No one knows what's going to happen when the Legendary Stardust Cowboy takes the stage. Decked out in a cowboy hat and boots, spurs, leather chaps, and a jean jacket with his name emblazoned on the back, the 69-year-old singer carries a bugle and shoots off a pistol filled with blanks. He may ride a stick horse around stage and he'll probably strip down to his underwear, but he never plays the same show twice.
There's one thing that's certain with the man his fans call "The Lege." He'll begin, and likely finish, each of his performances with "Paralyzed," a wild, unintelligible song alternately acknowledged as one of the worst ever recorded and a masterpiece of outsider art. It's the song that landed him a major label record contract, made him a cult figure, and ultimately immortalized him as the inspiration for David Bowie's iconic alter ego, Ziggy Stardust.
"He's just kind of a genius savant, hovering above the rest of the world," says country singer and former Flatlanders member Joe Ely, who's known The Lege for over 50 years. The two met during junior high school in Lubbock, Texas. "He's really brilliant, but they've never really found a place for him."
Born Norman Carl Odham (in the same hospital, bizarrely, as Buddy Holly), The Lege was drawn to rock 'n' roll at an early age, in particular Elvis Presley. "I needed something wild," he says. But even Presley was too earthbound for his tastes: "Shake, rattle, and roll was not wild enough. Not fast enough. Too slow," he declares, biting off his words in an abrupt, almost belligerent shout. What he really loved was jazz, particularly artists like Thelonius Monk and Wes Montgomery. "I could listen to that stuff all day. I could just get drunk on jazz," he says.
Inspired by his love of Westerns and fascination with space travel, he adopted his moniker of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy as a teenager in the early 60s. Ely remembers him playing songs on the steps of the school auditorium each morning. "He was just screaming at the top of his lungs and kind of played the same chord for every song. I was just fascinated," he says. "He had this following, although people kind of poked fun at him because he's a real character and had this whole image of himself built up."
Getting naked on stage.
That image wasn't an act, however. "He didn't drink, he didn't do drugs. His strangeness was not affected from outside. That's his personality; he's just a unique human being," says Ely. His music would veer from shouted rockabilly like "My Underwear Froze to the Clothesline" to spoken word dirges like "I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship." "He has a powerful imagination and he has no rules of what he does with it," adds Ely.
The Lege wrote the song that was to become his trademark, "Paralyzed," in 1966 for a songwriting competition run by a Lubbock radio station. "Somebody else won it, but when they played 'Paralyzed' it lit up the switchboard like a Christmas tree," he says. Still, he was unable to get local airplay, so he set his sights on playing The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, convinced that it would land him a recording contract.
He never made it to New York, landing instead in Fort Worth, where friends introduced him to a then-unknown producer named T-Bone Burnett. Burnett offered to play drums for The Lege and in September 1968 they re-recorded "Paralyzed." Driven by The Lege's frantic acoustic guitar and Burnett's haphazard attempts to keep up on drums, the song is a scattered mess of free jazz and proto-psychobilly over which The Lege screams, hoots, and howls while blowing his bugle. It was Burnett's first-ever production credit.
The Legendary Stardust Cowboy performs "Paralyzed."
A DJ named Red Rocket overheard the recording session from the KXOL radio station above Burnett's studio. He played the song on air that night and even did an interview with The Lege. "There were more requests coming in to play 'Paralyzed' than 'Hey Jude' by the Beatles. I was the first person to ever out-request the Beatles," The Lege boasts. "Another Top 40 station wanted it but [KXOL] had exclusive rights. They wanted it so bad so they could get the ratings up."
"Paralyzed" proved divisive, with The Lege admitting that a number of African American listeners called in accusing him of "making fun of them" (for reasons he says he never understood), but when local producer and promoter Major Bill Smith got his hands on the song it soon attracted interest from labels. Eventually Paul Nelson, who later signed the New York Dolls, won the bidding war and committed Mercury Records to press 100,000 copies.
The Lege's unlikely run of success wouldn't last long. He says he was booked to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show that December, but a strike from the local musicians union prevented him from appearing. By the time the strike ended in March 1969, "Paralyzed" had fizzled out and Mercury dropped him after only seven months.
In the above video, David Bowie talks with Jools Holland about his relationship with the Legendary Stardust Cowboy.
He blames Smith, who died in 1994, for the failure. "He kept calling people up that he knew all over the United States telling them he discovered me," he says. "And he blew it because Mercury Records was trying to keep it a secret."
