The painfully heartbreaking appearance of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy on Laugh-In

As much as I consider myself to be a fan of outsider art, I’m somewhat ashamed to say that I haven’t invested much time listening to the work of The Legendary Stardust Cowboy. Tonight, though, I’m trying to make up for it in a big way. And I’ve got to say that the experience, at least thus far, has been kind of heartbreaking. Things were going reasonably well until I got to this clip from Laugh-In, and started my obsessive digging.

According to “The Ledge,” he didn’t know that the Laugh-In cast was going to come out and start cavorting around him, mocking him, during the second song, Who’s Knocking On My Door. “That wasn’t part of the act,” he said. “(I) got mad and ran off the set.” According to one source that I’ve found, he thought that he’d been booked as a serious act, and “walked off the stage and cried” when he’d heard the laughter.

I know it’s about five decades too late, but fuck Laugh-In.

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31 Comments

  1. Dirtgrain
    Posted December 1, 2013 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    I hate Laugh-in because a lot of its “humor” was based on the misguided notion that loud + hokey = funny. Horrible. But this is clearly the worst.

    What other shows have used public humiliation? Joe Schmo, various talent shows like American Idol, Jay Leno (the on-the-street quizzes)–what else? How many involve people being misled?

    Doesn’t this involve the same dynamic that empowers bullies? I wonder if such mocking/denigrating in the media conditions people to be bullies–or to go along with bullying. Once in a while, I see a kid acting horribly to others at my high school in such a way that it seems to be behavior learned from reality TV (like those housewives of ______ shows, or The Jersey Shore).

  2. anonymous
    Posted December 1, 2013 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Well said, Dirtgrain. We are an insecure people, and we feel better about ourselves when we’re able to demonstrate that others are on less sure social footing than we are. It’s disgusting.

  3. tommy
    Posted December 1, 2013 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    The fact that this guy thought his ‘act’ would be taken seriously is sad indeed. Legendary in his own mind maybe.

  4. Anonymatt
    Posted December 1, 2013 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Hilarious. Not the performance, or the mocking thereof, those were only marginally amusing at best. But if he really expected that he was booked on Laugh-In as a serious act, that’s hilarious, even more so if he ran off and cried. Mark, if you found anything of merit in his performance, please explain, because it looked like stupid nonsense to me. I don’t mind stupid nonsense, but if that’s your act, don’t expect people to take you seriously.

    I bought a LSC CD at the WFMU Record Fair one year, but I ended up trading it in somewhere because it was boring.

  5. Posted December 1, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    LCD is pretty tedious, but at least he wasn’t a smug asshat like Rowan and Martin. They’re insufferable. Mock the powerful, not the powerless.

  6. Posted December 1, 2013 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    Making it even sadder, the Ledge (Norman Carl Odam) thought that this was his big break, and that, afterward, he’d have a girlfriend and a career.

    Joe Ely was a classmate at J.T. Hutchinson Junior High in Lubbock. “The first time I saw Norman,” recalled Ely, “he was playing on the steps. He’d get to school ‘bout 7:30 in the morning, before everybody else. He’d do a whole set before the bell rang. He just kinda wailed on at the top of his lungs. [Later,] Norman carried on this tradition and played on the steps of the high school.” He invariably attracted crowds — girls even — and his extracurricular notoriety grew. But he still couldn’t get a date. Not all his classmates took his performances seriously. Some considered him a freak. They’d honk their horns, throw dirt clods and Sweet-Tarts. Others flung pennies and peppermints in the hole of his guitar.

    At some point in his teens, Odam merged two great obsessions — the Wild West and Outer Space — and decided “The Legendary Stardust Cowboy” suited him better than “Norman.” He spray-painted the name — preceded by “NASA presents” — in big gold and black letters across the side of his new Chevy Biscayne (much to the horror of his grandmother, who took a swat at the teen for ruining a perfectly good automobile).

    He couldn’t get gigs at local clubs, so he obsessively sang in public: at frat houses, outside the Dairy Queen, in the parking lots of the Hi-D-Ho Drive-In and the Char-King. His makeshift stage was the roof of his Chevy, on which he’d painted a map of the moon. His atavistic caterwauling was accompanied by St. Vitus gyrations copied from another hero, Tom Jones. Usually management would run him off the property.

    Odam would turn up unexpectedly at parties and give impromptu — and often unwelcome — performances. He occasionally found himself the target of spectator intolerance. When he plied his raucous repertoire in honky-tonks during the late 60s, he sported long hair and muttonchop sideburns. “Old time country music fans thought I was making fun of them and country music,” he recalled. “Owners and managers of clubs had to pull away people trying to get close enough to beat me up.” One night at the Hi-D-Ho, an onlooker heaped ridicule on the Ledge’s performance, but he ignored her and kept singing. “He either laid his guitar town, or she came up and grabbed it,” said Ely. “All I remember is turning around and seeing the front of his guitar cave in, with her foot going through it. It was a sad day. That guitar was his main squeeze.”

    After high school, Odam resolved to travel in search of fame. Las Vegas. New York. Hollywood. Other planets.

