Mystery White Boy

For 20-odd years he's been moaning into a tape recorder. He doesn't do press and he never plays live. Investigating the legend of Jandek.

Strange, the ways that personal and musical history can become so completely intertwined, the way that certain sounds surge forth at the right moments, unerringly and eerily appropriate. It has something to do with cosmic coincidences, perhaps, or the simple, dumb unfolding of events. Sometimes music is just what it should be: reassuring, inexplicably familiar, and just about perfect.

About a year ago, I left friends and family behind and moved to a nondescript commuter town outside Atlanta, Georgia. I immediately detested my surroundings: all soulless cinderblock flanking great swaths of highways and interstate. Worse, the job I'd moved for quickly evaporated in a "corporate restructuring." All of a sudden, I found myself drifting in a suburban interzone, cornered by rectangular office buildings and sun-bleached strip malls, stumbling through semiconscious days of little punctuation and even less purpose. Until, one day, I stumbled across a dusty Jandek record stashed in the bargain section of the local record store.

With no information to guide me except the title, Twelfth Apostle, strange song names like "You're Not Even Alive," and a Houston P.O. box number on the cover, I was left with only the intriguing album art--a grainy, overenlarged photograph of the kind of faceless suburban topography that sprawled around me. Enthralled, I paid the clerk and headed homeward, imagining something appealingly outlandish, whether basement psychedelia or industrial soundscapes.

What I got, however, was something much, much darker. Jandek's music was like the sound of my life: absolute nothingness, a core numbness, entropy carved out by apathy. Put simply, the record was the most terrifying thing I had ever heard. From the scratchy vinyl issued forth an out-of-tune acoustic guitar meandering under an awful, tuneless moan of a voice--all seemingly devised from the most primitive Radio Shack recording equipment. "They say you died before," Jandek sings on one particularly unlovely verse, "And you're smiling now." This wasn't the usual cultivated eccentricity of Half Japanese or their ilk. No, something about it was organic and genuine. My uneasiness told me Jandek was for real.

Even though Jandek has been steadily releasing albums, about one each year, since 1978's debut Ready for the House, no one really knows who he is. Each of his records is apparently financed by the mysterious "Corwood Industries" label. Each is adorned with a grainy photograph and no extraneous explanatory information. And each is roughly organized around the same detuned acoustic sound with intermittent detours into more electric terrain. Even more mystifyingly, Jandek refuses press and publicity. Write to the P.O. box and you'll receive only a photocopy of the Jandek catalog: his older records, all out of print, alongside newer CDs.

Perhaps inevitably, the enigma has attracted a cadre of devotees who eagerly swap rumors and half-hints, all combing for an explanation of what it is they're hearing. Is Jandek really the retarded spawn of a wealthy businessman who bankrolls his son's musical mumblings? Were all his records really recorded in one deranged, weeklong session, then released over the course of two-and-a-half decades? Is Jandek really the man whose spooky, blurred likeness sometimes graces the covers of his records, whether shirtless (Modern Dances) or gardening (Telegraph Melts)?

With no definitive answers to these questions, all that remains is the music--some of which is quite spectacular. Blue Corpse is particularly riveting: a scraping, snarled husk of an album masking what must be untold emotional devastation. But there are more gems scattered throughout Jandek's career, most notably the Velvet Underground throb of "European Jewel" (from Ready for the House) and the surreal "You Painted Your Teeth" (from Telegraph Melts) with its bizarre warning, "Don't paint your teeth, mama."

 

When I found the Corwood world a year ago, Jandek was just entering his most creative and prolific period in...perhaps forever. Maybe he's been re-energized by the tribute album Naked in the Afternoon(Summersteps), with its hipster cast of supporters (Low, Thurston Moore), or maybe he feels flattered by his star appearance in Irwin Chusid's bible of outsider music, Songs in the Key of Z. In any case, the flurry of activity is, for Jandek, extraordinary. First, at the end of last year, Corwood issued a spate of CD rereleases of out-of-print albums and a tellingly titled new one, The Beginning. A few months later, there were more reissues. Then Corwood put out perhaps the most haunting Jandek ever: two new albums (Put My Dream on This Planet and This Narrow Road), each consisting solely of vocals. These albums debunk the one-weeklong-session myth: Jandek's voice has clearly aged, taking on a gristly affect. Yet the recording technology he uses--some kind of ultra-hissy, voice-activated cassette machine--is still so primitive as to lend the albums a time-capsule quality.

So are these new albums any good? Well, good and bad are strange terms to be using in relation to Jandek records. But listening to them, I can't help being a little disappointed. Lyrically they seem weak--sadly obsessive, with none of the traumatic imagery that made his earlier work so arresting. This Narrow Road's 29-minute opener is perhaps the nadir: a stream-of-consciousness rant that sucks all the complexity out of the Jandek myth. The song chooses instead to play the scary-weirdo card: "Let them die, they all deserve, let them die/It ain't like killing/It's annihilation, extermination, elimination/ Eliminate the bad."

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