Ely suspects that wasn't the whole truth. "He didn't accept the fame of it all very well," he says. One unconfirmed story that Ely heard involves the recording of his follow-up to "Paralyzed:" "He had a falling out with his manager and producer and actually destroyed the tape. He unwound the tape and rolled the reel down a hill," he says. The Lege also appeared on Rowan and Martin's Laugh In, storming off the stage in the middle of a song when the cast began to mimic his leaps and leg kicks. "I think [Ed Sullivan] kind of wondered whether he might pull something," Ely spectulates.
It was to be another 15 years before The Lege would record his first full-length album, having been rediscovered in the early 80s after years of drifting in and out of the music business. By that time, however, his cult status had already been ensured by Bowie, who was given The Lege's recordings when he signed to Mercury himself in 1970. "I immediately fell in love with his music. Well actually, the IDEA of his music. As the music itself wasn't too recognizable as being such," Bowie said in a BowieNet live chatroom during the 90s.
While several versions of Ziggy Stardust's origins have been given, The Lege maintains that it was a combination of his own name and Iggy Pop's, and Bowie openly acknowledged The Lege's influence on the gender-bending extraterrestrial that helped make him a superstar. Ziggy first appeared in concert in February 1972 before debuting to wider audiences with the "Starman" single, released 45 years ago this year. Bowie would later pay tribute to The Lege by including a cover of "I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship" on his 2002 album Heathen—which, while he says he never cared for Bowie's music, The Lege admits he likes better than his own recording. "His had a lot of brass in the background, like Frank Sinatra. I just don't care for dobro and banjo and violin," he says.
The two men briefly met the same year that Heathen was released, at which time The Lege gifted Bowie one of his jackets and paintings. Bowie later booked The Lege onto festivals that he curated in the U.K., where Ely says he's been given the title of "the first punk rocker." Such accolades aren't unheard of: In 2010, Mankato, Minnesota, where The Lege has a surprisingly devoted following thanks to local college radio station KMSU, declared May 21 "Legendary Stardust Cowboy Day."
The Lege counts a number of other celebrities among his fans, including Raquel Welch and Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, for whom he named his 2011 compilation For Sarah, Raquel, and David: An Anthology. Comedians George Carlin and Don Rickles were also fans, having seen him perform in Las Vegas, where he moved in the 70s before relocating to California, where he lives today. "He loved being around the old Rat Pack," says Ely. "He knew all those stories and considered Las Vegas to be the pinnacle of the entertainment business."
The Legendary Stardust Cowboy performs "My Underwear Froze to the Cloth."
For more than 20 years, The Lege's bassist has been Klaus Flouride, founding member of the Dead Kennedys. "He's just so outside, you know?" he says of what drew him to The Lege's music, which he had heard talked about for years before seeing him perform in the mid-'80s. "Every time we practice, he does a full-out performance at the practice space. It's almost like we're getting a personal performance."
Flouride says it's a fun challenge to improvise around whatever unpredictable direction The Lege heads in. "He'll basically read us the lyrics once and then say, 'Okay, let her rip,' and we're supposed to play something. Sometimes we're lucky and get him to do it a second time," Flouride says of their recording sessions. One time, he says, "He wanted to do a song we didn't know that well, so he pulled out the lyric sheet and we just came up with a totally different riff for it, so there's two versions of the same song."
Ely, who gets phone calls from The Lege every few weeks, usually to talk about the weather (The Lege has a remarkable recall for weather on specific dates, often decades removed), sees a unique inspiration in his old friend. He remembers The Lege once showing him a songbook that had "over 500 pages of songs," which The Lege later burned fearing that someone would steal them.
"I said man, that's a big loss, you lost all your work. And he said, 'Oh no, oh no.' I said what do you mean? And he said, 'I remember. I know every song in that songbook,'" says Ely, with a laugh. "I went, oh wow."
Today, there are two documentaries in the works chronicling The Lege and his music, one of which will be animated. Two different compilations were released last year alone, one of them through his own label Impetus Records, and Ely believes that thanks to the internet The Lege may finally find the audience that was so hard to locate nearly 50 years ago. The Lege certainly believes he will.
"Oh, I'll kick around in a day job until I get full time in this business and have enough money to where can go full time in it," The Lege says. Even if that never happens, "I'm able to put on my spurs, my boots, my hat, and my 22-caliber pistol and my scabbard and root 'n' toot 'n' shoot 'em up."
Jeff Gage is a writer based in Dallas. Follow him on Twitter.