I listen to a lot of things that other people might not classify as music. Some of Frank Zappa’s stranger material, for example, has cleared many a room for me. I have a large collection of drone and noise artists that most people I know couldn’t stomach for more than a few minutes. Heck, a couple weeks ago I listened to all six hours of the Caretaker’s masterful artistic representation of dementia, and I would do it again.
But if someone asks me for the strangest music in my house, my go-to answer is Jandek. There are three reasons for this. First, the music is unlike anything else in the world. Second, there’s just an unimaginable amount of it, which means there is so much to talk about. And third, I love talking about Jandek. For nearly 15 years Jandek has fascinated me, befuddled me, surprised me and kept me enthralled.
I could talk about Jandek forever. And since I have my own music column and no one can stop me, I’m going to use the next several weeks to get down all my thoughts about the man and his music. I’ve wanted to do this for some time, and with the column ending later this year, it’s now or never. So welcome to Jandek 101, a series in which I will examine every one of Jandek’s 101 albums. (There may be more by the time I’m finished, but for right now, the catalog stands at 101, which is the perfect number.)
I’m not doing this out of some misguided attempt to get my readers (however many there are at this point) into Jandek. I don’t honestly expect that will happen, and the music critic in me would much rather you explore some of the other bands I’ve been championing, like Marillion or the Dear Hunter. I am doing this because this music has bewildered me for a decade and a half, and I’m hoping to explore the complex feelings I have about it. I have so many conflicting thoughts, and writing them down is a good way for me to work through them.
I get that this may not be interesting to anyone but me, and I’ll probably lose some of you until October. That’s OK. Jandek is certainly not for everyone, and a series of columns about Jandek probably won’t be either. But for those of you who do stick with it, I hope to do more than just talk about the music. Jandek makes me consider and reconsider my whole idea about what art is, and why we make it. Deep down, I have some serious admiration for the man behind this project, and I’m hopeful that over the course of this series I can articulate why.
So, question one. Who or what is Jandek?
The basics are easy, and yet complicated at the same time. It’s generally accepted that the man behind the Jandek project – the man who appears on most of the album covers – is named Sterling Richard Smith, and he lives in Houston, Texas. I say this is generally accepted because he’s never explicitly confirmed it. Smith zealously guards his privacy, preferring to refer to himself as a representative of Corwood Industries, the record label that has been releasing Jandek music since 1978. So that’s how I will refer to him here from now on. (Jandek, by the way, refers to the project and everyone who plays on it, not just the Rep, even though he is the central presence.)
There have always been two aspects to Jandek: the music and the mystery. I plan to spend a long time talking about the music, so I’ll explore the mystery a bit here. But I guess I would start by saying that I don’t really think Jandek is meant to be mysterious. In a society where people make music mainly to be heard and to be famous, when someone creates strange, lonely art for decades and basically refuses to talk about it, we call that mysterious. But I think to the man behind it, the music itself is pretty straightforward and doesn’t need explaining.
Jandek, for a long time, was a secret even fewer people knew about. Between 1978 and 2004, Corwood Industries released 40 full-length Jandek albums, and the only way to get one was to write a letter and send a check to a post office box in Houston. Writing the post office box was also the only way you could get the typewritten catalog to even know what albums were available. If you were lucky, you’d get a terse handwritten note back. If you were really lucky, you’d get a box of vinyl albums with a request to hand them out, as a way of spreading the word.
The Representative from Corwood has only given a couple interviews: two in the ‘80s, one in the ‘90s to a reporter who tracked him down, and one for a cover story in The Wire in 2014. While the information in these interviews has been gladly accepted by fans, people who know Jandek appreciate and respect the Rep’s desire for privacy. That’s how we ended up with Jandek on Corwood in 2004, the first and only documentary about a living subject I can think of in which that subject does not appear. (The Rep declined to participate, but gave his blessing and suggested some folks to talk to. It was this documentary that first piqued my interest about the man and the music.)
All of this, plus the fact that Jandek albums contain next to no information – only the album title, track listing and copyright date, no hint about who plays what – led to the theory that the Rep was some kind of recluse, or perhaps mentally ill. But in 2004, after more than 25 years in the shadows, the Rep appeared on stage for the first time in Glasgow, playing an unannounced set at the Instal Festival. He was never referred to as Jandek, but for those who know the music, it was obvious. The man on the record covers was there, singing, and beginning his 16-years-and-counting retort to the rumors that surrounded him.
