[Sidebar] September 30 - October 7, 1999
[Music Reviews]
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Mystery man

The Jandek story

by Douglas Wolk

The longest-running, weirdest, loneliest enigma in popular music is a guy from Texas who calls himself Jandek. His album The Beginning has just been released on the Corwood Industries label (Box 15375, Houston, Texas 77220), which has put out all 28 of his albums and nothing else that anyone knows of. It's been accompanied by a reissue of his very first album, Ready for the House, which originally came out in 1978 and was credited to the Units. (He's the only musician on it; all subsequent albums, and the reissue, are billed as Jandek.)

Jandek has never performed in public. He has never willingly given an interview, though a reporter from Texas Monthly tracked him down a few months ago (they chatted about allergies and gardening, and he politely told her that he never wanted to be contacted in person about Jandek by anybody again). All his albums have a fuzzy photograph on the front cover, of a man or part of a house or some curtains. The back covers have his name, the album title, the track titles and times, and Corwood's address, all typeset in the same nondescript font -- except for 1991's One Foot in the North, which uses a sort of Chinese-restaurant font. That's it: that's all anyone knows.

And what does his music sound like? Like pure desolation. Jandek is not just solo but profoundly alone on most of his recordings, picking distractedly at a guitar tuned to no particular notes, moaning in no particular key about thinking and love and wandering around and staying in the same place and God. Beyond that, there's just emptiness -- each off-key ping floats out separately into black space. Sometimes Jandek sounds as if he'd internalized the grimmest death-letter blues of the '20s and is pulling them back out of himself, thoroughly dismembered, hair by hair. His songs have no choruses, no hooks, no melodies, no rhythms, no internal progression, nothing but the inexorable Chinese-water-torture plod of Samuel Beckett's The Unnameable: "I can't go on, I'll go on."

Some people who hear Jandek think it's some kind of put-on -- but it's hard to imagine a joke's being maintained so scrupulously for more than 20 years of recording and releasing and the same post-office box. Most people simply find it unbearable: it's certainly monotonous and deeply unpretty and (for the most part) uncathartic and all but completely structureless. And then there are the people who can hardly stand to listen to anything else for days or weeks on end, who obsess over the mystery of Jandek. (I find myself sometimes in the second category and sometimes in the third.) Seth Tisue has set up www.cs.nwu.edu/~tisue/jandek/, which features an extensively annotated discography that tracks the nuances of Jandek's career, describing each album's themes and cover images. White Box Requiem, he notes, is "almost catatonically mopey and meandering . . . it's not like Blue Corpse, which is a record about emotional devastation with some perspective on it, not from totally inside it. Also different from the weird detachment and diffidence of Twelfth Apostle and Graven Image." Of one cover, he says, "This is one of those pictures that the photo lab gives you a refund on."

The rewards of obsession with Jandek are discovering the variations in his oeuvre's gray expanses that become, by comparison, as spectacular as cherry blossoms. On a few albums, a woman who might be named Nancy sings a bit (song title: "Nancy Sings"); occasionally, people wander in and play drums or another guitar, instruments that they don't seem to have encountered before. Sometimes Jandek plays mostly electric rather than acoustic guitar; 1992's Lost Cause includes a couple of pieces that are almost conventionally songlike, plus a 20-minute screeching blowout called "The Electric End."

And even though his work is essentially of a piece -- the despairing one-note-at-a-time meanderings of Ready for the House's "They Told Me About You" and The Beginning's "I Never Left You Anyway," released 21 years apart, might have come from the same afternoon's impulse -- each album has a distinct identity, and its own little shocks of revelation. The title track of The Beginning is a 15-minute improvisation on piano, an instrument Jandek's never essayed before, though it's as far out of tune as you'd imagine. And in many ways, Ready is the key to the rest of Jandek's work: he's used lines from its lyrics as later album titles (Staring at the Cellophane, Chair Beside a Window, Somebody in the Snow), re-recorded its "European Jewel" multiple times, and made the template for his career out of its bold, willful disposal of everything about songs but their need to exist and to be heard. Compared to "real" pop music, Jandek's songs are terrifyingly ugly; in the context of his decades of persistence, the range and mass of his work, they become intensely beautiful and meaningful. They are absolute, pure self-expression, an unfocused, unlit snapshot of his entire adult life. As he told the Texas Monthly reporter who asked him whether he wanted people to "get" what he was doing, "There's nothing to get."

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