Editor's note: As befitting a man of mystery, Jandek canceled his scheduled June 14 show at Mississippi Studios just before press time. (The headliner, Willis Earl Beal, will still play.) Regardless, we present this history of the time Jandek actually made it to town.
Emil Amos didn't know what he was signing up for. Or, rather, he couldn't know.
"Ethan Swann, the guy working the desk was like, 'Can I ask you a question?'" says the musician, recalling the day in 2006 when he walked into Jackpot Records in downtown Portland and was made an offer that, mysterious as it was, he couldn't refuse. "He was entirely vague and went on for about 10 minutes about a festival that was coming up. Eventually, he said there was an entertainer he couldn't name coming to town, and he wanted to see if I would play drums for him."
The contract had to be signed immediately. Amos, who played in the bands Grails and Holy Sons, tried lobbing some questions at the clerk, and somehow convinced himself of the musician's identity: Jandek, the Houston recluse whose self-produced, self-released records of avant-garde folk are treasured among a specific set of underground music fans.
At the time, it had been less than two years since Jandek's first-known public performance, at the 2004 Instal Festival in Glasgow, Scotland, since he began releasing music in 1978. In that time, Jandek managed to put out dozens of strange, meandering albums, under his own Corwood Industries imprint, while granting only three interviews and never allowing himself to be properly photographed. The show, scheduled for the Hollywood Theatre, would not only be his first in Portland, but his first on the West Coast.
Amos signed the papers.
No one who showed up at the Hollywood on April 4, 2006, really knew what to expect—the band included. Amos was joined by Quasi's Sam Coomes, Grouper's Liz Harris and vocalist Jessica Dennison, and their only interaction with Jandek was before the start of the show, at soundcheck.
"Me and Emil, we did practice a couple times," Coomes says. "We actually got together and talked about strategy and played a little bit just to establish a relationship, because when you get up in front of people and start making music, it's good to have a little orientation."
Amos and Coomes figured that some of the seemingly formless ruminations Jandek had become known for—caterwauling vocals over some occasionally tuned guitar—might be contrasted with a concerted effort to move the music in a rock direction. During the ensemble's 90-minute preparation, Jandek broke down a batch of nominal instructions for the group, including an explanation of the three types of songs they'd perform: ballads, blues and "brutal." That was it.
The show was sold out, Amos recalled. The theater was silent. K Records' Calvin Johnson sat in the front row. For about two hours, the performance, later released as Portland Thursday, cascaded through some truly shambolic moments. Thirteen minutes of "I Asked You Please" is as punishing as any metal blitzkrieg, with Coomes' fuzzed-out bass and locking in with Amos' rock pounding. Jandek—tall and slender, dressed in all black—rides some of the minimal rhythm, taking time to moan lines of poetry, perhaps just written on that spring day.
"It was very emotional," Coomes says. "People were literally in tears after that show."
Jandek didn't stick around to take it all in. But his Portland appearance went well enough that later that year, in October, he invited the same ensemble to play with him in Seattle, a show Coomes said seemed to have been marketed to a more sedate NPR crowd. After the first song, half the audience split.
Of meeting Jandek, both musicians decline to provide many details. Coomes offers only that Jandek was "weird." But Amos says Jandek was "extremely happy" about what they'd managed to accomplish.
"There was so much communion between us—and philosophically, there was really just a kind of congruence that was happening," Amos says. "That band could have turned into a real band."
Since then, neither Amos nor Coomes has struck up friendly correspondence with the man who often refers to himself as simply "a representative from Corwood Industries," though Harris says she receives "one-sentence letters every once in a while, a la 'Played with Tom Carter, he mentioned your name.'"
In the decade since, Jandek has continued playing shows. He returned to the Hollywood Theatre in 2010, performing a set of improvisational noise with Thurston Moore. As far as Amos is concerned, though, the experience won't ever be the same. It can't be.
"I see it more as the last hurrah of the original era, in a way," Amos says of that 2006 gig. "It was a time when people actually still kind of held their breath and wanted to understand 'the other.' Now, we live in this demystified time when everyone thinks they know everything."