This is why I say the music is more important than the mystery, and I’ll certainly touch on that as we go. The Rep has continued to play live, performing more than 130 times around the world, and each show is wildly different, usually featuring local musicians he’s never met. It’s in many ways the ultimate act of anti-reclusive artistic collaboration – he’s still a private person, but has opened his very personal art up to as many co-conspirators as he possibly can. He’s even appeared in a documentary, I Know You Well, which shows us how these shows come together and gives us lots of face time with the Rep, talking about music.
Quite a lot of Jandek afficionados have become less interested in the music as the mystery has evaporated. But I think the music has always been the point, and this careful dismantling of the wall between artist and audience – hell, he even has a website now – puts the focus on that music. So what is the music like?
That’s the most difficult question, isn’t it? It’s one I hope to explore in depth over the next several weeks. It’s also wrapped up in why I find Jandek so fascinating. By the usual standards, the Rep is not a good musician. He plays guitar, bass, piano, keyboard, drums and harmonica, and he does all of these things without exhibiting any skill at any of them. I say that not to be harsh – by the standards of proficiency we’ve been trained to expect, the Rep cannot play any of those instruments. His voice, similarly, is untrained, to put it kindly. If he has any true compositional skill, I’ve not heard it. His music is improvised, mainly on one or two instruments that are often in atonal tunings, with his trademark impassioned howling over it. None of it sounds like we’ve been trained to believe music ought to.
I’ve certainly questioned whether Jandek’s 40-plus-year career is a sustained musical prank. But I’ve come to realize that the Rep is as serious about what he does as anyone else I can name. I’ve often talked about the inverse relationship between skill and impact, and that deeply applies here. This music is all impact. And if you immerse yourself in it for any length of time, it’s the rest of the world that starts to sound wrong. The beauty of the intent starts to come out, too.
I’ve described Jandek music as the loneliest sound in the world, and even when the Rep surrounds himself with other people (who are much more skilled than he is), he somehow manages to capture that feeling, that desolation, that despair. I think Jandek music is largely about conveying that emotion, with no barriers. (There are other emotions too, some of them more fun, but we’ll get to that.)
And this is why I say I admire the Rep. He’s carved out a four-decade-and-counting career through sheer force of will. He decided in 1978 that he was going to be a musician, he tailored the music he makes to his own limited skill set, and he pressed on when others would have stopped. He created his own world, and somehow convinced other people to live in it. Rather than learn to play guitar, he bent the universe to his will – he still plays the same way, with the same random strumming and atonal tunings, only now he travels the world and does it in front of people. And did I mention he has made and released 101 albums?
It is that sheer commitment to a musical vision, even one this strange, that I admire. And as you’ll see, Jandek has become one of the most unpredictable, daring and artistically restless music-makers that I am aware of. The Rep is constantly putting himself into unfamiliar situations, testing how the music he makes might be molded into different shapes. There’s a bravery to that, and I respect it. I’ve seen him perform live once, in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 2008, and that show – which featured a harpsichord player, a trumpeter and a dancer who occasionally added wordless vocals – remains unique not only among my own concert-going experiences, but among Jandek shows as well.
It’s that surprise factor that keeps me coming back. In this age of internet publicity, I tend to know a lot about every album I buy. It’s not uncommon for me to know the track listing, song lengths, producers, songwriters and guest musicians, have seen the cover art and have heard at least one song before plunking down my cash. Not so with Jandek. When a new album appears unannounced at the bottom of the list on the website, I still get a bit of a thrill, and until it arrives and I play it, I know nothing about what it is, how long it is or how it sounds. There will have been no advance reviews, and I will not know what to expect. That’s exciting for me, and very rare.
All of this adds up to a bit of an obsession for me, and I hope over the following few columns I can explain more about what fascinates me. I haven’t even talked about the album covers, a gallery-worthy collection of Kodak moments and portraits of furniture. The aesthetic is like nothing else, and he’s stuck to it for more than 40 years. I could go on, and I will, next week. I hope this is of interest to some of you, because I plan to enjoy myself. If not, I’ll meet you again in October.
Next week, the first 20 Jandek albums.
See you in line Tuesday morning.