    Instead he took a bus to San Diego. Unable to land a paid gig, he moved to L.A. and tried to get on the Steve Allen Show and Art Linkletter’s House Party, but no one was booking unrecorded amateurs who specialized in coyote howls. Disillusioned, he returned to Lubbock, worked in a warehouse, and played local clubs to largely skeptical or indifferent audiences.

    In 1968, he tried to contact the best known musical Outsider. “I wrote Tiny Tim a letter,” he recalled, “with a picture of myself and musical instruments. I wanted to be on the Johnny Carson show like [him].” Tiny never replied. (Considering the magnitude of his then-popularity, it’s unlikely he ever saw the letter.)

    With $160 in his pocket, the Ledge aimed his Biscayne at New York. His goal: the Tonight Show. He had no manager and no demo tape. He also had zero business smarts.

    He never made it to Manhattan — but along the way, the “legendary” part of his name became a reality.

    He pit-stopped in Forth Worth, 300 miles east of his hometown. Two vacuum cleaner salesmen, headed out to a local club, spied the Ledge’s graffiti-blessed Chevy in a parking lot. They chatted with the driver, and noticed he had what they thought was a guitar. The vac dealers knew the club owner, so they invited Odam along to perform. After witnessing the musical demolition derby that is a typical Ledge showcase, they whisked him to a nearby recording studio, where he auditioned an original song for a young engineer named T-Bone Burnett.

    A sense of urgency prevailed — who knew if this transient would be around next day — so they spooled up a reel of tape and hit “record.” T-Bone leapt to the drumkit, the Ledge grabbed a mic, and “Paralyzed” was born. The Ledge’s aboriginal shrieks and freewheeling bugle brays were underscored by Burnett’s furious, not quite-metronomic drumming.

    It was an early morning session; the engineers had been up all night messing around, and the whole fiasco seemed half-hallucinatory. “The band was just me on drums, and he had a dobro with a broken neck, so he could only play on the first fret,” Burnett recalled. “We just set up two microphones. [The staff was] in a state of sleep deprivation that probably caused us to be more daring than we might’ve been otherwise. Norman gave me some instructions — ‘Play drums in the same tempo I’m singing in’ — and I said, ‘I could do that.’ [laughs] Maybe probably. Then he said he was going to take a bugle solo, and he wanted me to take a drum solo, and I found that all agreeable. It was explosive, to say the least.”

    Upstairs in the same building was KXOL, the only Top 40 AM station in town. Burnett ran upstairs and played the tape for the wake-up jock, expecting a rebuff. Instead the host ranted, “THIS IS IT! THIS IS THE NEW MUSIC!” The song was aired several times, the switchboard overheated, and T-Bone knew they had a hit on their hands.

    “This is something, by the way, to highly recommend Fort Worth,” chuckled Burnett, “that the people could love this and embrace it so instantly.”

    The studio stamped 500 copies on the Psycho-Suavé label. After some initial regional commotion, the single was sold to Mercury Records for national distribution. The deal was brokered by sleazy Fort Worth music impresario Major Bill Smith, who brazenly claimed production credit.

    “Paralyzed” embodied some of the most mutant strains ever pressed on major-league vinyl (at least til Harry Chapin got signed). It cracked the Billboard Top 200 — no mean feat for a record that even by the drug-addled standards of 1968 was irredeemably in orbit. It brought the sagebrush spaceman instant fame, if not fortune.

    Of course, not everyone “got it.” “Paralyzed” frequently hovers near the top of smart-alec rankings of the “all-time worst recordings.” British TV comic Kenny Everett compiled an album entitled, aptly enough, The World’s Worst Record Show; “Paralyzed” shares the LP’s furrows with such deeper dumpster pickings as “Why Am I Living?” by Jess Conrad and Dickie Lee’s “Laurie.” Clayton Stromberger, in a ‘zine called No Depression, described how “out” the single was: “It was out the window that noted music critic Ed Ward’s first copy of ‘Paralyzed’ went sailing … after his first listen … 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).”

  7. Posted December 1, 2013 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    What is the point in comedy? It merely serves to distract Americans from work.

  8. Posted December 1, 2013 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Amen, Doug.

    You can argue (Matt), that the Legendary Stardust Cowboy doesn’t have a lot of talent. I’d argue, however, that it takes considerably less to make fun of him. Watching as the entire Laugh-In case piled on made me feel sick.

    As for he’d done of note, I actually like Paralyzed. It makes me happy the same way the work of Hasil Adkins does.

  9. Posted December 1, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    People may also be interested to know that he was a label-mate of Bowie’s. They were both on Mercury. And Bowie, when it came time to name his unearthly musical creation, Ziggy Stardust, borrowed the “Stardust” from Ledge. If nothing else, he’ll be remembered for that, I suppose.

  10. Posted December 1, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    I watched the video.

    Pointless.

