The Legend of Jandek
The second time I heard the name Jandek I was hanging out at a record store in Missoula, Montana and the owner was explaining the legend of Jandek to me. I love that his explanation remains just as thorough as any explanation anyone could have given me. And my explanation is about the same. Jandek is a persona who puts out music, at first records, now compact discs. The albums are released on the Corwood Industries label. As far as we know it, he is the only artist on this label. The P.O. Box for Corwood is in Houston, Texas, which leads most to believe that this is where the man behind Jandek resides. Jandek is prolific, having released over thirty records in the past thirty years. At first, Corwood sent boxes of LP’s to college radio stations. Most critics hated his music. Those who were interested in outsider art and music took notice though, and over the past three decades an underground following has grown steadily. Now Jandek includes rock stars among his fans.
Jandek has never done a confirmed interview, although it is believed that someone talked to him in the eighties and another person (may have) found him recently.1 Jandek did not perform in public until 2004 when he unexpectedly performed at a festival in Glasgow, Scotland. Even with this little contact with the public, nothing is known about his life or who he is.
The main reason that Jandek’s music did take off immediately is that it is widely considered unlistenable. Most critics describe it as out of tune, disturbed, jagged and irritating. The apparent lack of intonation in his singing and guitar playing quickly landed him in the outsider category. “Outsider art” is what it sounds like: art created by people who are outside of the larger networks of cultural production. Outsider artists have little, if any, knowledge of idiomatic artistic devices but somehow manage to make art that fits within the constructs of the respective art forms. As far as outsider musicians go, a list of the more famous would include The Shaggs, a band of sisters in the sixties who had no musical training, and Wesley Willis, a homeless man who suffered from schizophrenia. Willis traveled the country and played at open mic nights at bars. He was eventually taken under the wing of Jello Biafra and signed his Alternative Tentacles label. Willis’ exposure probably peaked when his song “Rock n’ Roll McDonalds” was featured in the fast food documentary “Super Size Me.” Outsiders are often plagued with developmental disabilities, social disorders or sheltered upbringings. For years it was easy to include Jandek in the outsider category because absolutely nothing was known about his life. Some of his lyrics sound as if they were written by a tormented individual, and that could represent some mental illness. But the real problem with calling Jandek an outsider musician is that there is no evidence as to whether he chooses or does not choose to act outside the boundaries of Western music composition or performance. Most outsider artists do not seem to know just exactly how outside they are.
The first evidence that Jandek does what he does very deliberately came in the eighties when a reviewer commented that Jandek did not know how to tune his guitar. The reviewer later received a reply in the mail from a Corwood representative (who may as well have been Jandek himself) that implied that Jandek did know how to tune his guitar; he just chose not to tune it in a standard way. This is not indicative of a guitarist who is doing his best with the little knowledge he has, but rather a guitarist who is less concerned with fitting in and more interested in exploring non-Western tunings and scales. His playing also shows influences of more avant-garde guitarists like Derek Bailey or Frank Zappa, hardly the typical tastes of an unintelligent uneducated outsider. The album You Walk Alone, published in the year 1988, shows Jandek in a different mode, complete with tuned guitar and idiomatic blues riffs. While still uniquely Jandek,You Walk Alone sounds less like atonal avant-garde music and more like the music of Velvet Underground or Jandek’s fellow Texan recluse, Roky Erikson. A close look at the lyrics of Jandek also shows something other than an outsider. They are surprisingly good.
But perhaps the most significant evidence that Jandek is in fact very much an insider lies in his recent string of live performances. According to rumors, each Jandek show has been a completely unique work of art with brand new songs that have never been performed and never will be performed again. For the most part, Jandek has hired the same two Scottish musicians to back him up at his shows, Richard Youngs on bass and Alex Nielson on drums. Richard Youngs is a bit of a pioneer in his own right; a member of the new Glasgow avant-garde scene, Youngs’ career spans from performance art to spoken word to noise rock. Some of his more mainstream albums (which isn’t saying much) are on the American indie rock label Jagjaguwar. Alex Neilson is a drummer of equal versatility. When not playing with Youngs, Neilson sometimes backs more mainstream artists like Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy or Isobel Campbell (formerly of Belle and Sebastian). Anyone who is into UK avant-garde music or noise knows Youngs and Neilson. By hiring these musicians, Jandek has shattered any label as an outsider. When these two have not played with Jandek, he has hired local pick-up bands depending on where his show has been. In Portland (and later Seattle) Jandek hired Sam Coomes from the band Quasi to play bass (Coomes was also in the band Heatmeiser with Elliot Smith), and Emil Amos of the instrumental rock band Grails to play drums. At a show in Chicago, Jandek later hired John McEntire of the band Tortoise to play drums. Jandek, at this point, has established that he knows what he is doing simply by his taste in side players alone. It was the line-up from the Portland show that I was fortunate enough to see in October at On The Boards in Seattle.
