The Man Who Wasn'T There

Jandek On Corwood

Michael Henningsen
4 min read
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“In 1978, a musician released his first album, Ready for the House. It featured a lonely voice accompanied by acoustic guitar. His subsequent recordings made him one of the most prolific artists in contemporary music. Almost nobody has noticed.”

—preface to Jandek on Corwood

What if someone filmed a documentary and nobody showed up? Ask first-time filmmakers Chad Friedrichs (director) and Paul Fehler (producer), whose documentary Jandek on Corwood examines the recording career of a musician calling himself Jandek who has, for more than 25 years, remained so staunchly reclusive that he has never performed live*, has never appeared on the cover of any music rag, has given a single telephone interview and responds to most correspondence with a catalog of his available releases—all 37 of them, to date. Jandek has no distributor for his records; they must be mail-ordered directly from Corwood Industries, the one-man record company he runs somewhere in or near Houston, Texas. Jandek is the only artist on the Corwood Industries roster. He engages in no promotion (save for an ad he ran a few times in Option magazine in the '80s that stated simply, “Jandek on Corwood, P.O. Box 15375, Houston, Texas 77220) and issues no press releases. And as for the film that bears his name? Jandek didn't show up. He was invited, but politely declined. He did, however, authorize the use of his music and album covers, and even recommended some of the 24 people interviewed during the making of the documentary. And he responded to a few general questions, mostly by scrawling “You may not get all the answers you want. It's better this way,” on a postcard and mailing it to Friedrichs and Fehler.

The first rule of understanding Jandek is grasping the idea that you'll never understand Jandek, because Jandek either can't be understood or doesn't want to be. His music over the years has been largely a solo effort, although there have been occasional appearances by a female vocalist and a drummer. His guitar has always been largely out of tune, although some of his songs feature alternate (and I do mean alternate) tunings that appear to be deliberate. His voice is patently gorgeous, although his lysergic, hallucinatory melodies require more than just your average open mind. In short, Jandek's music is either going to be the most interesting you've ever heard or the worst you'll ever hear. Listening to him requires creating a new mindset with regard to music as an art form. It's music that sounds as though it was created in a different, parallel reality—the kind of sounds one hears and the way one reacts to them after a couple of days of sleep deprivation. It's all very David Lynchian, but not as plastic.

Many have speculated that Jandek may be mentally ill, a sociopath who simply can't deal with people or the world around him. A crazy shut-in who makes records instead of pipe bombs. But in listening to his music, one discovers what may be nothing more than a new species of singer-songwriter, an artist whose guitar is simply an extension of himself, whose raw emotions simply become lyrics, who makes his art as he hears it and for no set of ears but his own. Frankly, art doesn't get any purer than that. Most of his records sound melancholy, and there's a definite sense of isolation in Jandek's work, but the Jandek we hear on record is perhaps just one side of a very complex individual who may very well live just like the rest of us. As K Records founder Calvin Johnson puts it, “Just because someone chooses not to participate in mass media doesn't mean there is something wrong with that person.”

The film is nearly as strange as the Jandek mystery itself, relying on a slide show of random images and Jandek album covers between brief interview snippets, with Jandek recordings banging away in the distant background. But it's quite beautiful and punctuates the enigma better than, say, a narrated linear piece or a camera-in-the-face docudrama. It is, in fact, one of the best music-based films you'll ever see—it's got all the elements: strange, new music, novel-worthy mystery and brief glimpses of what may be an alternate intelligence. My guess is that, once you've seen the film, you'll be writing Corwood Industries, if not because you really want to buy some Jandek records, then because you just want the satisfaction of getting something personal yet almost entirely anonymous from him, even if it's just a postcard or a catalog.

*On Oct. 17, 2004, Jandek performed live for the first time ever at the Instal.04 Experimental Music Festival in Glasgow, Scotland. He sang and played guitar, joined by Richard Youngs on bass and Alexander Neilson on drums. The performance was not publicized beforehand nor was it officially acknowledged as having happened. Most of the people present for the unannounced performance were not aware until sometime afterward whom they had seen and heard. The appearance has been confirmed by eyewitnesses, photographs (the 50-ish man in the photos is undoubtedly the same man who appears at various stages of his younger life on about one-third of Jandek's records) and video footage.

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