Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Facts and Speculations about Jandek

The following excerpt is from Facts and Speculations about Jandek by Ben Shakey. It will be published by Brooklyn Wednesday Books in May 2009

The Facts

In 1978 an independent label called Corwood Industries released a record album attributed to Jandek and titled Ready For The House. Independent label may overstate the operation by connoting a grandeur that does not apply. Jandek is the only artist signed to the label and, although I have no numbers to back this up, the print runs of Jandek albums must be very small. If you write to Corwood Industries for a catalogue the company mails a single sheet of paper with a list of typewriter written Jandek albums.

Since then Corwood Industries released 55 Jandek records. This is roughly one every 6 months. By the time you read this the number is closer to 57 or 58. Maybe even 60.

Corwood Industries presses a few albums every year and places ads in music magazines that read “Jandek on Corwood P.O. Box 15375 Houston TX 7702”. That’s all. No graphics, logos, or ad copy. A few brave souls order the records and receive Jandek albums of clanging guitar noises and solipsist and somewhat disturbing lyrics.

The music is very hard to describe. Applicable words would be atonal, weird, haunting, cryptic, and according to many, unlistenable. Jandek strums on what is either an out of tune guitar or a guitar with some other tuning that he has devised on his own. On some tracks there are drums. On other albums there are no instruments for several songs; just a single voice singing into a tape recorder in a quiet room. Jandek’s lyrics are troublingly opaque. I once saw a book of collected suicide notes and the most striking similarity of the letters were how the writers all felt these letters explained everything when they actually left the readers struggling for answers. Jandek’s lyrics have the same worrying effect. They express a great deal of emotional anxiety but with absolutely no context or insight into what is causing this. To top it off, these removed yet disquieting words are delivered by a young man’s voice that may have been unnaturally aged by dire circumstances and/or lifestyle choices.

How confusing would it be to receive this in the mail, unseen, and then place it on a turn table?

Somehow, over the years Jandek developed a small audience. Somewhat smaller than a cult audience and a little larger than a local book club. His music couldn’t be more outsider and easier to dismiss yet a few people have tried to contact only to be him shunned. Almost nothing is known about him other than the photos of a red haired man that appears in some of his album covers.

Fans uncovered that he is most likely named Sterling Smith as that name endorses the cheques sent to his PO Box. He has only granted 2 interviews in 30 years and one of these was to a journalist that followed him to his house and even then he would not admit to being Jandek but only that he was an employee of Corwood Industries.

In 2004, he started to perform live but still wouldn’t come clean about being Jandek in contracts, posters, or even introductions to the stage. Instead he referred to himself as a representative sent by Corwood Industries.

These are the facts.

The Speculations

I once saw this play where a guy bought a blank canvas for a great deal of money because it was modern art. The play followed the reactions of his friends to the work of art. Because this was a blank canvas, they projected anything they wanted on to it. This is how I feel about Jandek. He is the only musicians I can listen to without placing any projections onto him. Other musicians cause me to react to their fashion, their clothes, their politics, their esthetics.

Maybe I would like Kanye West if he didn’t annoy me with acceptance speeches. Maybe I couldn’t even pay attention to Elvis Costello songs if he was covered head to toe in distracting, stomach - turning lesions. I’ll never know.

I don’t have this problem with Jandek as I know nothing about him. The best thing I can say about Jandek’s art is that it is unsettling but if I were forced to give a traditional record review I would have to give all 55 records a thumbs down, or 2 stars, or a trash it, or generally call it an unenjoyable experience. However, this decision isn’t informed by his haircut or his view on gay marriage or some movement / revival / scene that he is part of.

All I can hear is the music and try to speculate on who he is. These are some of my favorite speculations so far.

#1 – Extreme Therapy

One theory is that the music is actually part of a treatment to deal with a form of mental illness or as part of an addiction rehab program. It seems like a possible explanation. I wrote to Corwoord Industuries for a catalogue and received a reply with some notes from a representative of the company scrawled in the margins. I am not big on hand writing analysis but this block printing seemed to be saying something or was written with a non dominant hand to disguise regular handwriting. Putting out albums every 6 months with no audience and no promotion could easily be seen as the result of a disorder that might require therapy. If this is an act of therapeutic art, it doesn’t seem to be working. The music keeps coming and any changes or development in style or subject matters happen at a glacial pace. There is no cathartic breakthrough. If anything the music is growing bleaker and bleaker.

