The story used to be a simpler one. Jandek, it was said, was a total enigma, a musician as reclusive as J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon. Back in 1978, he put out the first of his self-released, scaldingly bleak albums, Ready for the House, under the name "the Units"; three years later, he started using the Jandek name for his second album, Six and Six, and has since released at least one each year, except 1995. The production of the albums is credited to Corwood Industries, a Houston, Texas, company that operates out of a P.O. box and doesn't appear to have any other function than producing and distributing Jandek records. The records are uniformly designed, with badly lit photographs of a man or part of a building on the front cover and plain type on the back.
Jandek had only ever given one interview; he never played live or toured; he never bought into the publicity machine of the music industry at all. He had no interest in communicating any information about himself other than what was on the records. His medium was the album, and that was it. His music was...not like anybody else's, and although not a lot of people could say they listened to it for pleasure, a small cult of listeners found that it scratched an itch nothing else could reach.
I discovered his records by way of a housemate who'd heard a kindred spirit and flashes of terrible beauty in Jandek's atonal deathbed-blues groan and listless flailing at a way-out-of-tune guitar. For a summer, my housemate listened to almost nothing else; a ceaseless gray trickle of sound emerged from under his door. I mostly hated it. A few years later, though, I found myself really wanting to hear Jandek again; his expressiveness about pain, his rejection of the entire architecture of popular music from its economic superstructure down to tonality and rhythm, the shuddering luminescence-through-muck of songs like "Nancy Sings" and "I Went Outside" and "I Passed by the Building." Every so often, I get the urge to check in on him.
The standard Jandek joke at my college radio station was "he's making a lot of progress on this one"—but he really has been moving through distinct phases. He's played with collaborators, then by himself again, experimented with solo piano, made a trio of harrowing albums with only his voice and a Dictaphone, then a few accompanying himself with a fretless bass that he plays as expressively and tunelessly as the detuned acoustic guitar he generally favors. In 2003, Paul Fehler and Chad Freidrichs introduced Jandek to a larger audience by releasing a documentary film about the music and the mystery, Jandek on Corwood, in which the musician didn't appear, although he did provide a little assistance. (Full disclosure: I was interviewed for it.)
And then, on Oct. 17, 2004, at an experimental music festival in Glasgow, the story got more complicated when a gaunt man who looked to be in his late 50s took the stage with bassist Richard Youngs and drummer Alex Neilson. His appearance hadn't been advertised or announced, but once he opened his mouth, it was unmistakable: Jandek was playing in front of a live audience. (Officially, he was referred to only as "a representative from Corwood Industries," but a recording of the show appeared last year as a Jandek album, Glasgow Sunday.) Since then, he's played in public 11 more times, mostly advertised in advance. On Thursday, April 20, Jandek will make his first West Coast appearance, performing at the Hollywood Theatre.
It's part of the Jackpot Records/Clinton Street Video Film Festival, put together by Jackpot owner Isaac Slusarenko and his brother, Clinton Street Video owner Chris Slusarenko. Everyone involved with the performance is exceedingly careful about how they talk about Jandek—there's a sense of walking on ontological eggshells. (Asked how they organized the performance, Isaac Slusarenko says only that "the representatives at Corwood Industries worked with us.") The brothers handpicked a pair of Portland musicians to collaborate with "the Man from C.O.R.W.O.O.D.," as fans sometimes call him: Sam Coomes from Quasi and Emil Amos from the Grails.
"There is really nothing about [Jandek] that needs to be deciphered," Amos writes from Europe, where he's currently on tour. "I think most people find Jandek to be too straightforward ... The fact that he doesn't feel like promoting himself shouldn't be so shocking or mysterious when those things are generally the most fruitless things that come along with making music. His appearance in the history of music comforts me when I start to feel like there is nothing left but compromise and collapse for the dialogue of raw human expression."
Amos and Coomes have been rehearsing together, although they won't know what they're playing until the day of the show—all of the Jandek appearances so far have featured entirely new material. "Emil and I mostly just talked about the approach, because it's going to be improvised," Coomes says. "It's an unusual musical situation even for somebody who's used to that kind of thing. He and I had never played together, so we thought it'd be nice to get together and play, even without Jandek. Mostly, I've been listening to some of the more recent live recordings, trying to get my head into the zone that the music comes out of, so that I can respond appropriately when the time comes."
As with a lot of Jandek's listeners, Coomes took to the musician slowly. "I had a housemate in the mid- to late-'80s who had a couple of Jandek records—I couldn't get my head around them. Eventually, I more or less dismissed them: 'Here's a guy who's trying to do something interesting, but it doesn't seem like it's working out.' But then, after Chris contacted me about playing this, I went back and listened to the records, and suddenly they just kind of opened up—his music hadn't really communicated to the young, inexperienced me the same way it does now."
Even so, being tapped for the performance was something of a surprise: Coomes says that he had to sign a contract agreeing to play at it before he found out who he was working with. He hasn't had any direct contact with Corwood or Jandek. "It doesn't seem like many people do," he says.
