Monday, November 30, 2009

End of an outsider, plus token Jandek reprint

Well, folks... I have to admit, at the moment, I'm thinking of doing what Katherine Dodds would describe as "rebranding myself." I don't really have any interest in detailing the Vancouver scene at present, feel like it's time to come out of the world of music and movies and learn how to be a better human being. My well-being depends on it, to some extent; plus I'm no longer so amused by the idea of sticking myself out into the world as Mr. Alienated. I might seize the moment, in fact, to see if the tumultuous emotions in the wake of my father's death can help me reassemble myself in a different shape - something a bit healthier, something I could be prouder of, because - as a friend points out - in things like my previous CPAP-mask profile photo and other aspects of my self-presentation, there is more than a hint of bad conscience, anger, and self-harm - not to mention a smidgen of rage at the world as it presents itself to me. All fine punk traditions, mind you - but I'm not sure they serve me so well anymore. Plus I'm working hard to take care of my mother right now - not only her feelings, but to get all the paperwork surrounding my father's death done, to get her a steady income, and to get her moved into a smaller suite. I really just don't feel like music and movies and fringe culture are that important at the moment.

All the same, I am a great fan of Joshua Stevenson (see also here) and Jeffrey Allport (see also here) - two of Vancouver's most accomplished and under-appreciated improvisers - and am delighted that they are among the band chosen to play with Jandek here Dec. 7th (sorry for the boy's club element, but I simply don't know Wendy or Rachael's music, and have never seen them play live). My enthusiasm for Jandek is not as strong as it once was, but I enjoyed both the concerts I did see (Toronto and most of the Seattle show) and would, under any other circumstances, be at the Vancouver show.

In lieu of my attendance, I'll show my support for the venture by reprinting my 2006 Nerve Magazine article on Jandek. I hope it's a well-attended, successful night, and that Josh and Jeffrey get some new fans because of their involvement. The original article was subtitled "(but not here. Yet)," but it seems strange to offer it thus when he plays the Scotiabank Dance Centre in two days...

Photo by Dan Kibke; not to be reused without permission

Jandek: He/They Is/Are Coming
by Allan MacInnis

When I get home, there’s a message on my voicemail from Jandek. Or Corwood Industries. Him, them, it. Whatever. I listen to it, stunned.

I had framed the note he’d sent previously, politely declining an interview and saying that there was nothing as yet planned for Vancouver; it’s in a sort of collage with the envelope, the customs declaration, and a partial photocopy of the DVD cover for Glasgow Sunday, the document of his first live show at the Arches in 2004. Jandek looks to be about 50 in the DVD, which is available from Corwood for $17.60 US postpaid to Canada, or $8.80 apiece as part of a box of 20 or more discs – Corwood always gives a great bulk rate. He is well-dressed, and seems quite confident for a man who hasn’t played in front of a large audience before. After years of mystery and speculation, watching him on my TV is very strange.

Hearing him on my voicemail is stranger.

Jandek, for the terminally unhip, is somewhat of a legendary recluse – the Thomas Pynchon or J.D. Salinger of independent music. Beginning in 1978, he has released a whopping 47 albums, producing an ungainly, jangly, but often blues-related music with eccentrically-played instrumentation, uncredited back-up musicians (if any), and often mournful, moaning lyrics about alienation and loss and despair. Though part of the myth of Jandek is that he has never given an official interview, John Trubee, the man behind the Ugly Janitors of America, actually recorded an interview with him for Spin in 1985 (included in full on the Jandek on Corwood DVD); and more recently, the man chatted off the record about allergies and matters unrelated to music with journalist Katy Vine, when she tracked him down in Houston, Texas. For the longest time, the only way you could interact with Jandek was through the post office box of his label, Corwood Industries. Seth Tisue, the webmaster for the excellent and informative Jandek site, casts some light on the confusion surrounding the man at

Officially, Jandek is not a person. The man from the album covers and live appearances is “a representative of Corwood Industries”, and “Jandek” is a musical project which he directs. The trinity of Jandek, Corwood, and “the representative” is both three and one.

These distinctions became clear only recently, especially when Corwood started negotiating Jandek performances with promoters. But an early hint was that the first Jandek LP was originally credited to “The Units”, a name implying a faceless collective. Even the recent live releases do not credit individual musicians.

