Monday, May 01, 2006

Is it Yandek or Jandek?

I had a hangover when I first heard Jandek. That might explain why I like his music.

Discordant, tuneless and out of key, Jandek's first album, Ready for the House is the musical equivalent of the day after the night before.

It'’s not music that it'’s easy to admit liking in any case - both because it's hard to pin down what there is to like amongst the sibilant singing and untuned, one note guitar picking, and because expressing a fondness for something so unmusical leaves you wide open to claims of supreme and unmitigated pretentiousness. Kurt Cobain, no stranger to arsey waffling himself, once said of Jandek that the singer isn't pretentious, but his fans are.

Which is hard to argue with once you've watched last year's documentary, Jandek on Corwood, in which one fan points out quite ferociously that he files the first Jandek album (initially released under the name 'The Units') under 'U' and not 'J', whilst another repeatedly stresses that 'Yandek' is a better pronunciation of the singer's name (similarly, on the one and only Jandek mailing list, a poster recently proudly described his 'ordeal' in listening to every Jandek album in one sitting, including headaches, sweating and vomiting. Rather than suggesting listening to music he genuinely liked, the consensus seemed to be that his was a bold experiment and that he had basically taken one for the team).

Far easier then to say that you like the idea of Jandek the mystery man, even though the documentary's attempts to divine the purpose of that mystery has also been slammed by some fans, concerned that such behaviour somehow cheapens the whole Jandek experience. Out simply, until last year no-one had ever met the man behind Jandek, save for a possible meeting with one journalist and a single phone call with John Trubee. Iwrin Chusid, author of Songs in the Key of Z, the bible of what's generally lumped together as Outsider Music then devoted a fair chunk to his book to Jandek, further raising his profile from 'completely anonymous' to 'virtually no-one has heard of this guy'.

Contributing to the mystery was Jandek's reputed willingness to send dozens of copies of his albums free to anyone who reviewed them; the fact that for a long time the only way to buy his cds was via mail order to a Houston, Texas PO Box registered to Corwood Industries; and the fact that he didn't even have a definitive real name, never mind play live (Sterling Smith is the name most usually associated with Jandek, but even that is based on a credit in a single review from 1978).

His album covers are equally perverse in today's heavily marketed musical world - all feature bland images of houses; amateur snapshots of a man at various points in his life; or blurred and indistinct pictures of curtains and drum kits taken inside a house somewhere. The back covers are plain white with a couple of black lines, the name of the artists and a track-listing with timings.

Such is the level of involvement by the fans in the mystery that when he released 'One Foot in the North' with a different font on the back cover there was much discussion as to what light the vaguely 'Chinese restaurant menu' font shed on the man and his work (none at all, so far as I can see).

Maybe it was all an incredibly clever marketing ploy - drag the fans in with the mystery and the deliberately non-musical nature of the sounds then sell bucket loads as the Jandek Craze sweeps the nation? Not likely - until very recently you could probably count the number of genuine sales of any single Jandek album in the hundreds rather than the millions and retailing at £4 each they're hardly the world's most expensive items in any case.

Or possibly the 'artist' is mentally ill and releases these albums of sound and fury as part of his therapy? Or it's some kind of tax dodge. Or it's all a long and complicated practical joke. Or one of the many other theories that have been put forward about Jandek since 1978.

I have no idea personally, and matters were further complicated when 'a Representative from Corwood Industries' turned up unannounced at a Glasgow music festival in 2004 and proceeded to play some very Jandeky songs. When that show was then released by Corwood as Jandek's first live album (Glasgow Sunday) it was confirmed that the Representative and Jandek were one and the same.

Not that any of that helps with the larger questions - we now know what Jandek looks like (and it seems pretty certain that the man on certain Jandek album covers is the Representative himself) but are no closer to figuring out why he does what he does, nor what it is about some combinations of atonal guitar playing and off key singing that proves to be so profoundly moving when brought together.

Because when all's said and done, the sole reason to listen to Jandek is that he can at times produce such utterly humane music, where the hurt in the singer is so plain that you can almost touch it. There's something very voyeuristic about a lot of Jandek's music and it's that I think which attracts fans as much as the mystery which surrounds him.

"I passed by the building you were working in
I wanted to step inside it
I wanted to lie in your arms again
I passed by the building that you live in
And I wanted to die
I just stood there and cried
For then the way I felt
For the way I was gonna cry
For loving you
I passed by the building where you sleep
And I wanted to sigh
At the sweet smell of your loving
But I just weep at the morning
I just weep"

I Passed by the Building - Jandek, 1987


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