Jandek

TrackAlbum
They Told Me I Was A FoolReady For The House
Delinquent WordsSix And Six
Nancy SingsChair Beside The Window
I Passed By The BuildingBlue Corpse
LavenderYou Walk Alone
The Electric EndLost Cause
Rain In MadisonGlad To Get Away
The BeginningThe Beginning
I Went OutsidePut My Dream On This Planet
Afternoon Of Insensitivity: Part ThreeManhattan Tuesday

Jandek photo 1

 

 

Contributor: Calvin Rydbom

So many performers and the fans like to imagine their music is unlike anyone else. It’s somewhat a source of pride. None are even the least bit unique when compared to Jandek.

The first album was released under the name The Units, but a California band sent him a cease and desist letter as they owned the rights to the name. But he released the album under a group name when it was one man on a guitar. It was an odd start of an odd career. The second album was released under than name Jandek, which seems to be more of a project name rather than the musician’s name. His actual name is probably Sterling Richard Smith but that has never been completely established. In a 1985 interview, one of only three he gave up til about five years ago, he says he decided on it while talking on the phone in January with a guy named Decker. Two of those first three interviews seemed accidental and unplanned.

A company called Corwood Industries in Houston, Texas, has released roughly 100 albums by Jandek, a company which he seems own. For years you could only contact them through a post office box and then a phone number. The voice that answered was the voice on the albums, but he’d only give his name as the Representative of Corwood Industries.

Reviewers for years suggested he is a psychopath, deranged, a true hermit, and generally someone who is mentally ill. There were theories that the reason he didn’t list musicians’ names when he occasionally used them was because he met them while in rehab or while being in a mental hospital. The theory developed he was once asked their names in one of his few interviews; he claimed to only know their nicknames and didn’t feel right talking about how he met them. And one interview, which happened because the journalist recognized him from album covers, wound up with the reporter joining him for drinks with friends and, according to her, all five people were dressed the same to the letter. A truly unique individual or merely an artist’s act? Who knows. In 2014 he finally gave a full interview to the magazine The Wire, but he still didn’t reveal much about himself.

The music is very idiosyncratic and often very atonal sort of folk-blues. But it changes a lot, and there have been several different periods. He has an open and very odd chord structure and a way of tuning that many have interpreted as him not tuning. But in the recorded interview he did for Spin magazine in 1985, in which he said he’d talk about the music but not answer questions about himself, he was very firm in saying he always tunes his guitar and it sounds how he wants it to sound.

He and his guitar, and occasional other instruments, sounds much like a life or a world ending. He sounds like somewhere, someplace there is something very, very wrong and broken.

In 2004, after close to thirty years as a complete mystery, he showed up at the Instal 04 Music Festival in Glasgow, Scotland, and played in a trio with two musicians based in that city. The performance was not publicized in advance, nor was there anything published by the festival that it happened. People who were there say the name Jandek was never used, but the man who performed alongside the two British musicians was only referred to ‘A Representative of Corwood Industries’.

Since then, he has made 45-50 live appearances, one of which I attended on 21st August 2011 at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland, Ohio. He performed what seemed an improvised, or written that day, ten-minute song about walking around downtown Cleveland. An acoustical guitar show, he wasn’t in the mood to touch the neck of his guitar. That first night in Glasgow and the performances that followed, as well as a performance in a play, brought an end to the view of him as a not-quite-sane recluse, releasing a set of his unhinged music whenever he had enough money to have a couple hundred copies run off.

But it didn’t answer who he is or why he records what he does. I often think it may be a bit of an act. A letter from Corwood Industries to one journalist very early on claimed there were ten albums ready “as soon as the funds to run off pressings were available”. When people have talked to the Representative of Corwood Industries, he seems very interested in selling more music. Still, he refuses to do press, for decades wouldn’t perform live, and if he did pay for an ad, he wanted it to just be type, no graphics of any kind.

He certainly has a fan base, though. Summersteps Records has released two tribute albums of his music in 2000 and 2005 – with the permission of Corwood Industries, who sent then two disposable cameras with pictures to use as cover art.