#2 – Celebrity seeking anonymity

In the 1980’s Stephen King released a series of books under the name of Richard Bachman as an experiment to see if he could recapture any of his earlier success without his powerful brand name attached to it. Imagine if Jandek is the work of a very successful mainstream artist trying to see if his / her art was a viable form of expression with out yes men, promotions, and commercial necessity propping it up. What if Corwood Industries was a division of Dan Akroyd’s production company? What if the representative that Corwood Industries sent to perform at indie music festivals delivered the songs of Danielle Steele? What if J.D. Salinger isn’t as silent as we thought? What if Jandek was a glimpse into the soul of Tony Danza?

#3 – Money Laundering Scheme / Front for illegal business

The goal of money laundering schemes is too look as unapproachable as possible. I once wandered into beat up used bookstore that was clearly some kind of a front once in the door. There must have been 50 guys in the back room when this place could barely afford to employ a staff of one. A rough looking man came out looking very annoyed that I was there and told me that all paperbacks in this store cost $10 each. I was sure he would have raised the price higher until I left. (if I stayed longer) Nick Tosches wrote an article that included the tale of a gangster’s front located in the legendary Brill Building where a young songwriter wandered in and wound up delivering them a hit record. So sometimes fronts fail and attract rather than repel customers. Drug dealers, gangsters, etc. have lots of street smarts but they could easily underestimate the need of hipsters to search out and listen to obscure music that nobody else knows of.

#4 – Coded Spy Messages

Spies send messages through all sorts of unconventional methods. Sometimes short wave radios in London will pick up static broadcasts of people reading lists of nouns and other random words. The British government recently admitted that these were spies broadcasting. Other spies send messages through classified ads, invoices, flashing lights, and even smoke signals from cigarettes. If there is a spy out there with a decoder ring that can decipher lyrics like “Don’t burn golden eagles just to feel sublime” or “Don’t got no synthetic fibers, no foil products” I would certainly like access to it. I just hope that none of the messages have resulted in assassinations.

#5 – Alien

Have you ever read “The Man Who Fell to Earth” by Walter Trevis? It’s about an alien. The nearly last of his kind that comes to earth, becomes addicted to gin, and records strange jazz albums so that they can be played on the radio and broadcast on invisible waves that will eventually carry the sounds back to his home. The alien is so frail and venerable that moving up a floor in an elevator will snap his fragile bird like bones. He is androgynous and detached from all human emotion because, well, he is not human. See the movie adaptation where the alien is played by androgynous and detached David Bowie and suddenly it doesn’t seem impossible. Listen to Jandek and suddenly it doesn’t seem implausible. In fact, when listening to Jandek the only thing this that doesn’t seem implausible about an alien recording jazz music to contact his home planet via radio waves is not the extra terrestrial part but the getting radio play part

#6 – Very Clever Artist

The most cynical response to Jandek is that all of this is orchestrated in order to create a legend. There are thousands of people trying to get famous. Shouting as loud as they can to be heard. Watch a Shot of Love with Tia Tequila or whatever degrading reality show is successful in the particular 6 month cycle that you are reading this in and see what I mean. Sometime the only way to make people listen is to whisper. If Jandek gave more interviews would I even take the time to try and listen to him? Other artists give endless interviews to promote their work. There are so many promotional interviews that all the art is lost in the white noise of the entertainment industry. I have heard enough interviews, reviews, and commentary on the new Coldplay CD that I am tired of it and it’s new direction and it’s radical departure and blah,blah, blah and I haven’t even heard it. I don’t think that this music is any less personal and expressive but what are the odds of me sitting down and listening to the new Coldplay and thinking about it enough that I would come up with theories about aliens, or spies, or Tony Danza. Nil. That’s the odds. Maybe Jandek is shrewd enough to know that I will listen intently if I am I aware that this all that he going to tell me.

No comments:

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.