Sunday, September 28, 2008

Jandek on Corwood

I’ve been fascinated by Jandek for a few years now. I don’t remember how I heard about him (I wish I did), but he has been one of those musicians I’d been meaning to listen to for years. I never have, because tracking down his music isn’t exactly easy. And here’s why:

Jandek is the pseudonym for a solo musician (real name unknown) apparently based out of the Houston area. In 1978 he self-released his debut album (as “The Units”) and sent it to various music magazines. The album was a single man speak-singing whispery stream-of-consciousness lyrics that were painfully personal over an acoustic guitar that seemed to be wildly out of tune and was played with hard single string plucking style. It was met with confusion, no one really seeming to know what to make of it. Jandek found one review in Option magazine to apparently be encouraging enough. A couple years later, Jandek released his follow-up, now calling himself “Jandek” after receiving a cease-and-desist order from a San Francisco band named “The Units”. He has continued to release roughly two albums a year ever since, making him one of the most prolific musicians in modern music.

Jandek has done this while maintaining what may be the lowest profile in the history of music. He has only conducted two interviews (one of which involved having drinking with friends and refusing outright to discuss his music), the occasional written correspondence, his first live appearance was in 2003, an unannounced concert appearance, and he has only played live a handful of times since. Some of his album covers feature pictures of a tall thin man with blond hair, and this is assumed to be Jandek, though there is nothing to suggest that it is actually him besides the fact that this man appears on multiple covers. Even these very limited contacts are all conducted under the guise of contacting “a representative of Corwood Industries,” a man claiming to not actually be the musician Jandek.

Corwood Industries is a company that appears to only exist as a PO Box in Houston, TX, and the only thing is seems to do is release Jandek albums. Up until recent years, if you wanted to contact Jandek or purchase one of his albums, you had to write to Corwood’s PO Box. Unless you lived near a record store that improbably carried Jandek albums, you had to simply send money and a request for a specific album, and hope that Corwood would fulfill your request and mail an album to you. In this, the Internet age, fans have created music videos to post on Youtube and someone has even created a Myspace page for him. There are even a couple of online music retailers that will now fulfill your Jandek orders. These all appear to be fan-driven developments, as Jandek still seems to only be available via Corwood’s PO Box (the same box for 30 years – PO Box 15375, Houston, TX, 77020).

As I said, I’d been curious about Jandek for a while now, and recently found out that Chad Freidrichs had released a documentary about Jandek in 2003. Jandek on Corwood seemed like the perfect way to dip my toe in the mysterious Jandek pool. Here is the trailer for Jandek on Corwood:

Jandek on Corwood consists of two basic elements. There are the sections made up of interviews with musicians, music writers, DJs, record store and record label owners who are all Jandek fans discussing Jandek. The other element is simply montages of imagery set to Jandek’s music. This second element is handled beautifully. The images that creep across the screen are perfectly matched to Jandek’s intense, raw, minimalist music that seems to ooze a sort of decrepit, timeless Americana. It is like watching a beautiful, haunting, long-form art house music video. If you have any interest in hearing what Jandek sounds like, these sections of the film provide an amazing introduction to the listening experience.

The interviews, on the other hand, are odd at first. It is apparent that the people being interviewed are by no means objective. They are fervent Jandek fans. They acknowledge that the music isn’t traditionally beautiful, and many times isn’t even remotely entertaining to listen to. But they have obviously bought into the mystery that is Jandek, they revel in playing the guessing game of who Jandek is, what his life is like, where this music comes from. They expound on what makes his music brilliant and singular. They discuss the elements that make art, especially outsider art, high quality. They seem to be almost making a sales pitch for Jandek.

At first this is off-putting, but after listening to the music, it becomes apparent what is happening. This is not the music that can generate casual fans. The only people who could possibly sit down and discuss this music are the people who have bought so whole-heartedly into what Jandek is doing and what he is about. Anyone who hears this music will have one of two reactions. Either they will abandon it and forget about it forever, or they will be drawn in and left endlessly fascinated by it. There simply is no one out there who can speak objectively about Jandek, he is simply too polarizing. Ultimately, you’re given something akin to an indepth tour through the cult fanbase of this wildly idiosyncratic musician.

Now that I’ve seen the movie and heard the music, what is my take? Personally, I’m hooked. Jandek’s music is intense, filled with such raw intimacy that it is almost scary to listen to. It is like you’re listening to something you’re not meant to listen to. The music brings to mind visions of a broken, reclusive man spewing his deepest, barest, most honest thoughts and emotions alone in an empty room. One of the contributors to the film described Jandek’s music as a 30+ part, 25+ year suicide note. Everything is imbued with such heavy finality, that every note seems like it might be the man’s last. While the content of Jandek’s music may not be that dire (though sometimes it is), the concept of listening for years to something as intimate as a suicide note written by a total stranger is not far off in describing the experience of listening to such emotionally raw music.

For a documentary about a reclusive musician, I found myself actually being kind of scared by the end. Listening to this unbelievably haunting music, seeing these images of rotting Americana, listening to people speak so obsessively about this man who has rarely been seen, whom no one knows, I felt like this is something I should stay away from.

But it’s too late. I’ll be writing to Corwood Industries, PO Box 15375, Houston, TX, 77020 to request my catalogue.


Brad said...

This sounds too good, both the film and the music. Keep me posted on when or if you ever receive a catalogue or any albums.

Also, you should write more here.

Scott said...

I already mailed my catalogue request. I'll let you know when it comes.

And I write here plenty. The posts are there. Down there, shove your face in the grass. They're down there.