If he is Sterling R. Smith, he is now 74 years old and still releasing two albums a year. I can’t claim to have heard every album (Discogs lists 99 releases, but other sources claim over 100). But I’ve listened to a lot, and I can’t say these are my ten favorites, as with Jandek ‘favorite’ takes on an odd meaning. His music makes you question what exactly music is? You don’t enjoy it as much as process it. At times it can be powerful and emotionally draining while extremely unpleasant to listen to. So, when I say favorite, it’s a little different than saying my ten favorite Kinks songs.

 

I had the good fortune to have my first Jandek album be his first. I put a lot of stock into listening for artist development and how their music evolves, so it was good to start at the beginning. It is odd to think of it as such, because it sounds like a man intending to end it all after he finished singing. The 1978 album, Ready For The House, has a number of interesting cuts, but my favorite is They Told Me I Was A Fool. At the time, 1984-ish, I spent months trying to decipher the lyrics. I never did. I’m more suspicious now that they might not have any actual meaning. While not my favorite song, the last one on the album abruptly ends in a way that seems as if they just ran out of tape. The song picks up on his fourth album and finishes. His songs often end abruptly, but this is so wonderfully weird.

Three years passed after the first album. Many critics and radio DJs probably assumed the odd album that arrived in 1978 from Houston, Texas, was a one-shot effort. Boy, were they wrong, as seven albums showed up between 1981 and 1983. The second, Six And Six, is probably his most accessible. Which isn’t saying much. The album is stark and slow with song after song dealing with regret and how hopeless it all is. The album cover, more his face on the cover, can’t help but remind you of Robert Johnson. I have a hard time believing he didn’t realize that. The last song on the album, Delinquent Words, has lyrics that continue to confound me. I always had a bloody lip, always/ those Cadillacs just float over the road/ they don’t even know the road is there/ how is it they know me well in the wine store. And people think Dylan is tough to decipher.

 

His fourth album, Chair Beside A Window, somewhat surprised a fair amount of people. Well maybe not a lot; in the 1985 interview he said he had sold 150 albums total the previous five years. But when other people appeared on the album, there was actually a “thank god the man has friends” sort of reaction from some critics who were convinced whoever this man was, he had severe issues. Nancy Sings almost has a swing to it, and features Nancy singing. In a letter to a music journalist, from Corwood Industries, of course, it is noted the Nancy plays an “unaggressive drum stint” and the other person on the album is identified as “Nancy’s sister Pat.” At this time, and for years to come, there would be absolutely no information on Jandek albums about, well, anything.

Jandek’s fifteenth album, Blue Corpse, in 1987, is probably the other candidate for most accessible album. It features Jandek on guitar for the first three songs and another man who may or may not be named Eddie. Later Jandek takes over vocals again, and it seems whoever is playing guitar isn’t him. I Passed By The Building has understandable lyrics. Basically, about a guy who wants to die because he is walking by the building where his ex works. And then he feels similar walking past where she sleeps. Which suggests he may be stalking her.

 

For a short time, he played around with a garage rock band sound, it ended right before the previous album, before settling into a blues band sound like we have on the song Lavender from You Walk Alone. Lavender strikes me as a song that might be on an album from 1966, but ever so slightly off-kilter.

I’m at a loss of how to describe The Electric End from 1992’s Lost Cause album, Jandek’s 21st. At the time, some conjectured, as it was the last song on the album, it was Jandek letting everything loose to put the bookend on the end of his career. Of course, there was another album next year. The Electric End is mostly twenty minutes of aggressively unlistenable music with occasional undecipherable chanting and screaming for vocals. But I just find it hypnotic.

 

Not long after then he went back to acoustic music, similar to his first few albums. But they weren’t quite as much of the “Mentally Disturbed Man About to Commit Suicide” School of Music. Somewhat, but not as much. Rain In Madison comes from Glad To Get Away, Jandek’s 24th album. And even if the song doesn’t make you concerned the singer is about to off himself, the lyrics this is the end are in the song.