I entered the auditorium late and the ensemble was already in full swing. Jandek was in the dark. He wore all black and his wide brimmed hat covered his face in shadows. He played a black guitar laced with delay and reverb. It was difficult to see, but appeared as though he wasn’t using a conventional guitar pick as a plectrum, but with something with a more rough texture. My brother thinks that it was a shoe brush. To say that it sounded angular or haunting would be an understatement–his guitar playing sounded downright bloodcurdling. The uneasiness subsided as, like all of Jandek’s works, angular became entrancing and bloodcurdling gave way to comfort. One of the things that comforted me was the fact that we were seeing a completely unique piece of work. The songs that Jandek played in Seattle had never been played before and never will be played again. At one point Jandek made a reference to “walking down Queen Anne Ave.,” a street nearby the venue. It made me wonder about the baristas that might have served him that day. I also wondered if the band had rehearsed. It was entirely possible, given the improvisatory nature of the music, that they had not. I wondered how they had been hired, if Jandek had called them personally. They most likely had received a call from a “Corwood representative.” The highlight of the show was the drummer, Emil Amos. Amos’ convulsive style was a perfect match for Coomes’ overdriven Hendrix-esque bass riffs. And then there were the backup singers. Two young girls, one on each side of the stage sat in the shadows. Occasionally one would stand up and sing, sometimes both of them would. Sometimes one of the girls would duet with Jandek, sometimes Jandek would stand back and let the female vocalists solo. The girls sang in the same exact style that Jandek is known for, slightly atonal and without resolution. It was as if they were students of the Jandek school of music. The climax of the performance was a call and response piece between Jandek and the women, all over the foundation of Amos and Coomes’ freak out.
The aspect of the show that brought it all together, of course, was Jandek. His spidery tinkering was the constant throughout the most sedate ballads and the most spastic improvisations. If there is anything that Jandek is good at, it is tying music and words together with themes. In this particular show, Jandek’s jagged guitar lines were a thread that tied the whole performance together as a musical piece. Those lines were the primary themes, secondary themes, and transitional phrases of the symphony that was Jandek in Seattle. In one chorus, Jandek depicted the image of the shadow of a lantern swinging. I thought about how his guitar melodies supported his words or the image of him walking down Queen Anne Avenue in the rain.
It’s not only individual Jandek albums or performances which are thematically strong. His whole life is a unified work of art. His music, for example, is often a study in negative space. Like the music of Brian Eno, John Cage or Thelonius Monk, Jandek’s music is sometimes about the notes that are not being played more than the notes that are. Likewise, the covers of his records show Jandek in different settings and eras. He may be in front of a house or in the woods but the covers always keep the viewer staring at what may be just out of frame or the blank walls of his house. Just like his records and his pictures, Jandek himself is tangible negative space. The fact that I sit in bed at night and wonder about whether he has relatives or not and what he’s like at holidays is part of the artwork that is Jandek’s life. When I daydream about passing him in record store in Houston and if I would recognize him––that may be just as important as his music. The unseen is equal to the seen; the unheard is equal to the heard. As I left the auditorium that night I peaked around the corner to see if I might catch him smoking a cigarette.
I am by no means an expert on the subject of Jandek. I have six out of his 48 albums. I try to keep up with the news of his performances but updates to his Wikipedia entry are constantly being added. There are certainly people who have been following him for longer and who could quote to you reviews of every album, but what I do know about Jandek is that an artist who has been widely discussed as an outsider has proven to be an insider who chooses to be outside. I believe that Jandek knows what he’s doing and has always known what he’s doing. Maybe Jandek’s elusiveness was just a clever backdoor into the mainstream. Maybe he will decide to escape back into oblivion. Maybe we will find out who he is. Maybe he will continue to do exactly what he’s doing and will remain just as mysterious as he is now. I don’t know what the future holds for the legend of Jandek, but I’m guessing that guessing fits somewhere into his all-knowing plan.
1. As reported by Katy Vine, “Jandek and Me,” Texas Monthly, August 1999.http://web.archive.org/web/19991012225248/http://texasmonthly.com/mag/1999/aug/jandek.html