So I’m old.
Next Thursday, I will be 34. I sort of set milestones in my life by the famous people I’ve outlived, and on Tuesday, I will have outlived Jesus. (At least, in his human incarnation, and depending on who you ask.) It was strange enough passing Jimi Hendrix, but now I’ve outlived the son of God, apparently.
If not for my big-kid lifestyle – I write for a living, I eat sugary cereals, I still spend an unhealthy percentage of my annual income on music and comic books – I would feel creaky and ancient. Some days I do anyway, and it takes longer to dust the cobwebs off and get rolling in the morning. You certainly won’t find me staying up too late, and it’s been a while since I slept in a train station, or got kicked out of Denny’s. I have a semi-respectable, semi-adult life, and I’m not sure how it happened.
But every once in a while, I try to convince myself I’m not quite mummified just yet by taking on an adventure. Granted, these are small-scale adventures, nothing like the ones the withered corpse of Indiana Jones tackles in that godawful new movie. But they’re adventures nonetheless, and I’m happy that occasionally, I still have the impulsive nature and energy of my younger self.
Twice in the last two weeks, I’ve driven long distances to see concerts in cities I’ve never been to. And since both involve music, I figure they’re fair game for this column. So let me tell you about them.
First, I trekked four hours or so to see Jandek in Ann Arbor, Michigan. At some point, I’m going to have to devote a column or two to Jandek, who has been the most fascinating enigma in music for the last 30 years. I first got into him by watching the amazing Jandek on Corwood documentary. Jandek released his first album in 1978, and the documentary came out in 2004. Between those two dates, the man never played live, and only gave one confirmable interview, while releasing about 40 albums.
That’s right, 40 albums. Four years later, he’s up to 53.
This appeals to my collector’s nature something fierce, and to my sense of the bizarre in music. I’m always looking for a good story, and for a sound I’ve never heard before, and Jandek provides both. His music, such as it is, will also make all but the most tolerant and open-minded music fans run for the door, and even those people will have a hard time explaining or justifying what he does as any kind of art. Nothing in his 53-album catalog adequately answers the question of whether he’s just putting everyone on, playing a massive art-school prank. Only the sheer size of the catalog and the 30-year commitment to this sound and vision make an effective counter-argument.
Here is how I describe Jandek to people. Imagine you are six years old. Your mom gives you an acoustic guitar for Christmas, and you pick it up for the first time, failing to tune it, and strum a few non-chords. Do that for a while, randomly, and atonally moan some lyrics over it, and if you’re the average six-year-old, you’ll think you’ve written a song.
Now imagine you’re 65 years old, angry and bitter about your life. You’re still playing guitar and moaning over it, but you haven’t gotten any better at it since you were six. You’ve just learned how to randomly pluck strings a little more adeptly. That’s Jandek. He plays ghostly, improvised death-blues about how terrible his life has become, and he does it over and over and over again.
Of course, no one would listen to Jandek if that were all he offered, but that’s only part of the story. Here’s the thing – I don’t know how he does it, but Jandek’s music most often strikes me as the loneliest sound in the world. It’s a gaping black hole of despair, the soundtrack for the minutes before death, a chilling existential vacuum with no light, no joy whatsoever. And for me, that’s captivating. I’ve talked before about the inverse relationship between musical skill and emotional impact. Jandek is all impact, because he has no skill. In the absence of any melody, any structure, any real music, what you get is a direct line to the man’s black soul.
In 1978, the Representative from Corwood Industries, as he likes to be known, released Ready for the House under the name The Units. From all indications, the man who would soon be Jandek had not quite figured out yet that he could use his left hand to change the pitch of the strings on his guitar. It’s atonal, untuned open chord strumming for 45 minutes, with spectral moaning on top. And it’s mesmerizing, if you have the patience for it. Jandek then released another six albums of the same stuff before diverging off into random garage-punk for a while, finally returning to his acoustic meanderings with 1993’s Twelfth Apostle.
The twists and turns of the Jandek catalog are many, although each is intangibly identifiable as the work of the Corwood rep. (Every one of the man’s 53 records so far has been self-released, on his own Corwood label.) He’s done spoken-word records, he’s played the electric guitar, the bass, the fretless bass, and the piano, all of them pretty much the same way – a searching, plunking, random quest for feeling and vibe, not notes or chords. Each album is its own endurance test, but taken as a whole, the pre-2004 catalog is a marathon of frayed nerves and tested patience. It’s also kind of awesome.
Then, in 2004, Jandek did something his (small) legion of fans never expected – he played live. He showed up at the Instal Festival in Glasgow, unannounced, and tore through a 60-minute set of new (meaning made up on the spot) material with a bassist and a drummer. Many couldn’t believe it was actually Jandek, but soon Corwood released the Glasgow Sunday CD and DVD, proving it. Since then, he’s played live about 35 times, in random places around the world, and seven of those shows so far are available to buy.
They’re all strikingly different, both from each other and from the catalog as a whole. On Glasgow Monday, Jandek plays piano while that same bassist and drummer provide coloring – the concert is a single piece called “The Cell,” with a running lyrical theme. He does the same on Manhattan Tuesday, playing an electric keyboard while a guitarist, a drummer and a bassist add atmosphere. That 90-minute piece is called “Afternoon of Insensitivity,” and is my favorite Jandek album right now.