The name of the real individual behind all this is known. He almost always avoids using his name in connection with Corwood or Jandek, but he has never made any great secret of it, either. Written communications from Corwood are signed “Corwood” or not signed at all, and in a further distancing move, he/they always refers to himself/themselves in writing as “we” rather than “I”.

This leaves the rest of us in a bit of a quandary how to refer to him/them/it — this Jandek thing. It’s common to just refer to Jandek as “he”, avoiding verbal contortions, but it’s also now common to follow Corwood’s own practice and use “Corwood” in contexts where it makes sense; some even go as far as to use “they” even though everybody knows it’s one person. Others aren’t bothered by informally using his real first name (including several of the musicians he has performed with, in their published interviews). (2009 addenda: a growing tendency is to call the man "The Rep" - the representative of Corwood Industries).

Jandek, thus, seems to have inspired a one man variation on politically correct speech. I know his name, too. I am not mentioning it here. I have spoken of him as “they,” myself. I feel guilty and confused about it. I am a liberal.

Somehow, though, actually hearing his voice on my voicemail is anticlimactic. He sounds entirely normal. He is “not sure we should give out information” on other musicians he has played with (I’d requested this in the follow up to his note). Instead, he suggests I contact them over the internet. He helpfully offers me the name of the Toronto promoter, Gary Topp of Topp Notch, as a possible interview. I’m already in touch with Topp – he was the first promoter to win a Toronto Arts Award and has brought many an odd show to town – so the tip doesn’t really amount to much. Corwood neither encourages nor discourages mentioning the possibility of a Vancouver concert. The message is so polite and ordinary that I end up looking at my framed collage on the wall and wondering what kind of silly asshole I am.

Topp’s company with filmmaker Ron Mann, Filmswelike, distributes the film, Jandek on Corwood. The 2004 documentary on the enigmatic musician, in which various critics and musicians speculate on the Jandek mystique, appears to have played a role in bringing Jandek out of his post office box, since it was shortly after its release – after 26 years of putting out music without touring – that he began to play live shows. Topp, a Jandek fan himself, tells me, “I have been writing Corwood for about two years. In April 06, he wrote me that they would be in contact with me in early June; they called me June 1st.” Corwood stipulated that he/they would be giving no interviews for the show, which will happen on September 17th at Toronto’s Centre of Gravity. Jandek will play Korg synthesizers; Toronto based Nilan Pereira is on guitar, by Topp’s arrangement.

Pereira, with whom Topp puts me in touch, has been playing in the “improvised/ avantwhatever” scene in Toronto for about 20 years, “starting with the punkfunk harmolodic scene in the late '80s early 90s. I then went on to more improvised projects with various people like Rainer Wiens, and from there went into dance/theatre as a sound designer/collaborator. I've recently (over the last 2-3 years) re-integrated into the improv music scene.” He has a solo CD of prepared guitar and electronics out and will soon be putting out a “a mirrorimage CD of remixes” by Canadian avant-heroes John Oswald, Martin Tetreault, Sandro Perri, and others. While he is only a recent convert to Camp Jandek, he admits “a profound admiration for his DIY ethic and his rigorous integrity as an artist.”

I asked Pereira how one goes about preparing for a show with an artist this elusive. “There will be a day of meeting and playing before the gig that will determine the music; we’re improvisers and that in itself defines our approach in terms of the depth of palette that we bring. I am bringing some of the best musicians/composers/improvisers to this gig,” including bassist Rob Clutton and drummer Nick Fraser. “The meeting is in the act of creation, and although personality is a factor, the willingness of all to make music is the determining factor; we’ll be making music regardless of the situation. For myself, it's Jandek’s lyrics and musical phrasing that intrigue me the most and will function as the axis that my collaboration will turn on.”

I buy my ticket for the Toronto show as soon as possible, figuring I can scrape up plane fare by some means – besides, Nomeansno play three gigs in a row in Ontario that week, and Tony Conrad will be doing an hour of drone, too. It is only after my plans are made that I discover from Tisue’s site that Jandek will be performing in Seattle on October 27th.

Andrew Morgan was a liaison between Corwood and the Seattle music venue, On the Boards, getting things in motion and talking to Corwood. “There weren’t any stipulations or requests that were too odd,” he tells me, only “things you would assume would be an issue, such as anonymity and the prevention of rumors relating to the show. Corwood wanted a seated, nice venue in a good part of town. That was his only real request... everything else was up to me.”

