline on a decidedly terrestrial budget. And his Glen or Glenda dared to depict transsexuals as human beings, not tragic abominations - pretty bold stuff for 1953. Wood was himself a cross-dresser with an fetish for angora and a feminine alter ego named Shirley. Sadly, he died in 1978, years before his reputation would be rehabilitated. So he never lived to see himself portrayed by Johnny Depp in the Tim Burton biopic. Ed Wood lacked a lot of things, but courage and determination were not among them.

#8. H. P. Lovecraft: An army of eccentrics earned their livings cranking out short stories for the pulp magazines of the early 20th century. Very few created an enduring mythology and spawned entire new genres. A prolific, troubled creep from Rhode Island named H. P. Lovecraft can claim both. His cosmic horror stories inhabited a universe where human emotions and thoughts are meaningless at best, ruled by grotesque abominations whose motives and purposes are beyond human comprehension. While Lovecraft himself always considered his "Cthulhu Mythos" a fictional plaything, some of his more excitable readers needed to be reminded occasionally of that fact. The anxiety about the indifferent universe at the heart of these stories, however, was very real, and Lovecraft was one of the first to express it through stories about monsters. Most of what we call "horror" today follows his lead.

#7. Prince: As Michael Jackson got weirder, his creative output got more and more tame. Not so his biggest rival. His increasingly baffling movies, his ever-more-sexed-up psych-funk jams, his use of numb3rs 2 stand in 4 words, even his own name: Prince never stopped messing around long enough to settle into a formula. Who else could take a summer blockbuster superhero theme song - what should be an easy commercial layup - and turn it into a fragmented oddity like "Batdance"? And still hit #1 in Billboard? As the '80s faded into the past, Prince followed his muse straight off the charts, culminating in a series of impenetrably "spiritual" jazz-fusion records. But every once in a while he can still drop a perfect funk single like "Black Sweat" as effortlessly as he drops DMCA C&Ds.

#6. William S. Burroughs: For their "Senior Box" in my high-school yearbook, most of my classmates quoted things like John Lennon, or Whitney Houston, or their friends' inside jokes. Mine said this: "In Egypt is a worm gets into your kidneys and grow to an enormous size. Ultimately the kidney is just a thin shell around the worm. Intrepid gourmets esteem the flesh of the worm above all other delicacies." I won't say I always understood what William Burroughs was getting at, but books like Naked Lunch and Nova Express were rich veins of disturbing inspiration for dark-humored dorks like me. This was around the time my friends and I would spend hours at Kinko's, digging through the trash for discarded photocopies and reassembling them into absurd flyers, poems, and pamphlets, following the "cut-up" technique Burroughs often used. (It didn't hurt that he grew up a couple of blocks from our high school in St. Louis.) His early pulp potboilers, Junky and Queer, prove he could write "straight", too. Burroughs remains an icon of the Beat, psychedelic, and punk avant-gardes, but one who was too individual to ever be owned by any of them.

#5. John Brown: 1855: pro-slavery militias wage a campaign of vicious attacks against settlements in the free state of Kansas, often aided by allies among the law-enforcement authorities. An anti-slavery farmer back East named John Brown had sons living in Kansas, and he wasn't going to sit by while the pro-slavery terrorists threatened them. So he gathered an army and weapons to defend free settlements and keep slavery out of Kansas - and won. With Kansas quiet, he headed east in 1859 to launch an armed slave uprising with an attack on the U.S. Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. It was a doomed, quixotic mission. His force of 21 men was routed in a couple of days by Marines under the command of future Confederates Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart, and Brown was hanged. But his sacrifice would go on to be celebrated - not least by the U.S. Army, in the song "John Brown's Body". Some consider Brown a lunatic terrorist himself, but history proved his denunciation of pacifist abolitionists correct: "These men are all talk. What we need is action - action!"

#4. Edgar Allan Poe: Edgar Allan Poe tried to be an upstanding citizen of antebellum America, he really did. He joined the Army at 18 and secured an appointment to West Point a few years later - and then was thrown out for gross neglect of duty and insubordination. His early poems were uncontroversial Romantic efforts in the vein of Byron and Shelley - and nobody read them. He got married when he was 26 - to his 13-year-old cousin. He became assistant editor of the Southern Literary Messenger - then got fired for getting drunk on the job. He also missed an appointment to get a job at the Custom House in Philadelphia, again probably because he was drunk. These failures didn't help lift his perpetual gloom, but in denying him any hope of mainstream success, they freed the dark muse that produced "The Raven", "The Masque of the Red Death", "The Tell-Tale Heart", and dozens of other foundational classics of the macabre.

At age 40, Poe was found deliriously wandering the Baltimore streets wearing someone else's clothes, and soon died of causes lost to history. But not even that ended the indignities suffered by the tragic father of American weirdo lit. A critic named Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who had long hated Poe and Poe's work, managed to become his literary executor and set about destroying Poe's posthumous reputation, publishing a spurious memoir full of forged letters falsely depicting Poe as a drug-addled lunatic.

#3. Andy Kaufman: It took a natural entertainer like Andy Kaufman to undermine everything that was false, lame, dull, and uptight about showbiz in the '70s. His extended, elaborate, deadpan put-ons - most notably his bizarre wrestling career - wrenched laughs from discomfort and confusion like nobody else ever had. Nothing Andy Kaufman did was ever serious, except the motives behind it all. Just watch.

#2. Woody Guthrie: As with all dangerous geniuses, the kind of people who hated Woody Guthrie in life have tried to tame him in death, turning him into a cuddly pet hillbilly who happened to write a patriotic singalong. The real Woody was a challenging dynamo of irreverent humor and radical politics, a genuine populist threat to the plutocrats of Depression America.

Stirring strike anthems, goofball kids' rhymes, tender love ballads, ancient folk tunes: he sang it all with the same honest, affecting charm. He turned out prose just as easily, like the classic memoir Bound for Glory and a column for the Communist newspaper the Daily Worker. And he drew, constantly, witty little doodles like the self-portrait at right. Later, some would speculate that his restless creativity was the result of the Huntington's chorea that turned him into an invalid for the last 15 years of his life. Whatever the cause, it's doubtful that any great songwriter has ever been so prolific. In the late 1990s, when his daughter gave Billy Bragg and Wilco access to his thousands of unpublished, unrecorded lyrics, they included a dozen songs about Hanukkah - and Woody wasn't even Jewish.

#1. Benjamin Franklin: The original American eccentric, Franklin was the Founding Father who let his freak flag fly: constantly inventing, satirizing, instigating, rallying everyone around him. Some of his inventions and causes (bifocals, fire departments, the lightning rod, the U.S. postal system, public libraries) were instant successes. Some (the turkey as the national bird, eliminating six letters from the alphabet) were, let's say, ahead of their time. His untamed intellect barely had time to worry about it before he'd moved on to the next massive project. He was one of the first Americans to play chess. He thought funerals should only be six minutes long. He loved beer and fart jokes. He had an illegitimate son who stayed loyal to the King. He became an abolitionist decades before it was cool. He donated money to a wide variety of churches in Philadelphia even though he didn't attend them, just to promote religious diversity. He played the violin, the harp, and the guitar. Wipe away the dust of two centuries and Benjamin Franklin emerges as one of the coolest, most interesting, funniest, most courageous dudes to ever walk this soil: the Greatest American Weirdo.

There you have it: our pantheon of the 50 Greatest American Weirdos. What do you think? Who did we leave out? Did you discover any new heroes? Who's great in YOUR weird America?