So you never know what to expect from a Jandek show. Sometimes he plays the guitar, sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes there are other musicians, and sometimes he goes it alone. In fact, sometimes there are lyrics, and sometimes there aren’t. Every show is made up on the night, so it’s all new material. Jandek has continued to release studio albums, solo recordings with him on guitar or bass, but these pale in comparison to the live records – they’re in monochrome, while the live records are in full, surprising color.
I had no idea what I would get from my first Jandek live experience. The concert took place at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater on the University of Michigan campus – it holds about 600 people, and it was full at the start of the show. The curtain rose, and there was the Rep himself, thin and gaunt, dressed all in black with his trademark black hat, and playing a fretless bass. He was accompanied by a harpsichord player, a trumpeter, and an interpretive dancer, who really only added an air of bullshit pretentiousness to the whole thing. The show was two hours long, and the band played 10 new songs.
So, okay, I have to start here. In the history of bass playing, no one in the world has ever played bass like Jandek does. His right hand is perpetually curled into a claw shape, and he just… whacks at it. Randomly, with no rhyme or reason. Just hits the strings with his curled fingers, while his left hand moves as if possessed up and down the neck. He wasn’t playing anything in particular, just looking for a vibe, and the other musicians had to keep up – the only way they knew a song had ended, for instance, was to listen for when Jandek stopped playing.
The other musicians were terrific. The harpsichord player went for random accents, mostly on the low end, to keep the eerie atmosphere, while the trumpeter played long, mournful notes, as if accompanying a funeral at sea. The dancer occasionally added wordless backing vocals, and they truly added to the feel of the show. The songs were about loneliness, alcohol and death, of course – Jandek’s first line was, “I’m just a piece of trash,” delivered in his guttural, atonal moan. He kept his vocals low and spooky throughout, and the overall effect was hypnotic.
Not for everyone, of course. Between every song, 20 or 30 people would get up and leave – the show was free, after all, and many attended out of curiosity, only to be met by turgid, difficult, lengthy music with seemingly no purpose behind it. I had to laugh when, in the ninth song or so, Jandek came out with this line: “You’ve all been bamboozled. It doesn’t mean anything.” He could have been talking right to the audience, and I think just about everyone missed it.
Does it mean anything? Is Jandek playing the longest, most sustained practical joke in music history? Or is this just how music sounds to him? The man can’t play, in the traditional sense, and he can’t sing either. But in the world of Jandek, these things don’t matter – in fact, skill is an impediment, a drawback. One of my favorite moments of the Jandek on Corwood documentary is when music critic Gary “Pig” Gold compares Jandek’s playing to Eric Clapton’s. He concludes by saying Clapton couldn’t play the way Jandek does.
“I love Eric Clapton,” he says. “But he’s no Jandek.”
I have come to think that this is no prank, no put-on. What you hear when you listen to Jandek is a distillation of how music sounds to him. I think this partially because 30 years is an awfully long time to pretend to be anything you’re not. But I also think this because his sound has remained oddly consistent. If you do anything for 30 years, you’re bound to get better at it, but for all appearances, Jandek hasn’t. I think a lot of what people take as ineptness is actually on purpose, a carefully defined yet chaotic noise.
I could be dead wrong, of course, but there was one small detail of the Ann Arbor show that convinced me I’m not. As Jandek played his rumbling, random bass lines, beholden to no key or time signature, his right foot tapped along in perfect 4/4 time, as if he were counting it out. The tapping had nothing to do with what was coming out of his amp, but there it was, and this small detail has convinced me that the noise he creates makes perfect sense to his ears. That makes it worth the effort to make it make sense to mine.
In about two years, give or take, I’ll be able to experience this show again when it comes out on CD and DVD. I’m sure there will be more than a dozen other Jandek albums in between, and many more afterwards. I’m on board as long as he wants to keep pumping them out. Would I recommend his work to anyone else? Probably not, unless you have a strong stomach for atonality and black, inky despair. But I’m hooked. Baffled, puzzled and flabbergasted, but hooked.
Should you want to try Jandek’s stuff, the best place to start is Seth Tisue’s site here. The Rep has no site of his own, and you can only get his work from him through the mail, by writing the same Houston post office box he’s maintained for 30 years. Some stores carry Jandek albums, but not many.
I owe a special thanks to longtime correspondent and friend Erin Kennedy, whom I finally met on my Ann Arbor trip. She graciously offered her floor for me to sleep on, so I wouldn’t have to drive back four hours in the rain. Her apartment is just a little bit smaller than this room I’m in now, typing this, so I’m grateful she offered the small amount of space she has. Thanks, E. Meeting you was fun.
Next week is my birthday week, but instead of taking a hiatus, I’m going to give you the second of my two adventure stories, involving an old friend and a band who hadn’t played in 10 years. After that, we’ll have reviews of Weezer, Aimee Mann, Sloan, Supergrass, Coldplay and many others. Thanks for sticking around and indulging an old man.
See you in line Tuesday morning.