Not So Worthless, Not So Reclusive: On Jandek

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by Ben Arzate

In 1978, a mysterious album called Ready for the House, credited to The Units, was released by a new record label calling itself Corwood Industries. The front cover was a poorly lit picture of a brightly decorated room with no text on the front. Despite the name implying a band, the album was clearly done by one guy with a guitar.

Everything about the album was strange and off-putting; from its oddly mundane cover, to its lo-fi sound, to the seemingly out-of-tune guitar playing, to the strained singing of abstract lyrics. Even its final song, the most conventional sounding one on the album, cuts off in the middle of a verse.

The music could probably be best described as about what The Residents doing their own version of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon album would sound like. All the songs are a simple acoustic guitar and voice arrangement, except for the last song “European Jewel,” which uses an electric guitar.

It’s little wonder the album only sold two copies between the years 1978 to 1980 according to a representative from Corwood Industries. It did, however, catch the attention of another band called The Units who sent Corwood a cease and desist. After that, the first album was reissued with a new band name. It and all subsequent albums from Corwood are now credited to Jandek.

Eventually, radio DJ, music journalist, and outsider music connoisseur Irwin Chusid discovered the album. He wrote to Corwood Industries and received a phone call from the representative, Sterling Smith, shortly after. Smith was reluctant to talk about his personal life or even to refer to himself as Jandek. The advice and encouragement Smith received from Chusid was apparently enough to continue the Jandek project. Corwood released the second album, Six and Six, in 1981 and has been regularly putting out albums since.

Sterling Smith has continued to be very protective of his privacy and little is known about his personal life. For the longest time, he avoided interviews, though a few “off the record” ones ended up being made public. In some of these he revealed things like that his guitar tunings were intentional and it was tuned specifically for each song, contrary to the rumor that he didn’t know how to tune a guitar. He also revealed that name “Jandek” came from having a phone conversation with someone named Decker while he looked at a calendar in the month of January.

The music of Jandek has evolved over the many releases, adding drums and bass and sometimes going in radically different directions. Given how radically different the music already is, that’s really saying something. One example of this is his trilogy of a capella/spoken word albums, Put My Dream on This Planet, This Narrow Road, and Worthless Recluse, released between 2000 and 2001. I won’t lie, I haven’t been able to get through any of these albums despite some of the very poetic turns of phrase. Another example is The Song of Morgan released in 2013. This is a nine CD set with over nine hours of solo piano music.

However, not all Jandek’s work is difficult or inaccessible. For example, 2012’s Maze of the Phantom is a soothing, vaguely Eastern inspired album that fans of ambient music will certainly enjoy. 1982’s Chair Beside a Window, while still pretty erratic, is like a more lo-fi version of an early Velvet Underground album from the gentle and beautiful song “Nancy Sings” (one of the few times a guest artist is credited) to the pounding, angry version of “European Jewel,” which starts off where the incomplete version from Ready for the House cut off.

Jandek has become less reclusive over the years as well. While they still keep to themselves in regard to their personal life, they began making live appearances, the first being at a music festival in Glasglow, Scotland in 2004. Since then, they’ve done regular live performances as well as recorded live albums and DVDs. In fact, since 2014, all Jandek’s releases have been live albums and DVDs. They even starred in a short film which aired on PBS in 2014, credited as The Representative.

Jandek really is in a class of their own. Even as weird as many of their releases are, there’s an obvious passion and care put into all of it, they’ve gone through many creative phases, and there’s nearly nothing else that sounds like them. They’ve been putting out music for over 40 years and they don’t show any sign of stopping anytime soon. I eagerly anticipate seeing the direction Corwood Industries will take after the current live performance phase.

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