Jandek, Live at Tulane University's Dixon Hall, March 16, 2009
I am a Jandek fan; let me get this out of the way. I first heard him when his 1989 album The Living End fell out of the stacks at the college radio station while shelving a Jane's Addiction record; in the former I found everything lacking in the latter. Alt-rock in the 80's proudly bore the patina of roughness while it begged to be glossy; running counter to that was Jandek, the uncarved block. Dropping a needle on Jandek record was inviting mystery into your life. Then as now, we know little about him – his name is Sterling Smith, he makes difficult, sometimes harrowing records straddling the line between outsider folk and insider experimental on his own label for which the only point of contact is "corwood industries, p.o. box 15375, houston texas 77220." He doesn’t give interviews (save two uncomfortable ones early in his career), issues only the cryptic missives on his catalogs, most often a terse “no” to answer a request for more information. He's been doing it for 30 years now, shipping these records out to college radio stations assuming they would take on a life of their own separate from his. And they did. In an era of constant projection of self through social networking, his story is impossible to unravel. Jandek is not a simple recluse; he wants to contact you, he just doesn't want you contacting him.
In 2004, Sasquatch emerged from the woods to play an unannounced enigmatic concert at a Scotland music festival with Richard Youngs and Alex Neilson and has proceeded over the years since more than thirty of these concerts in various locales, ranging from Helsinki to Indianapolis. I was a little torn about the development in the story line; I like the hermit sending cryptic dispatches from the mountain. That is how mythic wisdom gets disseminated. But I also understand the folly of mythologizing artists - they are human, often less effective in their humanity than the rest of us, which is why they produce art. Jandek, for whatever reason needed poke out of his bubble a little. And being a fan first, analyst second, I didn't really care why - I wanted to see this.
In 2005 he was scheduled to perform in nearby New Orleans and I bought tickets the instant they were available, but his show was canceled due to this gigantic, apocalyptic storm named Katrina we had. I secretly wished he would perform in the wreckage of New Orleans on his appointed time, sticking to the peculiarities his persona had generated, but of course that didn't happen. Then, four years later, a terse announcement from the ticket vendor said that my original ticket would be honored at the March 16 make-up show at Dixon Hall on the Tulane campus. It was like the zoo announcing the reopening of the unicorn habitat.
Doing business solely by P.O. box these days is bad business, if the sparse crowd in the recital hall is any measure, but I liked that - participating in the Jandek game still requires hermetic knowledge. After an affable set by the art-folk outfit Hooray for the Riffraff, the stage was cleared except for a grand piano and a Theremin, resembling a water buffalo and a stork having a staring contest. There was a time when the very word Theremin would excite me, but over the years I seen it to be a very difficult instrument to master beyond the novelty of space noises. Jandek usually plays with whoever the top-shelf improvisers are in that given city, and I know a couple of New Orleans cats who know their way around a Theremin, so I had hope.
I did not know the young woman who emerged from stage right , nor was she introduced before taking her place before the instrument. The Representative from Corwood, as he is commonly identified in these concerts, preserving the mystery of the Jandek brand, strode in front of her resolutely to the piano, dressed not unlike the way one imagines a small-town undertaker – workman like, fully composed, and a little creepy. He did not particularly regard his accompanist or the audience. He simply began playing and so did she.
If only they’d played together and not just in the same room. The Rep produced a sweet, if naïve, Satie-like piano figure that lilted and flowed in light melancholy splendor, rising and falling, cycling around, occasionally devolving into a cavernous rumble at the bass notes or a spindly pecking of the high ones. If you are familiar with the Glasgow Monday CD, documenting his third concert, similar ground was traversed, except this evening we were denied his somnambulant despair poetry, whispered and bellowed to the uncaring void that make his albums so singular. I’m reticent to complain, fearing that I would send this timid creature back into hiding, and recognize that Jandek likely is indifferent to my assessment, but I was a little let down by the lack of vocals. But, Jandek is not a service provider, does only what he pleases, and I was grateful to be in his indifferent presence. And he’s not too bad of a piano player.
The Thereminist, however, drove the concert into collapse. One got the feeling that she was new to the instrument, or played it for color in one of New Orleans’ many outsized quirky bands, for her contribution to the hour of music was rudimentary, swirling hand effects that made echoey police sirens, little rushes of noise against The Rep’s unrelenting etude. In the other live recordings I’ve heard, The Rep does his thing on whatever instrument, guitar, piano, bass, harmonica and the evening’s cohorts, often the cream of that locale’s improviser crop, are deft enough to delicately fill in the holes; this person played her instrument like she was tarring road with it. To play Theremin as the sole improvised accompaniment to an hour-long piano piece requires a really good ear, delicacy, and quickness with orchestral drama. While it is great fun to make swoosh noise on it; it’s just not that much fun to listen to if that’s all you are doing with it. After an hour, the Rep pulled his song into a rather simple and obvious ending – seemingly even freaking Jandek had grown tired of this—the Thereminist demonstrated a reluctance to stop.
But she did stop and the two awkwardly, wordlessly exited the stage. The guy that went with me, having been subject to my Jandek evangelism for the ensuing week, was still on speaking terms so it wasn’t the worst show in the world. Instead of the cathartic danger one anticipates from a character and musician like Jandek, I instead felt the flat bemusement of having witnessed Keith Jarrett use his B-game to commune with an uninterested whale.
It is an interesting place for Jandek to be. The shtick repeated about him is primitive – he doesn’t know how to play his instrument. The truth is he might not know how to play our instrument, the way we think it’s supposed to be done. The guy has 30 years of crafting his music on his instrument under his belt, doing it clearly, admirably and defiantly his way, and to experience that body of accomplishment is inspiring; it’s a body worth a critical look when it fails to meet its expectations. One hopes that as he progresses the live angle of his operation, he'll take a more proactive role in making sure the musicians he works with are up to the the task of performing his music. But, a bum concert among 30 is like one bad evening out of a month, hopefully a mere speed bump on this most curious of journeys.
The theater was too dark to get a remotely adequate image. The above is the cover of Jandek's 1987 album Modern Dances. For an encyclopedic look at the world of Jandek, see Seth Tisue's Guide to Jandek site