  11. Posted December 1, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    They wouldn’t let the Holy Modal Rounders finish a song either.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkjJs5gKtFs

  12. Anonymatt
    Posted December 1, 2013 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, I can’t get too worked up over his treatment. You are correct that it doesn’t take any talent to make fun of him. The whole 4 minutes could have been put to better use to set up and deliver 10-15 corny old jokes. But it was kind of routine on Laugh-In to showcase a new weird (by mainstream TV conventions) act and mock it. Dick Martin did much the same schtick on stage when Tiny Tim made his first appearance, but TT took it in stride and boosted his own fame with it. The fact that it didn’t work the same way for LSC is not necessarily Laugh-In’s fault.

    I’d give LSC a “B” for earnestness (the pointless trumpet bleating knocks it down from an “A”) and a “D” for entertainment value in the clip, whereas the Laugh-In cast would get a “F”.

    “Paralyzed” is enjoyable as a novelty song, but it’s a novelty song. To be upset that LSC wasn’t treated seriously on Laugh-In is like being upset that they came to take Napoleon XIV away.

  13. Eel
    Posted December 1, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    I don’t suspect they hang out all that often, but Bowie covered one of his songs about a decade ago. Here they are together.

    http://www.stardustcowboy.com/bowieledge.jpg

  14. Eel
    Posted December 1, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Here’s Bowie performing his cover of “Took A Trip On A Gemini Spacecraft”.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6aRXoFub-8

  15. Posted December 1, 2013 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    I never heard of him before this (I suck, I know) but I want to say that this is a beautiful post. You have a good heart, Mark.

  16. Posted December 1, 2013 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    And Dirtgrain and anonymous make good points about bullying/laughing at others. For one horrible season, I watched American Idol. Some of the folks who tried out were awful (many of them, actually). I think that some were bad on purpose just to get themselves on TV but I think that some legitimately thought that they were good. They probably grew up being told what great singers they were (either by people who didn’t know better or who just wanted to be nice). For some reason, one young woman has always stuck in my head…she dressed up like Dorothy, sang some song from Wizard of Oz (probably the rainbow one) and even made a posterboard sized picture of WoO featuring the judges as the lion, tinman and scarecrow with her as Dorothy. It was the saddest thing and after the judges promptly told her how much she sucked at singing, she looked genuinely crushed. She then asked if they wanted her poster and they started laughing and were like, “Uh, no….”

    I have no idea why this stuck in my head all of these years but it was just so sad to watch this poor young lady have her dreams crushed while the judges (and surely folks at home) laughed at her.

  17. Posted December 1, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    This video makes me want to kill myself.

  18. Posted December 1, 2013 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    What is it that so upsets you, Pete?

  19. Posted December 1, 2013 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    And thank you all for commenting. I wasn’t expecting to have this much discussion.

  20. Posted December 1, 2013 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    It’s the hat. And that people are having a good time at its expense.

    Sickening.

  21. Posted December 1, 2013 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    It made me kind of sick, too…I wanted to cry and also rip out the eyes of Joanne Worley.

  22. Posted December 2, 2013 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    I want to throw up.

  23. Anonymatt
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Everyone upset by this, do not Google “The Gong Show”. You have been warned.

    Does anyone believe that if he was allowed to perform uninterrupted, it wouldn’t have ended with the audience laughing at him, and he would have blamed that for his lack of fame and fortune rather than putting the blame on the limited appeal of his act?

  24. Maria Huffman
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    Laugh In treated the entertainer terribly in this, because he was in not on the whole gag. They used him, when he was being serious.

  25. Posted December 2, 2013 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    Right. I think the folks on the Gong Show knew they were being punked (right? right? RIGHT? Please don’t ruin Gene Gene the Dancing Machine and that crazy ass high-on host for me)

  26. Anonymatt
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    If LSC went on Laugh In and expected to be treated seriously, that would be incredibly naive on his part.

    For reference, they weren’t too much more respectful to Tiny Tim on his first appearance:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R_bljefIsBc

    The thing I dislike about the treatment of LSC is that they made noise over his performance (Dick Martin’s clapping, Jo Anne Worley’s screeching). The fact that they danced to his performance means they were treating it like actual music as in “The Party” segments.

  27. BrianB
    Posted December 3, 2013 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    “At some point in his teens, Odam merged two great obsessions — the Wild West and Outer Space”
    Any merger of these two obsessions is alright by me. I get excited just seeing them in the same sentence.

  28. Posted December 3, 2013 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    Judging from the lack of interest in the movie “Cowboys and Aliens,” I think you may be alone in your excitement, Brian.

  29. Anonymatt
    Posted December 4, 2013 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    The makers of Cowboys and Aliens should call their film outsider art and claim everyone’s being mean for not making it a success.

  30. mrs maria
    Posted December 5, 2013 at 4:03 am | Permalink

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  31. Jack Campbell
    Posted September 15, 2017 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of legends, legend has it that David Bowie named his character Ziggy Stardust after hearing the story of Ledge getting laughed at on laugh in, and going backstage and crying. Creative types who stay engaged long enough learn that their art makes it’s way into the world, and is often poorly understood, causes unanticipated reactions and continues to ripple outward long after.

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