The stranger

Pub date January 9, 2008
WriterMax Goldberg
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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Where to begin with Jandek? First, a definition: Jandek is a phenomenon, as plainly uncanny as a lightning storm. Then on to the facts of the case: initially emerging in 1978 with the Ready for the House album (Corwood), Jandek has since released a steady stream of haunting LPs: 51 at last count, each talismanic of a cumulative mystery. The records originate from Corwood Industries, PO Box 15375, in Houston, a company that seems to exist solely to disseminate Jandek music. The discs contain no supplemental information, and the whole enterprise propagates with pseudocorporate anonymity — the performer is usually invoked as the "Representative from Corwood."

These inputs are nothing in and of themselves, but like a Rubik’s Cube, they have become a source of tantalizing fascination for a few. The music, which ranges from the inscrutable to the harrowing, comes on like icebergs in the night. The first full-lengths (especially 1981’s Six and Six) lay out the basic Jandek sound: immersive death-letter blues, unstudied and intense. Misshapen chords crumble in his clanking tunings and obtrusive picking patterns. Songs end with the dull thud of a stopped tape recorder.

There have been additions and subtractions since this first period: a thudding racket of drums on a string of releases in the mid-’80s, cryptic collaborations ("Nancy Sings"), a wonderfully severe "breakup" album (1987’s Blue Corpse), and a short phase of unlistenable a cappella (2000’s Put My Dream on This Planet, 2001’s This Narrow Road, and 2004’s Worthless Recluse). Evaluative criteria have been junked, lyrics and titles scrambled, and explications left unanswered. Even something as basic as Jandek’s chronology is up in the air: many of his closest listeners do not believe the albums are released in the same order in which they were recorded.

The covers further channel these constantly shifting parameters, as well as the intensely desolate nature of the Jandek persona. Like the recordings, they are pointedly unprofessional, evoking the titular hero without pinning him down. When the figure does appear, he is inevitably alone and dour. Like the lyrics, multiple album covers are drawn from a single photo session, if not from one single photograph (2006’s What Else Does the Time Mean and The Ruins of Adventure).

Jandek has carved a tremendous field of negative space and achieved a collusion with his devotees as remarkable, in its way, as the one associated with the Grateful Dead. As far as dedicated fandom goes, Seth Tisue’s annotated Web site ( is simply amazing. While looking over Tisue’s notes, it’s easy to appreciate how much the Representative from Corwood rocked the boat when he announced his first live performances in 2004. Thirty shows later, he is making his first scheduled West Coast appearance at the appropriately chaste Swedish American Hall.

Unprecedented perhaps, though not necessarily as shocking as it might first appear. A proper recluse doesn’t want any kind of attention, whereas Jandek simply seems to want to tightly regulate the flow of information. There’s an unexpectedly illuminating moment in a 1985 phone interview highlighted in the Jandek on Corwood documentary (2003) when Jandek confesses he only decided to go on with his project after Ready for the House received a good notice from now defunct OP magazine. Is it such a stretch, then, to connect Jandek’s decision to begin performing live to the increased attention following the film?

Regardless, any fears that Jandek would be sacrificing his essence have been allayed by the fiery quality of the concerts. He pens a new set of lyrics for each, performing the compositions with an unfamiliar nest of collaborators plucked from the local experimental music community. San Francisco is especially rich in this regard, and two of the area’s best will fall into Jandek’s orbit Jan. 12: Ches Smith (Xiu Xiu, Good for Cows) is marked down for drums and Tom Carter (Charlambides, Badgerlore) for bass.

Carter wrote to me about a previous experience playing with the Representative from Corwood, "It was one of the heaviest playing situations of my life. He didn’t demand much specifically from the other musicians, but there was definitely a sense that there was something he wanted, and that if you didn’t figure it out yourself, it was on your head if the performance fell flat."

The shows may last longer than the records, but this seems less of an issue when you acknowledge the elastic, architectural quality of the music. The recordings, in any event, are an apt preparation for the appearances, as they too seem to unfold in stuttering real time. After we listen, our throats are dried out, our blinking irregular, and it seems the preceding minutes have passed through a dark star. We do not ask for music to move us like this, but once it does it is hard to imagine anything else.

Some fans think the performances and recent spike in releases indicate that the Representative from Corwood has retired from his day job. Regardless of whether he has, he’s certainly earned the right to embrace his artist self. Whether we choose to visit his terrain or keep away is inconsequential next to the fact that Jandek is undeniably there. Insofar as this body of work represents the buzzing strangeness lurking just behind the flecked curtains of everyday Americana, the Representative from Corwood is on a track similar to that of Thomas Pynchon or David Lynch. Ever inscrutable and increasingly undeniable, the Jandek discography has somehow wormed its way onto the map. 2


Sat/12, 7:30 p.m., $25

Swedish American Hall

2170 Market, SF

(415) 861-5016