When Norman Odam, a k a The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, entered a Fort Worth recording studio in 1968, no reasonable man on Earth could have believed the legend. For those two minutes, the Ledge (as his friends call him) bellowed, hollered, screeched and blew his bugle with a primal force that would have made Johnny Rotten sound dainty.
The Ledge's spontaneous caterwauling was captured on a single titled "Paralyzed." Released by Mercury Records in 1968 and promoted as "the worst record ever made," it became an overnight sensation, breaking into regional record charts and earning the Ledge an appearance on "Laugh-In." In Washington, he appeared on Barry Richards' TV show and lip-synched "Paralyzed" while go-go dancers futilely squirmed and shimmied to the song's haphazard rhythms.
As quickly as this one-of-a-kind musical cowpoke had blazed his trail across the face of popular culture, he disappeared. Nonetheless, he was revered as the father of modern punk rock. His records became a favorite on Dr. Demento's radio show, and "Paralyzed" was included on such historical compilations as Rhino's "World's Worst Records" and Big Beat's "Rockabilly Psychosis and Garbage Disease."
Now, after a 15-year hiatus, the Ledge has reemerged with a new album, "Rock-it to Stardom," and a schedule of national and international appearances. In fact, he will make his East Coast debut at Friendship Station tonight. What took him so long?
"I was ahead of my time," the Ledge explains. "Years and years ahead of my time. Also, it took me this long to get an album, which you need to tour the East Coast or around the world. In April I'll be appearing in Holland, England and France with the group Gun Club, and my album will be released overseas."
The Ledge has spent the last eight years in Las Vegas, where the desert and big skies provided inspiration for his songs. Many of these, such as "I Walk a Hot Wind" or "I Took a Trip on a Space Shuttle," deal with the mythology of the Old West or space exploration. The music itself is harder to describe.
"I use all kinds of music," he says, "from heavy metal to hard rock to rockabilly to love ballads to country to comedy. When I say heavy metal, I mean my gun is heavy and made of metal. So when I pull it out and shoot at the ceiling, that's heavy metal. While my music is American in theme, the raucous sounds of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy are international in appeal."
Although he claims Elvis Presley and Tom Jones as primary inspirations for his performances, the Ledge's mixture of vocal hysterics, Comanche war whoops, jungle animal cries and atonal bugle blowing have no parallel in music history. He promises his comeback will not hedge on the entertainment standards he has established. And, as always, he will perform in full cowboy regalia.
"My fans and curiosity seekers can look forward to seeing me do my world famous strip while singing 'Dynamite,' " he proudly proclaims. "There will be unusual facial expressions while I sing and wild dancing, including my Cowboy Twist. I also bounce into the audience and back on stage like a kangaroo looking for his supper. And I sing songs not on my album, like 'My Underwear Froze to the Clothesline.' "
Needless to say, Norman Odam's path to his now legendary status has been a little rocky. In his hometown of Lubbock, Tex., the teen-ager would carry a portable stage around town, playing on street corners and inviting verbal and physical abuse from jealous peers. After perfecting his improvisatory skills, he set out in 1968, planning to entertain his way to New York City, where stardom surely awaited.
He never got past Fort Worth. It was there that the Ledge was discovered by a group of Kirby vacuum cleaner salesmen, who rescued him from a saloon where some hostile truckers were threatening to throw him -- boots, guitar, bugle and all -- into a nearby swimming pool. The salesmen brought him to the recording studio, where a young T-Bone Burnett captured "Paralyzed" on tape.
After the furor over "Paralyzed" settled down, Mercury released two more singles, but neither was successful. In 1977 the Ledge moved to Las Vegas to plot his return to stardom. If a town that makes heroes out of Wayne Newton and Bobby Vinton seems a strange home for a performer as spontaneous, idiosyncratic and bizzare as the Ledge, it's just not so.
"Where else would an entertainer live," asks the Ledge, "but in the entertainment capital of the world?"