Authored by Dale Nickey:
Soundscapes for enhanced interrogation…..
Jandek is a cipher. Less so now that he is performing live and has actually spoken and shown his face in public. But from 1978 to 2004 there wasn’t a more remote, iconoclastic and disturbing outside artist than Jandek. You won’t find his records at your local record shop or your local thrift shop. Jandek has released over 70 full length titles. The majority are vinyl LP’s. Jandek persists with this enormously expensive enterprise despite next to zero sales, zero media exposure and the total absence of a promotional campaign. He also declines all interview requests. Somewhere there is a warehouse in Houston TX. full of un-sold and un-loved Jandek product. A trove that continues to grow with each passing year.
If Wild Man Fischer is the Godfather of Outsider Music then Jandek may well be the provisional King. Jandek gives Elvis a run for his money in the sheer volume of his recorded output. The bulk of Jandek’s early period follows a static template. Dissonant and distracted guitar scrapings act as accompaniment to primal, atonal vocalizing that vacillates between a moaning, grumbling monotone and a dyspeptic animal howl. Lyrics are the most cogent aspect to Jandek’s artistry whose closest antecedent is delta blues or the rural folk of “old weird America’ as chronicled in the “Harry Smith Anthology”. Much of his singing is unintelligible. If you do acquire a Jandek record, don’t bother trying to figure out such mundane details as production credits, backing musicians, lyrics, or even the locale of the recording. All you get is a grainy photo on front and a song list on the back. The cover photos carry the colorless, furtive ambiance of 1940’s porn stills.
The closet-full of individuals who can claim the sobriquet “Jandek expert” generally point to his 1987 LP “Blue Corpse” as his er…um…masterpiece? It is certainly representative of the Jandek’s aesthetic; dry, lo-fi, atonal, depressing, disturbing and perplexing. Imagine a field recording in a padded cell located in a remote rundown mental facility in rural Pennsylvania. That’s the aesthetic of “Blue Corpse” and Jandek’s early recorded output .
My “Blue Corpse” experience was fairly harrowing. After finding the album posted on Youtube, there were three aborted attempts to listen to the album all the way through. The fourth attempt, I put on my head phones and laid back in my recliner where I usually sleep. I turned the volume down and drifted off to sleep. Bad move. I remember awaking with the album still playing in my head, but my condition was one of intense psychic nausea. Removing the headphones brought immediate relief from the intense, existential anxiety I was experiencing. WARNING, do not give Jandek’s music access to the portals leading directly to your synaptic matrix. You do not want Jandek’s muse incubating in there.
True Jandek scholarship will likely never be attained due to the fact that few people have listened to his entire discography. The music over the course of an entire album can drive you insane. But, make no mistake, there is an artist to be found somewhere in this stark wasteland. A look at his album and song titles indicate something is clearly happening even if we don’t know what it is….
My own personal adventure with Jandek – who is only referred to as a representative of Corwood Industries – began when I read the excellent book “Songs In the Key Of Z” by Irwin Chusid. Mr. Chusid wrote a letter to Jandek requesting more information about the artist and his work. After some halting communications with Corwood Industries, he did receive a 25 count box of one of Jandek’s vinyl LP’s. Corwood Industries P.O. Box was listed in the book, I couldn’t resist writing to Corwood Industries requesting a review copy of any CD Jandek might want to promote. In return I received two double DVD live sets and a double CD titled “Maze Of The Phantom” issued in 2012. In true Jandekian fashion, no CD inserts or artwork was included. And, enclosed was brief handwritten note stating that no artwork was available unless ordered through the Corwood Industries catalog. A trip to the online Corwood Industries page revealed only the P.O. box address and an austere list of titles with year of issue and catalog numbers. No bio, no artwork, no mission statement, no contact info, no nothing……
The headline is, “Maze Of The Phantom” is quite…..good. Surprisingly good in the sense that it is listenable and has pleasant aspects that fall into the category most people would call music. It would seem Jandek’s muse has evolved and the artist has chosen to walk in the light rather than writhe and crawl in darkness. Jandek’s main tool of expression is now an electronic keyboard. His modal meanderings have been compared to Erik Satie and veer into the somewhat conventional genre some would call Ambient. Of course the enigmatic card is still played in the form of numbered song titles. “Number One”, “Number Two”, etc……There are other instruments in attendance – strings, bass, guitar, percussion – but, it’s unclear whether they are Jandek overdubbing or using outside players. Recent live DVD’s suggest that he is working with other musicians. The pieces are long and non-figurative. Abstract tone poems that only occasionally feature vocals. A female vocalist does appear and improvises some pleasing and adventurous scatting in a faux Arabic style. To hear something of this quality does deflate some of the menace and mystique of Jandek. However, if the representative of Corwood Industries possesses any artistic self-awareness (and I suspect he does), he knows that mind-altering tedium might be an intriguing anti-statement over the course of nine-albums, but staying that course over 70 would be worse than self parody, it would be an artistic joke told too many times.
In the end, Jandek is necessary to the cornucopia of sound that we call music. Just as the bat or housefly is necessary to the ecosystem of nature. Beauty cannot exist without ugliness to define it. Death defines life. Viewing the Dung-Beetle does not immediately give one the visceral sensation of viewing beauty. But put it under the microscope, and view the intricate substructure without perceptual baggage, and you’ll be struck by the wonder of it all. Jandek and Donny Osmond are as necessary to the art form of music as The Rolling Stones or Bach. Having extreme artists at opposite poles, pushing out the margins farther and farther expands and enriches the center where most people tune in. Artists like Jandek help us define what music is….and what it isn’t.