This week’s entry: Jandek
What it’s about: In 1978, an album called Ready For The House appeared in record stores to no fanfare. It featured a man with a “wavering voice” plucking guitar strings not set to any recognized tuning. The album allegedly sold only two copies in as many years. But the singer, identified only as Jandek, was undaunted, releasing over 70 albums to date. As his output increased, those interested in outsider art gradually took notice, both to Jandek’s unusual sound and the fact that no information existed about the man behind the band. For 30 years, Jandek’s identity was one of music’s most obscure and puzzling secrets.
Strangest fact: Very little is confirmed about Jandek, and even most of what might be known is in dispute. There is a consensus that his real name is Sterling Smith (the first major review of Ready For The House referred to him by this name), although his middle initial has been listed as both “P” and “R.” He seems to be from Houston, as his albums are self-released through Corwood Records, whose only address is a Houston P.O. Box. The only personal details Smith has ever revealed is that prior to his recording career, he wrote seven novels and burned them all when they were rejected by publishers, and that he worked for a time as a machinist.
Biggest controversy: Jandek’s first album was actually credited to The Units, although he had no backing band on the recording. But there was an existing band with that name, so he used the name Jandek on subsequent recordings and reissues of House. Although Jandek has been used as an alias for Smith himself, later recordings do feature other musicians and vocalists. Their identities are unknown, apart from the song titles, “Nancy Sings,” and “John Plays Drums.”
Thing we were happiest to learn: Jandek did eventually take a small step out from behind the curtain of secrecy. With most fans convinced that the Jandek mystery would die with Jandek himself, he began making public appearances, performing for the first time in October 2004, at the Instal 04 music festival in Glasgow. In keeping with his penchant for secrecy, the performance was not announced in advance, or even acknowledged afterward by the festival organizers, and the artist was not identified as Jandek, only as “a representative of Corwood Industries,” Jandek’s label. But the man onstage was clearly the man depicted in photos on several Jandek album covers (assumed to be Jandek himself, although naturally this was never confirmed). Since then, Jandek has performed a few times a year on average, and Wikipedia lists every single show, as there are not many. The majority of these shows have been released as live albums (25 in all), all with simple, descriptive names like Portland Thursday, or Helsinki Saturday.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: While Jandek’s mystery is compelling, his music is an acquired taste. The artist uses a unique guitar tuning that sounds, to the untrained ear, like an out-of-tune guitar. Even when the music is more or less conventional, the vocals often drift in and out of key, and the lyrics are usually a stream of consciousness with very little structure. Full band performances tend to comprise mostly ambient, atonal noise. In the 2004 documentary Jandek On Corwood, outsider-music aficionado Dr. Demento describes Jandek’s sound as containing only “something vaguely recognizable as melody,” and “not something which your average American consumer would describe as music.”
Also noteworthy: For many years, a fan theory persisted that all of Jandek’s music was recorded in one manic period of intense creativity, and after the 19th album, his mysterious releases would stop. Jandek’s style changed dramatically for his 21st album, Lost Cause, incorporating electric guitar and shouted vocals. Some said this confirmed the theory, and that Jandek had exhausted all of his original recordings and was starting anew. But on his subsequent album, Twelfth Apostle, he returned to his original sound, so the unlikely theory still remains just that.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: For those interested in hearing more outsider music, a good jumping-off point is Songs In The Key Of Z, a compilation that provides a broad overview of “crackpot and visionary music,” which includes Jandek, a mix of very obscure artists, and a few names that have broken through to the public consciousness, like Daniel Johnston, The Shaggs, Wesley Willis, and Tiny Tim.
Further down the wormhole: Of that last group of artists, The Shaggs have a particularly strange origin story. The band consisted of three (later four) sisters with no musical experience, whose father pulled them out of school in 1968 and essentially forced them to be a rock band. Their lone album, Philosophy Of The World has become a cult favorite, which some find fascinating for the band’s near-total lack of musical ability. The girls’ father was inspired to form the band because a palm reader predicted (correctly) that he would marry a strawberry blond woman, she would die, and he would have two sons with a different woman, and (incorrectly) that his daughters would form a popular musical group. Despite palmistry’s spotty track record, some people swear by its insights. Nevertheless, it falls squarely in the realm of pseudoscience. We’ll look at other less-than-reputable disciplines next week.