Jandek


“I’m an inordinately private person…”

The music world isn’t exactly short of maverick recluses. There’s Syd Barrett, Scott Walker, Brian Wilson, Arthur Lee and Lee Mavers to name but a few. None, however, have perfected the art of disappearance quite as well as Jandek, a man who managed to vanish practically before he’d even emerged.

His first brush with the outside world came in 1978 when an album by The Units called ‘Ready For The House’ was released on an unknown label, Corwood Industries. The stark cover photo of an empty living room and lack of any credits, bar the song titles and Corwood Industries PO Box number, gave little away.

Despite the band’s New Wave moniker, the music owed nothing to the punk or new wave scenes and nor was it the work of a bona fide band. Described by one reviewer as ‘the most frightening record I’ve ever heard’, the album sounded like the music found on an unlabelled tape left in a deserted house. One play and you wonder what the hell had happened to the previous occupant.

A solitary guitar – not tuned to any conventional scale – plucks out single notes while an earthy yet otherworldly voice whispers unsettlingly personal confessions that could well be the last words he utters. Songs rarely follow any standard verse-chorus-verse structure nor do they offer any changes of mood or tempo, except for the moments when the voice cracks.
It was as if the man singing had come in contact with no other music, except for one muffled rendition of a Robert Johnson song when he was in the womb.

Needless to say, the assorted college radio DJs, reviewers and record store owners who were sent copies weren’t sure what to make of it and, with no live shows to support it, the record disappeared without trace.

But with ‘Ready For The House’ the artist had created a landscape as completely realised and instantly identifiable as, although vastly different from, Bruce Springsteen’s small-town Honest Joe’s or Tom Waits’ midnight beat hustlers. There were no pointers or references to any contemporary music, giving ‘Ready For The House’ (and his entire oeuvre), a timeless quality where, even though you can still hear the clock ticking, you know it’s long since stopped.

Three years later the release of ‘Six And Six’, this time under the name Jandek, offered another glimpse inside this solitary, haunted world. Again the music was totally alien to any other trends and again the sleeve carried no information beyond song titles and Corwood Industries PO Box number. This time, however, the cover featured a photo of a young man staring sullenly at the camera. Over the course of over 40 albums pictures of the same man would appear taken at various stages throughout his life.

Bleach-blonde on ‘Someone In The Snow’, bearded on ‘A Kingdom He Likes’, in profile on ‘Later On’, bare chested and out of focus on both ‘Modern Dances’ and ‘Blue Corpse’. Presumably this man was Jandek himself. The covers not featuring the man presumed to be Jandek carried similarly stark and intriguing imagery, often of a guitar or drum kit, houses in Texas, shop windows in Chester or streets in Cork.

But no other information ever featured on the back sleeve. There were no songwriting credits (although public records show Jandek’s copyrights to be owned by someone named Sterling Richard Smith) and no recording dates, making it possible that the early records could have been recorded years before they were physically released.

The music, if nothing else, kept coming. Customers could order large quantities at discounted prices direct from Corwood Industries and those who wrote to the PO Box were rewarded with a typed copy of the ever-expanding Jandek catalogue, sometimes accompanied by a cryptic handwritten fortune-cookie message signed ‘Corwood’.

As the records continued to arrive, the rumours began to circulate and grow. Jandek was the retarded son of a wealthy motor industry owner who released his music as a tax write-off. All his music had been recorded as part of a therapy session and would be released album-by-album until there was nothing left unreleased. Jandek was a millionaire who, having made his money trading silver and gold, had turned his back on it all to follow his artistic vision.

Each album would refine Jandek’s hermetic environment without expanding on it. Song lines later appear as song titles, while song titles often become the names of later albums. The songs themselves are often re-recorded, most notably European Jewel which has undergone countless revisions, while entire lyrics are recycled (‘Nancy Sings’, ‘John Plays Drums’ & ‘Birthday’ all feature identical words). The ‘Blue Corpse’ album even features three songs with the same chord progression.

Sometimes he would sound as if he were enjoying a jam with friends, often he would sound as if his entire world had fallen apart. And while the sound never deviates greatly from the blueprint set on ‘Ready For The House’, small progressions can be heard. Unidentified collaborators started to appear, most notably on ‘Nancy Sings’, the gorgeous melody sung by a female voice presumed to belong to a girl called Nancy.

Gradually Jandek moves from plucked notes to strummed chords, introducing a second, more conventional, guitarist who plays approximations of blues scales. Jandek himself tries his hand at other instruments like the harmonica, accordion and piano, though all are played in his own inimitable style. And as more collaborators appear the music becomes increasingly celebratory, with much of an album like ‘Telegraph Melts’ taken up with deranged, ritualistic duets between Jandek and an unnamed female. Then the collaborators disappeared. And eventually even the music disappeared as Jandek embarked on a trilogy of a-capella records in the early ’00s, truly disturbing documents which at times sounded similar to finding a stranger’s suicide message on an answerphone.

Was this where the Jandek story was destined to end? Though still very much an underground phenomenon, he had gathered numerous admirers, including Kurt Cobain, Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson, Beck and Simpsons creator Matt Groening. And Jandek’s influence had already spread further than his hermetic world would suggest. It’s there in Nirvana’s agonised primal scream, it’s there in the troubled naivety of Beat Happening, it’s there in the improv noise passages of Sonic Youth, it’s there in the spooked hillbilly warbling of Will Oldham and his many Palace guises.

Once again, the records kept coming, now with a deeper voiced Jandek often accompanying himself on double bass and quite often slurring his delivery. Increasingly, his subject matter seemed concerned with spiritual matters with song titles like ‘I Gave My Eternity’, ‘Angel Moves’ and lyrics such as ‘Can I catch you on your way to hell?’

