By Michael Sheehan
Not long after finding out about Jandek, I drove 300 roundtrip miles to see him perform on a Friday evening in April 2017 in Houston. It seems fitting that I had to go to such lengths to see Jandek perform; it serves the mythology. After all, Jandek spent three decades producing music shrouded in mystery, never (or almost never) giving interviews or revealing his identity, and never performing live. What made Jandek Jandek was, to a large extent, the reclusivity, the fact that listeners had to seek him out.
If you’re asking who or what Jandek is, it’s no surprise, despite the fact that he’s released more than 135 albums since 1978. Jandek is mostly a moniker for a single man—an alter ego for a slim redheaded Houstonian transplant named Sterling Richard Smith—though sometimes also it names the musical project, not the individual. If you were in the know in the 80s or 90s, what you had was an accidental 1989 interview in Spin and a mail-order catalog of albums (most featuring portrait photos of a redheaded man) that you could get in bulk by sending money to a PO Box in Houston. Maybe his music was played on your local college radio station. (I was devoted to the college radio station of my youth, WBER, but I checked and they did not recall ever playing him.) Maybe you caught passing references to him, like the offhand comment by Kurt Cobain in a 1993 interview where he pulled 1985’s Nine Thirty from his record collection and said “[Jandek’s] not pretentious but the people who listen to him are.”
The show was in Hamman Hall at Rice University on the anniversary of Prince’s death. I took my seat in the darkened auditorium where the curtained stage was drenched in purple light. There were not many people there but more than I’d expected. Dozens, let’s say. The houselights went down, and the audience went funereally silent. We stared for a minute or more at the empty, purple-lit stage. Then players emerged, still to utter silence: guitar, slide guitar, bass; these were Austin Sepulvado, Will Van Horn, and Mark Riddell, though nothing told me so that night. A woman (Sheila Smith) paused at the drumkit before coming to the two music-stands at stagefront to turn on tiny reading lights. She then returned to the drums—still silent—sat, and, after a bit of stillness, a lean figure dressed all in black appeared at the back of the stage and made the circuit they all had, but slower, walking along the glowing curtains, carrying a small bag or briefcase, hatless until he reached about midstage when he paused, donned the black fedora, and then set his bag down behind the drums, extracted his thick spiral-bound books of lyrics, and came to the front of the stage. He unclipped the book, set it on the stand, and gently set the clip down, fumbling with it slightly, as if perhaps nervous. The audience had not made a single sound during this whole approach. Then the two-hour set began. First an instrument started a pattern, then others joined, and finally Jandek—nearing and withdrawing from the microphone until the timing struck him—began. “I took a train,” he moaned, “to Colorado.”
I’d driven so far for this because reading about him, his reclusivity and the longstanding mystery of his identity, made me want to discover him, made me want to find and connect to this rare performer. I had also, at that time, finished a novel about a reclusive hairmetal singer who makes a dramatic and ill-fated return to live performance, a novel which I’d been sending out to be rejected by agents and editors. I don’t know how conscious the connection was–I’ve been writing about a reclusive musician for years and here’s this musician who has been reclusive for decades and only just recently started performing–but I think pretty conscious. But it was more than that, too: the combination (even contradiction) of a prolific output of albums and songs and lyrics with a strenuous effort to hide was compelling, in fact literally haunting: the presence of an absence. That his music was elusive, oneiric, uncategorizable, sometimes sounding a little like early Thurston Moore and at other times sounding like bad poetry over untuned instruments was, again, a powerful draw. That draw was the act of discovery, hunting for something, to find the meaning, intellectualize the lyrics and the music, to get close to the mystery, the ghost, and see what’s really there. But though the motivation was this finding, the experience of seeing Jandek was not of finding but of feeling, of losing myself rather than discovering the meaning.
Jandek’s onstage persona, as Marc Masters describes, is enigmatic and fit with the reclusive and mysterious figure only-guessed-at in the years before he made a surprise live appearance at a festival in Glasgow in 2004. Emaciated, dressed all in black, seeming at once rickety and ill and also wily and spry—he crouched and danced in slow, strange moves, out of sync with the music or suggesting a groove that was not otherwise evident. He intoned his lyrics, off-key, a moaning, haunting sort of wail, a near-spoken word that was evocative in its lyrics but also in the almost anguished quality of his voice and his delivery.
He would then cross the stage slowly, sometimes seeming to reconsider as he went or to listen and groove to what patterns were emerging behind him, crossing to a wooden chair at stage right which he slowly and with precise posture—what at first appeared like discomfort or difficulty—lowered himself into, after which the music tapered out within a few bars. It took me a couple repetitions of this to recognize the movement for the obvious communication it was: since every part of what was occurring onstage was an on-the-spot improvisation, Jandek’s sitting was his signal that lyrically that track had come to its finish. This improvisational quality makes the live performance feel much like the records in spirit, since many of them are freeform, experimental explorations of sound that are more like happenings than produced and planned tracks. Chaotic and amateurish, there are elements of structure and intention with his songs, even of album-level coherence and flow, but part of what you hear and feel when you listen to Jandek records is a sort of essaying of forms and emotions, rather than a performance in the true sense. Masters describes the live performance period of Jandek’s career, noting he “has put himself in a dizzying array of situations, often with collaborators he’d never performed with before or even met before the show…an impressive amount of shows have been complete wild cards, veering into styles, genres, and instrumental formats no one would normally associate with the Corwood representative.”
