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Monday, January 14, 2008

Jandek on Corwood

A couple of nights ago, after a nerve-wracking date, I met Alan at the Swedish-American Hall to see Jandek. If you're not familiar, Jandek is the sole band on the Corwood Industries label, which is owned by the man who sings and plays guitar (among other things) in Jandek. If you write to his p.o. box and ask for a discograhy, you'll receive a typewritten sheet with a list of his albums (I think there are 51, to date), hand-signed by "a representative from Corwood Industries".

Since 1978, "the man from Corwood" has been sending his albums, free and unsolicited, to music stores and college radio stations all over the country. Many of his albums have on their covers these photographs of a mysterious, slack-faced man. Though there was plenty of speculation, it wasn't until 2004 that his fans learned the man in the photographs is, indeed, the man from Corwood himself, because in 2004, he made his very first public appearance.

The talent behind Jandek is (or was?) an extremely private man. So private, that though big media (like NPR) has requested interviews, he's only granted two of them, ever. Despite this, he's developed a fairly large fan base. Over the years he's managed to keep his own background and history a secret (almost — you'll read on Wikipedia that before he started making albums he wrote novels. Seven of them. Which he then burned.). So when I heard that Jandek was making a rare appearance here in my city, I just knew I had to go.

The Swedish-American Hall was packed that night, so I was glad Alan and I arrived early (and secured front-row seats!). While we waited for Jandek to make his appearance I looked around at the crowd; many of the men wore beards, and a good number of his fans of both genders wore something that had been knitted. Just in front of us, the stage was empty except for a sparkly pink drum kit and, in the background, a beautiful red velvet curtain. Next to the drum kit was a sheet music stand. We waited for about twenty minutes, and I wondered what to expect. Then the man emerged, as did his accompanists, a drummer and a bass player.

The man from Corwood dresses in black from hat to toe. Beneath the hat, his complexion is quite pale. Because he's so thin now, the man looks a bit like a scarecrow in his clothes. He has an odd, moaning voice, and he picks the strings of a guitar he's tuned to a strange scale of his own invention. I can't remember who said this (it might have been Scott Tisue), but I think it's accurate: Jandek sounds like the efforts of someone who has had only a description of music but has never heard an actual song. As I mentioned before, the man tunes his guitar to a scale familiar only to himself and at first (to me, anyway), the sound was unpleasant. But somewhere around the fourth song, I found myself enjoying the music, and actually wanting to tap my foot.1

For the most part, the man performs facing his accompanists rather than the audience. Though it's tempting to explain this stance as reclusive, facing the other band members seemed necessary to the execution of his music, because I imagine that accompanying the man would require a shit-ton of concentration. Clearly, his accompanists were responding to the subtle cues he was giving them, both aural and visual.

I found myself wondering if the sounds I heard and the sounds the man heard were at all similar; what I mean is, did he hear a tuneful, harmonic noise, or did the notes he was strumming sound to him almost as they did to me? No, I'm not referring to the subtle differences discerned by a familiar, loving, or practiced ear. I mean something like this: what if I said, "Put your mouth where your foot should be and dance," and that's what all my listeners heard, but what I thought I'd said and heard myself saying was, "I give you a fragment of this broken rock." I didn't wonder this for too long, though, because the explanation just didn't seem plausible, even if I wanted it to be true.

But why did I want this to be true? Just today, a friend who'd watched the documentary film called Jandek on Corwood said that he feels there's a creepy element to the man's songs, or maybe he means to the man himself. I haven't seen this film, but I know that it's socially unacceptable for a person who could be sort of rock-star famous to not claim that fame. Further, in our society the creator is closely associated with the product, and as far as I can tell, the man from Corwood has treated Jandek, the product, as though it exists independent of the man who created it.

But, but, but why is that creepy? Maybe we want or need to hold the creator responsible for the product, to keep the reins taut, and in this way to prove that their work is explicable & therefore within someone's control. This wouldn't be the case if the thing created wasn't done with deliberation, so it wouldn't be true of, say, a song consisting of randomly-plucked strings on a guitar that had gone out of tune all on its own. But it was clear to me, the night of the concert, that the man wasn't playing random notes, nor was he free of method, though his music was so unfamiliar to my ears that at first, it sounded random. Ultimately, his deliberation was the disconcerting thing.

So more specifically, to alleviate our fears, maybe we need the man from Corwood to take responsibility for what he has made, because if the creator can't be held responsible, if art that is difficult to grasp is not held accountable. . . well, I don't know how to finish that sentence. Could it be that we think art that's tough to grasp is intrinsically evil? If so, what does that say about our fear of chaos and our inability to trust the universe?

I don't know, and I'm not here to pass judgment on anyone. I thoroughly enjoyed the show, and I'm so glad I got tickets!

1Though I didn't, because I was was afraid that others in the audience would think that out of pretension I was feigning enjoyment, which was quite irrational, because people were clearly tapping their feet in enjoyment and most certainly wouldn't have noticed me, let alone cared what I was doing.


Blogger William Shakespeare said...

I'm glad you went and I didn't. Your memory(s) of the concert seem so much more interesting than I think my experience would have been.

7:41 PM

Blogger ing said...

More interesting than William Shakespeare's? I think not!