That's not entirely true, but the people who do also tend to be discreet about it. There's no Corwood website, although there is an excellent fan site at tisue.net/jandek. The only way to contact Jandek is to write to the company's P.O. box, which was first printed in music magazine ads around 1980, accompanied only by the words "Jandek on Corwood." Occasionally, if you write to him with something besides a CD order, he'll write back—a cryptic little handwritten note or, if you're lucky, more. I spoke with one fan who said she'd been carrying on an extensive correspondence with Jandek for a few years. "He's unabashedly honest in his artistic statement," she said, but declined to otherwise be quoted on the record or identified.
In the meantime, Jandek is releasing more material than he ever has before. His new album, What Else Does the Time Mean, is his 46th in all, and his third released in 2006. Besides the Glasgow live album, a performance from last May has just appeared as Newcastle Sunday, and the live discs have some extraordinary moments on them. In Glasgow, when he growls, "I made the decision to get real wild," the audience cheers; in Newcastle, his band builds up to a breathless churn as he declares, "The queen of Sheba doesn't have nothing on you/ You dance on my necktie like it was your tattoo," in a voice like Bob Dylan begging for a life preserver.
Tickets for the Hollywood Theatre performance went on sale April 5. Jackpot's Isaac Slusarenko said he expected to sell all of them in 10 minutes, which didn't happen; as of Monday, April 17, there were still some available. But admirers of Jandek who live pretty far away are planning to come to Portland for the show. Eric Reynolds, a fan of 15 years who lives in Seattle, is looking forward to it: "It's only the third time he's ever played in the U.S., and I never thought I'd ever have a chance to see him. I don't even know what the music's going to be like—I don't know if it's going to be a great concert, per se, but I just can't not see it for myself."
Isaac Slusarenko also says he doesn't know what to expect: "I know it will be, for sure, happening. But I'm just as in the dark as most of the other people who are participating. If I describe Jandek to somebody who's not familiar with him, it's really hard to start a frame of reference. You want to talk about the historical impact, or the mystery—but people should know that this will probably be your only chance to see this show."
FIVE ESSENTIAL JANDEK ALBUMS
1. Ready for the House (1978)
His first album, and something like a statement of purpose: one man, one quiet guitar tuned to the ugliest possible dissonance, and a voice that sounds like it belongs to a decapitated head. The quietly moaned lyrics circle obsessively around a few topics—gospel filtered through blues filtered through desperate dissociation—but the biggest theme is utter isolation. "First You Think Your Fortune's Lovely" spawned the titles of later albums Staring at the Cellophane and Chair Beside a Window; Jandek later re-recorded the Velvet Underground-inflected "European Jewel" on a few other albums.
2. Telegraph Melts (1986)
Something like a brutal garage-rock record with all the riffs and melodies expunged and rhythms kneecapped, or a zombie version of Jefferson Airplane. This was the period when Jandek was playing with a drummer and an additional singer, known to Corwood aficionados as "Nancy." She croons several texts herself (attempting to finesse them into songhood), and the two of them duet on most of the second half of the album. "Ace of Diamonds" is thoroughly disintegrated Chicago blues. "You Painted Your Teeth" is a very strong piece of advice not to paint one's teeth.
3. Lost Cause (1992)
When this album came out—with its almost-straight pop song "Babe I Love You" and support-beam-smashing 20-minute noise improvisation "The Electric End," not to mention lyrics about divine vengeance and breakups ("You saw what happened at the Tower of Babel/ They couldn't even talk to each other")—some listeners briefly suspected that it was the final Jandek record. But if Jandek's got a favorite theme, it's probably eschatology: He's also named albums The Living End and Blue Corpse and The End of It All, and titled songs "The First End" and "The Second End" and "Pending Doom" and "Going Away."
4. Put My Dream on This Planet (2000)
This is the first of the infamous "spoken word" trilogy (which seem to have been recorded on a voice-activated Dictaphone)—actually, he's just singing unaccompanied, but his singing sounds like most people's speech. The first two tracks are both over 20 minutes long, and suggest a final summing-up. It's as if everything in the world has disappeared except for his slurred but unstoppable voice, pleading for "your life" and saying he's "ready for the house," a house made of granite and cast iron. The third and final track is 77 seconds long, the shattered fragments of a blues about going outside into the cold.
5. Glasgow Sunday (2005)
A document of Jandek's first live performance, and his strongest album in ages. That's partly because he's working with a more conventionally fluent bassist and drummer who adapt easily to his unique anti-rhythms and un-chords, but mostly because he sounds invigorated by what's clearly a thrilled audience—maybe the most immediate feedback he's ever gotten for his art. "The staaaars are SINKING!" he bellows. "I don't know what to DO! Not...even...wa-ter...crossed...my...lips!" Lyrical topics include heartbreak, God's forgiveness, laundry, the blues of a "blue blue world"—you know, the usual.
Jandek plays Thursday, April 20, at the Hollywood Theatre. 7 pm. $16.50. All ages. For more info on the Jackpot Records/Clinton Street Video Film Festival, go to www.jackpotrecords.com.