By shedding more traditional structures and approaches Jandek’s music seems to create something truly new, to reach and achieve emotions in wholly novel ways. Even though a given song might have a country feel to it or a blues phrasing, the overall song architecture hits you like nothing you’ve heard before—when it works. Admittedly, Jandek’s music is not easy to enjoy or even listen to, in many cases. There are many critical notes going back many years that suggest this atonality is not intentional—just a lack of mastery of the instruments, an ineptitude—or is intended but as a joke.
The point I want to make about the blues and Jandek’s context is that his music is strange but powerfully emotional, capable of resonant harmonies that haunt or transcend. But beyond or beside or within or through the flatly-intoned or howling strangeness, there are, at times, moments of deep sadness or sudden clarity but also sometimes moments of levity, moments of beauty, moments of, basically, frustration. Loneliness. The themes explored throughout Jandek’s lyrics are evoked in desperate, spare musical landscapes that have a fragmentary relationship to other, more familiar genres.
For example, at Hamman Hall, there was a point in the evening when Jandek switched places with Sheila Smith, who took the mic as he took the drums. He seemed a more capable drummer, albeit still an expressive rather than rhythmic one: he would quietly play until suddenly cracking the snare with a burst of presumed approval of Sheila’s lyric or delivery. But where Jandek stood mostly at the microphone feeling the music and finding the moments for his lyrics, Sheila crawled and posed and moved and danced in place. She wore an outfit that called to mind Alice in Wonderland. Somewhere in the middle of this, I closed my eyes, and stopped thinking and simply let the sound congeal behind my eyes. It was transporting. Though the purpose of seeing Jandek live–rather than simply buying the recordings he now releases of every live show–is to see him, I felt closing all my senses except the audile and letting the music do its work was the truest way to experience what was happening. And it was powerful. The ghosts of melodies arose and dissipated; the lyrics dug and stung; the large auditorium room we were in became an intimate space. Maybe this is what Kurt Cobain meant: to experience the music not intellectually but via an embodied cognition, something under or deeper than thought.
Still, seeing the Representative from Corwood (as he is sometimes called) at such close range struck me as something similar to Samuel Charters’ discovery of the only extant picture of Blind Willie Johnson, “Then there he was. I couldn’t breathe for a minute—I just sat staring at the screen.” This is undeniably part of the appeal. Perhaps unintentionally, Jandek created a sort of anti-celebrity in an era of massmedia. During the decades where lo-fi and no wave and grunge and indie-folk and alt-country bands rose to fame, his music remained accessible only via mail order. He retreated from reporters, avoided any publicity. This created among his fans a sort of echo of the mid-century search for the masters of the Texas blues, that desire to get as close to the source as possible. Hence Katie Vine’s 1999 article in Texas Monthly, “Jandek and Me,” in which she tracks him down, figures out his identity and finds him at home, then goes for a beer and captures the second-ever interview with him. He told her, at the time, “There’s nothing to get.”
But apart from that echo, I sat there and truly felt an experience that stepped outside of the commercial structure I’d come to know–come to long for acceptance in, with the novel I’d been sending out. This was a performer who had created and self-released music prolifically, denying a one-time eager world of any marketable identity. Prince, too, challenged ideas about identity, was a performer who could hybridize genres; I spent some time in the dark of Hamman Hall wondering if Jandek would cover Purple Rain–imagine it! In the thick ambient lighting, against the heavy drapery. But its impossibility I think highlights what Jandek did do. He didn’t cover, didn’t perform anything. He instead stood before a room of listeners, vulnerable, and open to the possibility of any given moment, including the possibility that he would struggle and never find the point where the elements fit together. But you could feel, could hear, that energy, that in-the-moment reaching.
After the last song–“From There” on the CD version, a nearly-twelve minute astral projection in which a haunting slide guitar braids and folds around the lyrics that are part dirge and part reflection on life and work and disappointment and longing; he speaks/sings/drawls, “So I’ll sing a song this evening / just to mean it all for you”–the stage procession was reversed, there was neither encore nor any call for one, though the crowd cheered wildly, and I walked out, across Rice’s campus, back to my car, and began the long drive north into the dark of East Texas, toward my home in the pines.
Michael Sheehan is an assistant professor of creative writing at SUNY Fredonia and formerly at Stephen F. Austin State University. He is also a former fellow of the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and a graduate of the University of Arizona’s MFA program and St. John’s College’s Graduate Institute in Liberal Arts. He has been an editor for DIAGRAM and was an Editor in Chief of Sonora Review, where he curated a tribute to the work of David Foster Wallace. His work is forthcoming or has appeared recently in Electric Literature, Agni, Mississippi Review, Conjunctions, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere.