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He Walks Alone

. . . bolstered by a fanbase that prints the legend

By Bret McCabe | Posted 11/11/2009

JANDEK PLAYS BALTIMORE THIS SATURDAY. Five and a half years ago that sentence would have been even more far-fetched than the United States electing an African-American president. But, oh, how times have changed. In case you're wondering, Jandek is the Houston-based musical project that has quietly been releasing albums on the Corwood Industries label since 1978, often issuing multiple releases per year. They all feature a grainy image of either an empty room or an exterior shot or a blonde-haired, light-eyed man who is, presumably, the artist. The albums are an eccentric mix of sometimes solo acoustic blues/folk; for a brief time in the 1980s, he was joined by a drummer and maybe a second guitar and a female vocalist. In the mid-to-late 1980s, he played electric guitar fairly often, up through the side-long b-side of 1992's Lost Cause, "The Electric End." After that he returned almost exclusively to solo acoustic guitar—that is, until he didnít.

The 2000s have been his most curiously active and varied decade: He steadily produced albums that included piano, a bass of some sort, solo voice, and harmonica. Then 2004 arrived, and things done changed: Over the course of that year, Jandek cranked out four albums and, somewhat miraculously, a musician billed as the "Corwood Representative" played his first ever live performance on Oct. 17, 2004, in Glasgow, Scotland. Since then, Jandek has performed live 56 times; at the moment, his discography features 59 LPs/CDs over the past 31 years, including five DVDs, but he very well may have put out a few more by the time this article goes live online.

Before going any further, though, let's get one thing clear: I'm a Jandek fan and, as such, nothing I'm about to say should be trusted. The Kool-Aid has been drunk. The obsessive collecting of albums began long ago. Extemporaneous defense of his music occupied many twentysomething late nights. Yes, these were discussions that involved a bunch of white guys smoking reefer with nary a uterus in the room.

What follows, though, is not going to be yet another take on Jandek's music. At this point in time, online music press has created reams of Jandek discussion, from unabashed worship to thoughtful criticism of the outsider nature of the entire career, and I really don't have anything to add to that. That's because, for me, Jandek's music is completely inseparable from the story of Jandek at this point, and considering one without the other is infelicitous. Blunt facts such as the number of albums, lives, shows, etc.—that bean counting matters to Jandek fans, as for the majority of his career that was all we knew about him. As in: He's only been interviewed twice. He's been the subject of one documentary, 2004's Jandek on Corwood. He's been the subject of a 2007 NPR profile. His albums and his enigma have been written about countless times. And outside those two 1980s interviews, Jandek/Corwood has never participated/cooperated in any aspect of this media coverage, a fact that has fired the music's 30-plus-year enigma.

Obscurity for its own sake does, whether record-nerd music heads want to admit it or not, drive the appeal of some artists, albums, and genres, and Jandek is the sort of artist who inspires obscurant devotion because it's such a personal experience. As in, learning about Jandek and listening to the music is an intimate, individual odyssey, a music and fandom that inspires first-person essays that start with first hearing/hearing about him—in Forced Exposure, Byron Coley's 1988 Spin article, hearing the music's desolation blues on a college radio (during the 1980s Corwood did send out albums to college radio stations), stumbling across it in a record store, whatever—and continue through trying to find any kind of more information that, quite simply, wasn't there. For all intents and purposes, Jandek existed only on albums for nearly 20 years, until Seth Tisue started his Guide to Jandek in 1997, which he has consistently updated ever since, and which has become the encyclopedic, definitive resource for Corwood Industries' output.

These days, though, Jandek is a veritable cottage industry of outsider-qua-avant-garde something or other. His 2000s albums have been some of the more odd and inconsistent in a career defined by consistent oddity. They have, in fact, been more miss than hit, frequently CDs you listen to once and then file away (because Jandek fans might harbor the pretentious completist collector's gene). For longtime fans, the "classic" Jandek output of the 1980s into the early í90s defines his sound, and fan favorite albums often date from this period (see the hand-written appraisals of songs in the below scan of a used copy of 1986's Telegraph Melts).

When the Corwood Representative plays live, though, the music has been a different sort of thing than the recent albums. He is typically joined by musicians of noted contemporary independent/improvisational pedigrees—Richard Youngs and Alex Neilson, Nick Hennies, Loren Connors and Chris Corsano, Heather Leigh Murray and Alan Licht, Two Dollar Guitar's Tim Foljahn, Greg Kelley, , and more—and live documents of these performances have been rather startling. They never quite feel like live renditions of previously recorded material, but the ponderously slow pace, droning lamentation ooze, and obtuse, Beckett-bleak lyrics often come together to create an arresting presence.

(That being said, live lightning doesn't always strike twice: witness live clips from an April 2009 Houston performance at Rudyard's featuring the Corwood Representative and collaborators playing the sort of electric funk that should only appear in 1980s actions flicks staring Eddie Murphy as a cop or something.)

Now, it should go without saying that only a Jandek fan is going to bother parsing through any of the above. And like nearly every piece about Jandek, everything here merely recycles thoughts and musings about a musical entity who passively lets a mythic image be shaped for him.

I must confess that I'm apprehensive about finally seeing him live, as I know my barometer for objectively judging the experience is totally shot. The mere lineup—Jandek with an all-star roster of local improvisers, including pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn, Nautical Almanac's electronics wizard Twig Harper, electronics player/spontaneous music provocateur Jason Willett, and human highlight-reel Dan Breen on drums—almost made me wet my pants in excitement, and even if the group does nothing but comes out and kiddie-pool splashes around minor keys and low tones and the tall, reed-thin blonde man seethes his blank verse poetry, I'm going to be able to convince myself that I enjoyed it.

The problem is what happens if I can't. The problem is that insistent worry that the myth and the music are so intertwined that breaking the spell of one makes the whole thing crumble. The problem is that what if I've spent nearly 25 years cherishing an idea of what it might be like to experience this music live that has absolutely no basis in reality at all. The problem is what if this austere music boils down to pure devoted listener projection.

The only way I'm going to find out is to show up, knowing full well I have no idea what to expect. In fact, the only thing I known for sure is: Jandek plays Baltimore this Saturday.

Jandek plays the LOF/t Nov. 14 with Susan Alcorn, Jason Willett, Twig Harper, and Dan Breen.

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