2003 / 88 Minutes / USA / Colour & B&W
A film by: Chad Freidrichs
"The longest-running, weirdest, loneliest enigma in popular music is a guy from Texas who calls himself Jandek."
So begins a 1997 Boston Phoenix article by Douglas Wolk. From the bluesy, atonal music and haunting lyrics, to the artist's steadfast seclusion and sheer longevity, everything about this man intrigues. Twenty-five years, 34 albums, and not a single live show or public appearance. Even the simple detail of the man's real name is a mystery.
￼Jandek on Corwood is the 88-minute documentary that explores this man, his world and his music. Jandek released his first album, Ready for the House, in 1978 on his own record label, Corwood Industries (he is, of course, the only artist on this label). The release went relatively overlooked until a review by Phil Milstein appeared in Op magazine in 1980. Bolstered by that slight measure of notice, Jandek set about releasing at least one album per year over the next quarter century of his unique brand of cacophonous rock and suicide-note blues.
Slowly, word of Jandek spread, primarily through college radio stations and obscure fanzines.
In 1985, writer John Trubee was approached by the executive editor of a fledgling music magazine called Spin to submit an article about the artist of his choice. He immediately thought of Jandek, because "he's underground; nobody knew about him; he was doing things on a shoestring." This article spawned the only interview with the man behind the Jandek music and the Corwood Industries record label in which he speaks about the project. All subsequent attempts to glean any information on the subject have been respectfully declined.
Jandek's music is difficult to describe. "I usually tell people that it's someone who has a completely untuned guitar and is just sort of meandering and yelling over it," says Angela Sawyer of Twisted Village Records in Cambridge Massachusetts. "That wouldn't tell a person who has a bunch of Jandek records what it sounds like but for someone who has a bunch of Toni Braxton records or some U2 records, that will help them out." Reviewers have an equally troubling time describing what a Jandek song sounds like. An Option magazine article refers to his "anguished, moaning, impassioned vocals." A mention in a 1998 book compares his guitar playing to "a deathbed Neil Young."
￼Certain words stick out in the multitude of reviews and articles that have appeared in various publications, like "spooky," "honest," and "wispy." Yet none can really capture the distinctiveness of Jandek's sound.
However, more attractive than the unique music is the impenetrable mystery. Who is this man who has persisted all this time, putting out at least an album a year, which 99% of the public will never hear? He refuses to promote his albums through live shows or interviews, and yet for years advertised in independent music publications such as Op magazine. Of course, his ads were as sparse and aloof as the man and his music. A white box with black type stating only "Jandek on Corwood; PO Box 15375, Houston, TX 77220." No graphics, no color, no information other than the artist's name, the label and the address.
What is Corwood Industries? "Corwood Industries is an industrial giant in the Houston area dedicated entirely to manufacturing and disseminating Jandek musical material," muses writer Byron Coley. The only tangible evidence of the company is a post-office box. This ambiguity about the label raises the question of how the Jandek albums are financed. It is a safe assumption that he is not making a profit on the sales of these albums. Even if the only cost he has is the pressing of the records (or, since 1992, the CD's), which he has done at a small family-owned company called Houston Records, he gives away to radio stations, record stores, and music critics far more than he actually sells.
Nothing has garnered more speculation, however, than the appearance of other musicians on the albums. Before the fourth album, released in 1982, Jandek fans had grown accustomed to his music as a solitary endeavor. "I remember hearing about it much more than actually hearing it," reflects Sawyer. "I was much more interested in the idea there was this reclusive guy writing these songs that made no sense." And then suddenly, he has friends-or at least associates. When Coley first encountered the song title "Nancy Sings" on Jandek's fourth album, he initially thought, "It could be anything. It could be a song about Nancy singing. And then when you get there and it's actually a woman singing and you grab the album your looking at and it says 'Nancy Sings,' so you're like, 'I guess it's Nancy.". The same lyrics are used once again on the cut "John Plays Drums" when Jandek is joined by, you guessed it, a drummer. "I remember when I first heard the drums and how shocking that was because cumulatively you get the image of this guy alone in his room" reflects Milstein. The identities of the individuals are not revealed by any credits or liner notes with the albums (it should be pointed out that Jandek albums never contain any sort of credits or liner notes). Where did he meet these people? Who are they? John Trubee posed these questions to him in that infamous 1985 interview. He got no response.
Not only does the documentary Jandek on Corwood lay out these intriguing facts for its audience, it also explores their implications. How much does the mystery play into fans' appreciation of the music?
Why do fans from diverse backgrounds come to similar conclusions about Jandek's biography despite the lack of any biographical information in which to ground these convictions? How much can we infer about the man behind the music from odd style and tone of his art? How much, for that matter, about any artist? How much of each fan's image of Jandek is simply a reflection of him or herself?
One of the biggest questions that remain (besides the identity of the artist) is how the Jandek story will end. Music critic Douglas Wolk has been fooled three times about the end of Jandek. "He always sounds like he's about to sign off" Wolk reflects, "and then he never does quite. And then there's always another [album] that comes after it." Most Jandek fans hope he will keep releasing about an album a year forever. Perhaps not the most realistic prediction, but they just can't imagine the man behind the mystery putting a stop to it. Likewise, they can't imagine ever knowing the whole truth about this man, his life and his music.
As the man at Corwood Industries wrote to Jandek on Corwood's producers when they began the documentary, "You may not get all the answers you want. It's better that way."
Sorry, Not Available
JANDEK ON CORWOOD, "Jessica Simpson, Jandek's not!" - Globe and Mail Review, Bruce Mowat, June 11, 2004
JANDEK ON CORWOOD, "a must for alt-music obsessives" - Toronto Star, Geoff Pevere, June 11, 2004
Jason Cooley's perceptive review of Jandek on Corwood
Austin Chronicle mini-review
Chart Attack: Indie Music Video Festival
Georgia Straight: IMVF Ready to Roll