Jandek - Biography

Spend enough time digging in decrepit record bins or trawling through the torrents, and you’ll discover a very peculiar, very mysterious triumvirate. Since 1978, over 50 albums have been released by a hermetic organization called Corwood Industries. Little is know about Corwood, other than its general location — its sole point of contact is a post office box in Houston, Texas — and that its only purpose seems to be the production and distribution of the recordings of a musical project known simply as Jandek. Attempts to discern the participants in the Jandek endeavor are usually thwarted, as there are never any credits on the albums, only a snapshot photo on the front, often depicting the same person; on the reverse there are merely song titles. Efforts to reach the staff at Corwood are similarly futile. In three decades there have been only two interviews conducted with the organization, both via an enigmatic man who insisted on referring to himself as the “representative from Corwood.” He emphasized that he was not Jandek, and that he was not involved directly with Corwood. He refused to discuss the particulars of the extreme spasms of sound on the albums, or to give any background about himself. However, many of those cover photos feature a man of various ages. Could it be a trinity, and Corwood Industries, Jandek and the Representative are all one and the same? Okay, this is Cult Figure 101. The Jandek phenomenon modulates on some of the weirdest frequencies in modern music, and Langley levels of intrigue have always driven record-collector nerds into a feeding frenzy; Paul-Is-Dead, Elvis-Is-Alive speculations have nothing on Jandek. Fans have geeked for decades on those cover photos, trying to deduce the identity of the man behind some of the strangest sounds on disk — and while most refer to him as Jandek, the true apostles follow his wishes and call him the Rep.

It began with the release of Ready for the House (1978 Corwood Industries). The cover was cryptic, a photograph of a living room. The music on the album was beyond cryptic. A lone man plucks a guitar, never deviating from a dissonant, alternate tuning. The pace is slow and stark; the tone is disturbing. Jandek’s vocals are partially sung and partially spoken, prone to spastic outbursts, and the lyrics often wallow in self-absorption that can be excruciating. The follow-up, Six and Six (1981 Corwood Industries), was similar, and for several albums in the early 80s, Jandek maintained this isolated persona, adding spare components like female vocals and drums, and occasionally increasing the tempo. The early records all adhere to this general aesthetic. They sound as if they were following the tradition of the country blues, yet are completely off the cuff, untethered to any musical convention or norm. On The Rocks Crumble (1983 Corwood Industries), he begins a transition into a harder sound, using electric guitar. As the 80s segue into the 1990s, a considerable shift takes place, as Jandek appears to go in the direction of rock, adding an electric ensemble, typified by albums like You Walk Alone (1988 Corwood). The blues deconstructions continue until Twelfth Apostle (1993 Corwood), in which he returns to a haunting, stripped-down style, favoring gentler instruments like the accordion; still, the enigmatic existentialism abounds.

Then Jandek makes another abrupt move: Put My Dream on This Planet (2000), This Narrow Road (2001) and Worthless Recluse (2001 Corwood) feature no instrumentation other than disturbing, agonized vocals. These albums shocked even the most hardened Jandek fans, as he waffles between song and speech, pleading with God and his demons. It’s some of the most difficult listening ever committed to tape. He returns to guitar, now strumming, then switches to fretless bass on The Gone Wait (2003 Corwood). The End of It All (2004 Corwood) and The Door Behind (2004 Corwood) are defined by processed, electric guitar, awash in effects. Throughout, the covers depict a bewildering series of snapshots, all of the same man, but never the same age. Sometimes he’s a clean-cut teen; sometimes a scruffy twenty-something; sometimes a gaunt, morose, middle-aged man. Was this the Rep? Fans got a seismic jolt at a Scottish music festival in 2004, when this same figure walked on stage with a rhythm section and performed an unannounced, two-hour set of semi-improvised songs. The event, documented on CD and DVD as Glasgow Sunday (2005/2006 Corwood), was Jandek’s first live appearance. He continues to perform occasionally, and to issue the results on CD.

In evaluating this vast oeuvre and its various phases and stylistic segments, it’s worth considering one fascinating possibility. Jandek’s material doesn’t grow more conventional then abruptly become desolate — because he’s not presenting it in chronological order. He’s deliberately releasing entire chunks of his life’s work, out of sequence. Psychologically, it’s chilling, but it makes perfect sense. The period in which Jandek is vaguely channeling 60’s-era rock and performing with an ensemble isn’t a breath of nostalgia; it’s a young man, in that earlier era, who has yet to retreat completely into harrowing isolation and despair. Jandek didn’t release his first album until he was in his 30s; he could have been recording for years beforehand. He’s shuffling the music in the same way he shuffles the cover images, and for the same purpose: to thoroughly obliterate his own history. If this is the case, the kaleidoscopic fragmentation of identity, and the annihilation of Self over the course of three decades, truly do make Jandek a project completely removed from the Rep, or the man who plucks those atonal guitar strings with religious fervor and primal-therapy angst. We don’t need to know the identity of the Rep, and it doesn’t matter that behind the curtain, the Mighty Oz is actually one Sterling Smith of Houston, and that he minds a home office, working quietly as a stockbroker. The Rep is correct. A corpus of nearly fifty albums has turned concept art into hard fact: Jandek is the reality. Sterling Smith is the illusion.

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