The Beginning, which if you are still keeping score is album 28, was the last album of Jandek’s second acoustical phase. The song The Beginning, which ends the album, is I believe the first time he played piano on an album. At least I assume the fifteen-minute instrumental piece that ends the album is him. The sense of rhythm is that of the man who has played guitar on the previous 100+ songs. Again, somewhat aggressively unlistenable, yet hypnotic. Is he trying to tell me something with his music, or am I just a fool for continuing to deep dive into it looking for meaning? Again, a lot of reviewers suggested at the time that it may be a swan song, because wouldn’t it just be like Jandek to title his last song The Beginning.

 

Put My Dream On This Planet in 2000 was Jandek’s first of a set of three a capella albums. I Went Outside isn’t as aggressively unlistenable, but still a difficult listen, albeit very powerful. He simply repeats the same two nonsensical lines a couple of times, between silence, in the minute and a half song. Oddly enough, it is the third song on the album, the first two 28 and 22 minutes long.

Not long after that, everything changed; when he started playing live and even performing in a one-act play, a lot of his fan base became somewhat confused. The legend of a mentally ill recluse was well-formed. But who was this? Still not quite normal, but not some poor soul hiding out, sending out pleas for help. Still, he won’t identify or talk about himself. And it has only been about 50 shows, of which roughly 40 have been released. And in the play he was billed as the representative. It isn’t as if he has gone corporate. But some fans seemed legitimately disappointed.

The last song is from one of the many live albums he has released post-2004. Manhattan Tuesday was recorded at the Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan in 2006. Like all of his live albums, the title is simply the place and what day of the week it is. During the recording of his 50th album he was referred to as the Representative From Corwood and played a Moog synthesizer, albeit one made to sound like an organ. He was joined by a full band than included Bjork’s long time tour drummer Chris Corsano and Loren Mazzacane Connors on guitar. Connors has worked with countless avant-garde artists. The seven section piece they played that day was called Afternoon Of Insensitivity. For me, Part Three is the best. The video of the show is very interesting, watching him perform mesmerizing. Does he even care anyone else is there?

 

As I said earlier, Jandek’s music makes you ask the question: what is music? So many of his early fans were as much followers of the mystery as the music. Some now seem to think he had a regular job – he mentioned being a machinist in a 1985 interview – and that he started to perform live when he retired, as he would have been about sixty and perhaps isn’t insane. Some won’t let go of the idea that he is a man with severe issues.

Who knows, basically a guy in Texas has self-released about 100 out-there albums, and he is worth a listen.

 

Jandek photo 2

 

Corwood Industries

Guide to Jandek – fantastic fact-packed website from Seth Tisue
(includes Discography & Lyrics)

Jandek – Concert History

“Jandek on Corwood” – a documentary film

“Naked in the Afternoon – A Tribute To Jandek” (Summersteps Records)

“Down in a Mirror – A Second Tribute to Jandek” (Summersteps Records)

Jandek biography (Apple Music)

Calvin Rydbom’s latest book is “The Akron Sound: The Heyday Of The Midwest’s Punk Capital”. He is the vice-president and archivist of the “Akron Sound” Museum and vice-president of freelance archiving firm Pursue Posterity. He has published a number of music-related articles and was elected to the Society of American Archivists steering committee on recorded sound before being promoted to website liaison. Calvin has written on many artists for this site including Gene Clark, Nanci Griffith, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Thelonious Monk.

TopperPost #864

3 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    May 9, 2020

    I’ve read this twice now, and started listening to the tracks. It has been a long time since I’ve been so intrigued. And shocked. And puzzled.
    I’m off to investigate Corwood Industries…

    • Calvin Rydbom
      May 11, 2020

      You will have to let me know what you think David.

  2. Andrew Shields
    May 10, 2020

    What an extraordinary artist. People often talk these days about music coming from left field but Jandek’s work actually does. Extranordinarily original and the backstory is fascinating.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

↓