Still the rumours continued to circulate. The occasional collaborators had been fellow patients in mental institutions. He works in a record pressing plant. He had had a relationship with the girl known as Nancy, their break-up resulting in the ‘Blue Corpse’ album. It was even suggested that he might be the second coming of Christ, returned to test peoples tolerance of all they found difficult to understand.

Who knows the truth? Only Jandek himself.

And so far he isn’t telling. In the one recorded interview, conducted by John Trubee for Op magazine in 1985, the man on the other end of the phone is lucid and articulate, putting paid to the many Idiot Savant rumours. There is, however, a comedy moment when the interviewee pauses for almost a minute when asked where he met the other musicians he collaborates with. Eventually he responds ‘I don’t think it would be appropriate to answer that question.’

As late as 1998 journalist Katy Vine tracked down a Houston native she presumed to be Jandek who agreed to go for a drink and answer her questions, though he also commented, perhaps disingenuously, that he wasn’t important to either Jandek or Corwood Industries.

In 2003 filmmakers Chad Freidrichs and Paul Fehler produced the ‘Jandek On Corwood’ documentary, providing some of the widest exposure Jandek’s music had yet received. That it managed to hold interest and provide insight into the workings of Jandek was no easy task considering there was no direct input from its central figure beyond the clips of his music which made up the soundtrack.

And then, shortly after the DVD release of ‘Jandek On Corwood’, the unthinkable happened. Jandek made his first public appearance, playing at Glasgow’s Instal festival in late 2004. At least as far as anyone knew it was Jandek’s first live performance. Of course there was always a chance that he had appeared unannounced and unrecognised in public before. And, this being Jandek, there was always the chance that the performer was not actually Jandek at all. Appearing unannounced, the musician on stage was confirmed only as ‘a representative from Corwood Industries’, although he bore a striking resemblance to the man pictured on the front of the record sleeves.

Tall and gaunt, the Corwood Industries representative played an hour-long set of new material with sympathetic and subtle backing from Alex Neilsen and Richard Youngs. Neilsen and Youngs were kept on board for two further UK appearances, this time announced before the event. Again, both shows consisted of previously unheard material, the second even finding Jandek abandoning his guitar in favour of a piano for a suite of meditative songs collectively known as ‘The Cell’.

The live activity continued throughout August and September 2005 when Jandek played a handful of US shows, now backed by pick-up groups of local musicians and again offering sets of entirely new material at each show. Of course, this public activity also prompted the vital question of whether the music could stand up without the mystery.

Certainly some of the more abstract sonic doodles resembled the leftovers on a Sebadoh album, but much of it has an eerie quality worthy of attention beyond the intrigue. After all, was there ever anything more to Jandek than the music itself?

His anonymity may attract the curious, but the curious will read the story, listen to ‘Ready For The House’ and then move on to something else. The curious don’t keep coming back to ever-expanding Corwood catalogue. And perhaps the real mystery is how Jandek has managed to keep his art so far apart from the rest of the music industry and all of its promotional gimmicks, sales figures and notions of hipness which dilute and diminish most other recording artists. Ultimately, all that’s left is all there was at the start; the records themselves, Jandek’s art presented in all purity, free from any embellishments.

By no stretch of the imagination can a Jandek record be described as easy listening, but get past the unusual tunings and unconventional notions of tonality and it’s some of the most rewarding music produced. The way ‘Nancy Sings’ evokes with such beauty the picture of fresh raindrops glistening from the twigs of twilight trees. The way ‘Om’ sounds like an order of Benedictine monks trying to communicate with the dead. The way ‘Your Other Man’ captures the spun-out sleepless torment of infidelity and isolation. The way a song like ‘Love, Love’ offers some kind of hope, a gentle encouragement to follow the one speck of light when all else is in darkness.

The lyrics too, always have a poetic quality which ranges from the painfully direct (‘I passed by the building where you live and I wanted to die’) to the beautifully oblique (‘It’s low tide and there’s diamonds in the ocean’) to the startling (‘I got a picture of a teenage daughter who’s growing up naked in the afternoon’) to the downright puzzling (‘give him my genitals in a paper cup’). Even the way the title ‘Ghost Town By The Sea’ sums up the desolate quality of much of his early work.

And, of course, the mystery isn’t quite solved yet. The live appearances and heightened release schedule (Jandek went from releasing roughly one album a year during the 90s to 4 full length recordings in 2004 alone) prompted rumours that the man known as Jandek may have retired from his day-job.

Maybe his recent high profile, relatively speaking of course, is his way of showing his appreciation to those who appreciate his art. Or he could be simply be offering us a tantalisingly brief glimpse of himself in the flesh before going to ground for good. But, chances are, he’s getting ready to release another record. On Corwood Industries. With a blurry photo on the cover and no information on the sleeve. And when that record is released, you know it won’t sound like anyone other than Jandek. Whoever Jandek may be…

Graeme Larmour

This article first was published at Halfcutpublications.com



Jandek links


Buy Jandek CDs at Amazon.com
A Guide to Jandek
Jandek on Corwood Documentary
Mystery man: Jandek
Jandek: The Great Disconnect
Jandek Mailinglist

Bookmark

Jandek - Chair Beside A Window

Jandek - Ready For The House

Jandek - Living In A Moon So Blue

Jandek - Shadow of Leaves

Jandek - I Threw You Away

Jandek - Foreign Keys

Jandek - Interstellar Discussion

Jandek - Later On

Jandek - London Tuesday

Jandek - Skirting The Edge

Jandek - The Rocks Crumble

Jandek - Your Turn To Fall

Jandek - The Humility of Pain