I didn’t pay much attention to what was going on in the undie music scene during the aughts. I listened to some things that were current, but mostly I was just writing lyrics on my own and listening to a lot of modern classical music. When I started lending an ear indie-ward over the last several years, there were a few developments that really surprised me in a Rip-Van-Winkle sort of way. Perhaps the most surprising of these would be the day I found out that Jandek had started playing live concerts during the time I was out of the loop.
Back in the 1980’s and 90’s, Jandek was known as the uber-recluse. No shows. No interviews. No biographical details were known. No associations with high-profile indie labels. No gossip on the indie grapevine along the lines of “my friend (X) from (fill in well-known band name here) was hanging out with Jandek and said that (fill in revealing bit of “insider anecdote/observation” here.)
When I was in high school, I spent a lot of time with one of his records that put this message across more forcefully than his other releases. Most of his records featured a photograph of a man we presumed to be Jandek, without any words at all. No album title. No artist name. No record company name. If you lined these albums up next to each other, it was like watching a time lapse photograph. The visual silence in which all these pictures swam made me think about the slipperiness of any kind of identity.
There was a figure I could recognize who carried across all these images. But the consistency reminded me of a line Joseph Goldstein once used to describe an equally slippery topic, the Buddha’s view on the (non-) self. Joseph said that the teaching of annata, commonly viewed in the west as NOT SELF as if etched it stone, was more subtle than that. The self is “like a seal in the wax. Does it exist?” He used a visual expression to answer the question that said, “hm. hard to say.” It suggested that there is a pattern there, but that there is no element to that pattern that is separate from the wax, or the “non-self elements.”
Many of the photos on Jandek’s classic albums are blurry or out of focus. None of them show him in a sexy or dangerous locale. The mise en scene is daily life, mostly it would seem at or around the house. The features of the face, the color of the hair, the tendencies of the facial expressions, were the marks of consistency. I read them like an assertion that there was a consistency there that refused to define what it was, at least not in language. You kept running up against the question “who?” in a way that made you let go of the expectation of an answer.
The Jandek record I listened to the most back then (“One The Way,” 1988) didn’t even have these markers. There was a picture of a drum kit that was almost invisible, draped in shadow and printed in a blue scale that faded to black for about half of the image. I imagined there was someone sitting behind the drum kit. But it could be that no one was there. The blond man with prominent cheekbones might be entirely absent. Or someone else could be sitting on a chair with sticks in hand, laying out during the first of the following tune, and then skittering across some toms during the second song.
In a recent “interview” that appears in the film “Jandek on Corwood,” the singer acknowledges that other musicians have appeared on some of his records. When asked to identify these musicians, he refuses to answer after a long pause. He doesn’t even want to say how he met them – or be photographed for the film or the interview.
I’m glad he collaborated with whoever “Nancy” is in the song “Nancy Sings,” one of my favorite songs of all time.
I was surprised while listening to “On The Way” to discover that it had a lot to say about drumming in a way that few “singer songwriter” album do. The drums on “I’ll Sit Alone…” were remarkable inconsistent in volume and tempo. They didn’t have the drums most often used in rock or folk drumming – kick, snare and hi-hat. Only a few echoey tom-toms. They were remarkably inconsistent in volume. Sometimes they were nearly inaudbile. Sometimes they were piercingly loud, a single hit making a big boom that eclipsed the lazily strumming guitar. They seemed like the perfect antithesis to the drums in a high school marching band. If those snares and kicks make you toe the line, these toms erased it and made you come face to face with the feeling of open space.
I often feel that the drums on records made by singers who write songs by themselves on acoustic guitars are relatively lifeless. When the drums aren’t part of the writing process, and the strumming patterns are relatively consistent, there’s not a lot of room for syncopation or idiosyncratic accents. I don’t know how Jandek writes songs, but his guitar playing is certainly not consistent in its rhythmic character. Some perceive this as an absence of skill or formal training. Some have gone so far as to say that the dissonance of Jandek’s guitar parts show that he doesn’t even know how to tune a guitar. He has responded (since emerging) that the tunings he uses are deliberately chosen. I like to think he’d say the same about the drum parts of the following songs. They make their respective tempos feel like shimmering mirages glimpsed in the desert. Are they really there? Hard to say.
When the full drum kit he used appeared in an image that was a lot clearer than the image on the blue album, it was clear that “standard” technique was not a priority.
What gave me the most pleasure while watching clips on youtube of Jandek playing live was to see that he had not lost his sense of rhythm. The first song he ever played live, “Real Wild,” displayed it in spades. The show was in Glasgow, on October 17th 2004. It was – surprise – unannounced. No publicity, no name announced onstage by way of introduction at the start of the set. Folks in the audience started saying, “hey, that looks a lot like Jandek…could it be?….no, it couldn’t.” But it was! Of all the feats in this series on musicians charting new and high quality directions in this top 40 over 40 series, I’m quite sure Jandek is the only one who can say he played his first show well after crossing the mid-life meridian.
The drum kit seen above looks relatively high tech and conventional compared to the kit seen on the cover of “On The Way.” But the drummer avoids the lock groove, even while approaching it after Jandek sings “I made the decision to get real wild” at 3:32. It’s a great choice for a first song for him to do. It starts out with lyrics that feel consistent with the vibe I used to get from the images on the cover of his earlier albums. “I stayed home and did the wash. What else could I do? I got up on Sunday. I washed my clothes.” The way he takes the lyrics from this “day in the life” moment to “I decided to get real wild” cracks me up. We’re used to rock and roll being about getting wild by painting the town on a Saturday night with a big event – a party, a rock show, a big date. In Thin Lizzy’s “Jailbreak,” Phil sounds almost desperate to find some way to make something big happen, in a way that makes the actual results sound anticlimactic, as they usually do.
Jandek shows that you can “get real wild” in any situation, without have to dramatize or make a big deal out of haphazard and fragmentary moments of real life. It’s about seeing the seemingly mundane in a new way. And he does this without making a big show or intellectual idea of it like John Cage does. When Cage makes “indeterminacy” sound like a catchy marketing slogan, it erases emotional complexity in a way that doesn’t really feel consistent with what it’s actually like to practice the Zen Buddhist meditation that inspired him. His music sometimes seem to suggest that if you let go of conventional musical structures, the emotional tangles of relationships that pop songs trade in would immediately vanish in the realization of instant enlightenment.
What I like about Jandek;s music is how it lets go of corraling emotions into conventional musical structures in a way that pushes you – uncomfortably – to encounter those same feelings in a more intimate way. You get to know how unreasonable, fleeting, jumbled and unruly they really are. As they start to fall apart in what one critic called “Jandek’s massively collapsing universe,” something else comes to the fore. I wouldn’t want to say what that is. I’m just glad to see that you can catch a glimpse of it onstage from time to time these days.
you never know, there might even be an impressed fan waiting to talk to the sharp dressed man behind this strange music at the end of the set. You can catch a glimpse of a rather handsome face beneath that black fedora.