8:01 PM

Blogger matty said...

I think that they were more interesting than Shakespeare! ...but, I don't enjoy Willie very much and I get annoyed with folks laugh at his "jokes" --- they are just showing off. They aren't funny. I mean, maybe they were way back when, but not post 9/11! Jeez!

No, I think Jandek is just plain out and out scary ass music. No way out of it.

I think it is scary because the recordings sound like they might have been made by the sad member of the Texas Chainsaw Family. Discordant and lonely. It sounds like some drunk, big, creepy guy is strumming on an out of tune guitar and sometimes screaming out in anger or sadness.

And, songs end with lines like, "and then I decided to go out side. My shoes hurt!" ...and you hear an odd thud, some feedback and the record ends.


6:23 AM

Blogger ing said...


Perhaps this witty exchange will have you changing your mind and rolling in the aisles —

Macduff: What three things does drink especially provoke?

Porter: Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA, omigod, I can hardly breathe!

Here's something odd: I didn't find Jandek in concert creepy, though I did think his singing and the lyrics were kind of dark. I wonder if I'll change my mind after watching the movie. I agree that his words don't seem to come from a place of happiness, but from something very painful.

And a thud at the end of a song definitely conjures up something creepy. You know, I still kind of think that seeing the man in person must take away some of the creepiness.

6:54 PM

Blogger purplesimon said...

Sweet post, Ing. I first heard of Jandek in an interview he did with Spin magazine. Not sure I'm big on the tunes (are they tunes?) but there is something compelling about the composition, the way he forms his lyrical insights while playing some isolating chordal structures. It's like visiting a jazz club for the first time having never heard a jazz record and being left wondering whether you've been entertained or bombarded with noise and someone's strange outlook on the world.

Exciting stuff. Thanks for sharing your offbeat tastes with us!

purplesimon out...

3:24 AM

Blogger matty said...

Oh, I almost did a wee in me pants! That joke is one most jovial!


I suspect you might be right. I think part of what makes (made?) it so creepy is the mystery of who he was and what was behind that little post office box in Houston which seemed to be Corwood Records because at the time that the documentary was made he had only ever given one interview and had a couple of drinks with one other writer.

So, you're left with just these odd rambling recordings.

I only heard one track that had any sort of tune and that was something called "Nancy Sings" ...and, then a couple records later Nancy never returns. I feared she had given in and been tossed in some torture cellar!

Turns out he is just an eccentric cowboy!

I still don't want him sleepin' on my sofa!

9:04 AM

Blogger ginab said...

Cornell is featured in a new book reviewed in last SUnday's NY Times.

I like Jandek's privacy and then I would! ;-) He looks like a cousin of mine, to boot. I wonder: does that make me from Sverige?

2:57 PM

Blogger matty said...

oh, warn Gina to stay away from Jandek! I fear he is a creepy torture type killer!

10:11 AM

Blogger ing said...


Yes, William Shakespeare will do that to a fellow. Comes in handy if you're trying to pass a kidney stone, but it's not so great if you're nowhere near the celebrity lavatory in the SFMOMA.

"Nancy Sings" is indeed a purty track. I will let Jandek know that your sofa is off-limits. He's going to be disappointed. I'll kind of chuck him under the chin and say lots of encouraging words before I send him on his way.



Bleah, I can't keep up with the NYT book review! I get the online version weekly, but I don't take the time to read it. DUMB! I will go back & look. I think.

Would you tell cousin Jan I'm all out of couch ideas?



Oh, I think Gina can hold her own! She's a mighty lass, she is.

6:05 PM

Blogger matty said...

I was punching myself as I walked to BART! I so should have asked Mr. Barnhart for a chance to take his picture to show you!!! ...Instead I just told him, "Have a good show!"

...and he acted really awkward.

I mean, he looked first!

12:26 AM

Blogger matty said...

Oh, I know Gina can hold her own.

...but, you know.

I worry.

I wonder why Alan wasn't more impressed with my exciting can experience!?!?!?

12:27 AM

Blogger matty said...

"...screeeeeeeeeeech. clanking. barn door slamming shut. 'I lost myyyyyy baaaaabyyyyyyy! I done lost her so baaaaaaaad!!!!' glass shattering..."

yes. Jandek on Corwood.

...most worrying.

3:11 PM

Blogger ing said...


Okay, I will do my utmost to steer Ginab away from Jandek. But I'm sorry that his baaaaabyyyyyyy done got lost to him and he had to break that window or what have you.

Umm, and please don't listen to "Barcelona" on Bonnie "Prince" Billie's The Letting Go (which might be on the bonus CD, which I don't think you have). Will Oldham's honeymoon in Barcelona didn't really work out. . .

I have a feeling Devendra will soon be seeking you out for an autograph.

6:06 PM

Blogger matty said...

...or a restraining order or possible law suit.

I keep telling folks about my brush with Devandra!

I should stop that!

why would he want MY autograph!?!

Yes, I only have that Bonnie Prince Billy LP on vinyl. No CD.


Ing, I can't find those CD's you made for me!!!!

What have I done??!?!!?

I'm a mess. Help! I know you gave them to me!!!

6:13 PM

Blogger josh williams said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3:26 PM


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