by Annie Lin
Two weeks ago, I mailed an earnest handwritten letter and a check for eight dollars to a Houston post-office box that has for the last 28 years served as the sole link to the outside world for a reclusive Texas singer-songwriter called Jandek. One week later, I was disappointed but not surprsied to receive in the mail what everyone receives when they correspond with Jandek: the CD I purchased and a single, mimeographed sheet of paper cataloguing the Jandek albums available through Corwood Industries.
The artist known only as Jandek has released 34 albums of original music over the past 25 years, but never made a single public appearance or played a single live show until October 2004, when he played an unannounced live set at the Instal Festival in Glasgow, Scotland. After some speculation, fans concluded that the man onstage, who identified himself only as a representative of Corwood Industries, was the same man depicted in the Jandek album artwork. Jandek, now in his 40s or 50s, recently stepped quietly into the spotlight again for a series of live shows in Austin and New York. (A New Orleans date was also scheduled, but then cancelled due to Hurricane Katrina.)
"Jandek," of course, isn't the artist's real name, and though dedicated fans have determined that a man named Sterling R. Smith cashes the checks sent to the post-office box, no one knows for certain who Jandek is and whether Jandek really is Sterling R. Smith. In 1999, Texas Magazine writer Katy Vine tracked down the famously tight-lipped musician and shared a beer with him in an upscale Houston neighborhood. He spoke casually with her about the movies he liked and the food he enjoyed, but rebuffed her questions about his music and his identity with lengthy, often awkward moments of silence.
Lance Higdon, drummer of Houston-based experimental music outfit Tambersauro, considers himself a Jandek fan, as well as an amateur Jandek sleuth. He insists that Jandek's music should not be characterized as experimental music. Rather, Higdon says, it should be characterized as "outsider" music, because Jandek is operating outside of any notion of what music is.
"Jandek is music at ground zero. He is his only reference point. He is playing music in an autistic sense. He has his own way of codifying it," explained Higdon.
A Guide to Jandek
[Seth Tisue's meticulously researched site is an excellent source of information on Jandek]
Jandek on Corwood
[documentary directed by Chad Freidrichs]
P.O. Box 15375
Houston, TX. 77220
Jandek's music often sounds like absurdist beat poetry, recited tunelessly against the clang of a strident, out-of-tune guitar. At other times, it is a chorus of eerie, moaning voices trapped in some kind of purgatorial echo chamber. On one album, a mysterious woman sings sweetly against a gentle, off-key guitar strum. On another, a man sings a capella in the same plaintive, wispy voice that appears on other Jandek recordings. The voice reminds me of Austin outsider songwriter Daniel Johnston, except that Jandek's reed-thin vocals are less fey and more tortured than Johnston's vocals. Once in a while, Jandek sings with the off-key energy and angst associated with the early emo movement, but his vocal quirks are probably not deliberate. For the most part, Jandek's music is beyond comparison -- he has sounded like no one but himself since he released his first record, Ready for the House, in 1978.
Despite (and essentially because of) Jandek's efforts to avoid contact with the press, Jandek has drawn the attention of mainstream media. His appearance at the Manhattan Anthology Film Archives was reviewed in the New York Times by music writer Jon Pareles, who called Jandek's songs "anatomies of melancholy, spoke-sung in a wistful voice: a singsong that sometimes extended a word and deliberately defied whatever harmonies the music suggested." Jandek was also the subject of the 2003 documentary Jandek on Corwood, a sparse, evocative, and often beautiful 89 minutes of interviews, photo pans, and nature footage, playing against the soundtrack of Jandek's austere strum. When I rented the documentary, I marveled at director Chad Freidrich's ability to cobble together an entire film about a man who, after many years, remained an enigma.
Austin cellist Henna Chou watched the sold-out August 28th Jandek show at the Austin Scottish Rite Theatre from a front row seat. A gaunt-looking man took the stage in a black hat, dark blue shirt, black pants, and black shoes, looking the same as he did at the 2004 Instal Festival. Three young local musicians, bassist Juan Garcia, drummer Chris Cogburn, and drummer Nick Hennies, joined him. Hennies lives in Austin and is a member of the Weird Weeds and the Austin New Music Co-op. Cogburn also lives in Austin and has played with Dave Dove, Joe McPhee, and others. Garcia lives in Houston and plays improvised music.
One of the drummers used regular sticks, and the other switched from sticks to brushes and mallets and scratched a loose cymbal against the floor tom for extra noise. The songs each began slowly, as the artist tapped the open guitar strings one by one. The highest two strings were always slightly out of tune by a half step, or possibly less than a half step, and the guitar was jangly but not distorted. According to Chou, most of the songs were played at a 4/4 strum, and though it was clear that the drummers had rehearsed with the artist, the music still sounded improvised. One thing that surprised Chou about Jandek's performance was his intensity.
"Jandek never once looked into the audience during the performance," she said. "He seemed to be absorbed with the music."
Kristilyn Woods, a bassoonist and friend of drummer Garcia, was allowed to listen to, but not watch the rehearsal and sound check. She also watched the performance from the front row. According to Woods, the live tour was booked by two anonymous Scottish booking agents who have also booked major European music festivals. Woods notes that although the musicians had not rehearsed much before the show, the singer in black, who again asked that he only be identified as a Corwood representative, was very pleased with the performance.
Deflating some of the less savory Jandek theories that abound, Woods said, "He is a normal, humble man who happens to sing. He does like melody and has a great deal of respect for trained musicians. He is performing because he wants to perform. Very simple, really." END
POSTSCRIPT: Primarily out of curiousity, writer Annie Lin sent a copy of this article to Corwood Enterprises, curious if it'd elicit a response from the mystery man himself. Surprisingly, she got a response...and it doesn't make things even a teensy little bit less mysterious, but we thought it was pretty cool either way: