Friday, March 26, 2010
Something very odd happened in Australia over the last few weeks: a man who goes by the name of Jandek toured here and played a series of shows throughout various cities. If you'd told me 20 years ago that Jandek would tour Australia in the year 2010, I wouldn't have believed you. Actually, if you'd told me such a story in 1990, I would've asked you, Who in the hell is Jandek and what does he/it/they do? I only knew the name through various reviews from Forced Exposure, but had no idea what "Jandek" was. So far as I knew, it could've been an Eastern European prog band from the '70s. I didn't get my head around the cult of Jandek until roughly three years later, when there was somewhat of a "revival" (OK, hardly a revival, since it's hard to revive something which has never been huge), again pushed by the folks at FE (who started carrying his records through their distribution service), when his records started becoming a little bit more widely available. Or at least more widely available than Jandek himself simply selling them via mailorder through his Corwood PO box in Texas. I bought a bunch of his LPs at the time, even some of his CDs in the late '90s, and then kinda forgot about the guy. Count me as a fan, but I don't play his records on a weekly, nor monthly, basis. Prior to last week, I hadn't listened to any of them in a decade, not even after the documentary film came out a few years ago (which I still haven't seen, though I surely should). I was under the impression that he'd kept all his LPs in print over the years, but was surprised to find out he hasn't actually pressed any vinyl since the mid '90s, all his releases now being CD only (which means that the LPs I own are now worth over $100 a piece. If I ever decide to procur an insane drug habit, I know which discs I can easily flog off for a quick fix).
But this is all background information. The story of Jandek himself has been semi-documented over the last five years by various well-meaning folks, though pieces of the puzzle remain missing, and that's just the way the guy prefers it. Despite semi-regular live shows in recent years, he's still never been the recipient of a comprehensive interview discussing the whys, wheres, hows and whens, something I still feel puzzling, considering, from all reports, he's a stand-up guy on a personal level (and a successful and wealthy stockbroker) and the not the semi-autistic recluse many figured him for for nigh on 30 years. Perhaps it's just my natural inclination to never be able to keep a secret that makes this so puzzling to me, or my tendency for personal announcements of no real consequence (like this blog), though someone from the touring party told me the story is really quite basic: Jandek, AKA Sterling Smith, simply has no interest in the mechanisations of the music industry. His interest is music, pure and simple, and since his day job earns him a comfortable living, any sense of stardom or recognition is not relevant to him. Someone else will likely give you a different version of events, but that's the one I heard.
And now to the show. Prior to his first Melbourne performance, a mid-week show I caught at the illustrious Thornbury Theatre on High St., in which he played dates in Brisbane and Sydney, attendances had, from all reports, been extremely poor. Bafflingly poor. Admittedly Jandek ain't a household name, and ticket prices weren't cheap ($40 on the door), though I'm shocked at how few people turned up, even notorious music-nerd buddies of mine who wouldn't take the leap. Let me say this: in 10 years or so (he's 64), the man known as Jandek will, according to statistics, likely die. He will then be universally hailed as some sort of reclusive and eccentric musical genius on a par w/ Harry Partch or John Fahey (much of this is already true, pre-mortem), and said people will be kicking themselves for eternity that they didn't take the chance to see him play. It's not like he's ever coming back (especially after the turnouts he just got!).
Sparse display of humanity aside, I'm glad I made the effort. Backed by the Scottish rhythm section of statuesque bassist Heather Leigh Murray and journalist/musician David Keenan (a guy whose writing I have distinctly mixed feelings for [especially after he laid into a fanzine I produced in an old issue of The Wire mag!], though I did like his book on Current 93/Nurse With Wound/Coil, England's Hidden Reverse) on drums, dressed up w/ a slouched hat and white shirt like he wished he was partying at the Gatsby mansion (and his physical presence did rile a few in the audience... namely the people I went with!), Jandek strode out on stage dressed in black from hat to bottom. No introductions, no words, just straight into a lilting, barely-together psychedelic country/blues number which took off at the speed of a slug. Murray slid her hand (which I assume was accompanied by a slide device) slowly up and down the neck, Keenan posed, cavorted and wriggled behind his kit like he was balancing on a pilates ball, and Jandek himself wandered draggedly up and down the stage, wrenching discordant notes from his strings which beautifully coated the rhythm section and sounded, well, uncannily like an old Royal Trux or Sonic Youth record. All, this, by the way, went on for over an hour, without a break. Jandek occasionally moaned out a few lines he was reading from his lyrics sheet set up on a stand in front of him, but otherwise there was little to break the monotony. This may sound like an excercise in musical torture to some of you, and I can assure a few of the 50 or so folks in attendance were getting restless, myself included, though the end result was more than the sum of its parts.
Whilst my brother and a few friends half-jokingly muttered to me that the gig was an "endurance test", with many in the crowd sitting or lying on the ground to rest their stiff legs by show's end, there was the clincher which settled it for me: near the end, Jandek laid down his guitar and pulled out a harmonica, ghostily bleating forth droning hums over the minimal, almost slow-motion rhythm. The effect was superb. Next, whilst the bass and drums were still emitting a minimal pulse, he packed his guitar and songbook away, stared blankly at the band from the side of the stage, then slowly exited the spotlight. The last image I saw was his silhouette as he left the room to the right of the stage. No show business, nothing. I talked to Joel "Rock 'n' Roll" Silbersher after the show to ask him what he thought, and he was mightily impressed. Just when I was about to express some reservations regarding the performance's alleged greatness, he butted in to state the question: What else would anyone expect from a Jandek show? That he'd come out, introduce the band then swing into a succession of "favourites" for the overseas audience? Nope. In the back of my mind, prior to the show, something along those lines did pop into my head (though I wasn't about to admit it), and just what in the hell was I expecting? What I did get was confounding and it was pure Jandek: absolutely no regards for standard convention in the music biz, "underground" or otherwise. It was strange, it didn't make me want to bust out into the twist, and it left more questions than answers. It was Jandek. Mighty glad I saw it.