Morgan has a more-intimate-than-usual history with the Man from Corwood. “Before I moved to Seattle 6 months ago, I lived in Houston, where Corwood Industries is based. There was a lot to get excited about, there, as a Jandek fan. I worked at a natural grocery store that he frequented. Friends of mine would see him at bookstores, restaurants, and bars. It was fun and harmless.”

I asked Morgan about the whole mythos behind the man – in Jandek on Corwood, music geeks are seen commenting on everything from the possibility that the man has mental health issues to his choice of flipflops for footwear on certain album covers; they show off their own scribbled notes from Corwood, play taped conversations, and speculate for all they’re worth about who Jandek actually might be. “As far as the mythos goes,” Morgan says, “I don’t feel as if it’s something Corwood has intentionally created. Obviously the dude wants to be left alone, but he’s not completely unavailable. He returns letters and phone calls. I think he just has a certain idea of how he wants to present the music and he’s not going to stray from that. I always think back to the article in Texas Monthly by Katy Vine and how she asked him if there was anything he wanted people to ‘get’ from his music and he simply responded with ‘There’s nothing to get.’ I think part of the charm and magnetism of Jandek’s music is his complete and total disregard for the listener. It’s extremely refreshing.”Morgan continues. “A friend of mine in Houston and I used to have lengthy conversations about Jandek and Corwood. Together we came to the conclusion that he’s not playing shows to capitalize on his new weird pseudo-celebrity or to try and follow and sort of normal convention of touring or performing live. Since he’s playing all unheard material live and recording every show (both audio and video), these are just new ways of recording records. This is just the next ‘period’ of Jandek. The Live Music phase or something.”

Jandek had played Portland a few weeks previously. For one number, two female backup singers joined the stage, much to the audience’s surprise. Fan descriptions can be found on Tisue’s site. Morgan tells me, “I saw the Portland show and thought it was one of the single most enjoyable live performances I’ve ever seen... which I did not expect. It was extremely accessible and almost rock and roll. Very close to a record like You Walk Alone (my personal favourite).”
I asked Morgan what he thinks the future will hold: will the touring and accelerated activity lead to greater fame for Jandek, or will it crush the mystique and end the saga? ”I wouldn’t be surprised if he stopped doing shows as suddenly as he started. If you’ve heard Jandek’s music you know that it will not lead to anymore fame than already exists. It’s difficult, alienating music. I think the only thing that the performing will change about the ‘mystique’ will be that people will no longer be distracted by the facelessness of the music and just start focusing on the music itself. Which is good, considering the quality of the recent recordings. They’re so good!”
The Seattle show will probably see Jandek on guitar, since he has requested an amp. Emil Amos, who was the drummer for the show in Portland, says, “I've never seen an audience be as patient with improvised songs as his audience was.” Bassist Sam Coomes and Emil had practiced a couple of times before the show, Jandekless, “but we agreed that any preparation probably wouldn't end up altering what would happen in the performance on an instinctual level;” once the Corwood rep arrived, “the practicing we did as a band (on the day of the show, for 3 hours) was just to ultimately get comfortable in each other's presence.”

I asked Emil how it feels to be playing with Corwood yet again, for the Seattle gig. “I'm interested to see what themes will repeat themselves and which ones won't, considering that this particular backing band seems to have it's own 'sound'. But I'm in the dark as much the audience is and it's cool that way.” Emil describes Jandek as “one of the most ruthlessly instinctual players I've ever heard. In the blues/folk setting that he is often viewed in (as opposed to jazz or noise) I think it was widely accepted that it would be virtually impossible to have that much freedom of instinct.” Wisely, during the Portland experience, Emil managed to simply avoid referring to him by name at all.

My continued researches lead me closer to home. Will there be a Vancouver show? Ironically, there is some slight possibility that an article like this will sour the possibility, so y’all are requested to LEAVE CORWOOD ALONE. Wait. Hum “I’ll Sit Alone and Think a Lot About You” to yourself (from Jandek’s1988’s On the Way, which, mostly due to the energetic bluesy raveup, “Message to the Clerk,” is my favourite of his/their discs). Watch Jandek on Corwood again. Get a life!

(2009 addenda: and once again, Jandek plays the Scotiabank Dance Centre Monday, Dec. 7).

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