Since 1978, someone known as Jandek has been quietly releasing records on a shadowy label out of Houston called Corwood Industries. The LPs, usually in plain white sleeves with a blurry photo on the front, total some 47 titles to date. Their stark, reverb-drenched songs are like atonal country folk pumped directly from the brain stem of a schizoid: desolate moaning and detuned electric guitar that sound as though transmitted from a million light-years away.
Little is known about Jandek, other than that someone named Sterling R. Smith endorses the checks sent to the label — as noted in the 2003 documentary Jandek on Corwood, which didn't so much penetrate the mystery as revel in it. In October 2004, a tall man resembling the album covers' shadowy visage appeared onstage and unannounced at a Glasgow music festival. This "representative of Corwood Industries" has given a number of public performances since then, but Jandek has yet to grant a formal interview. My request, mailed to the Corwood address, elicited a one-line response scrawled on the back of the typewritten catalog sheet: "We don't think about those things."
You can't help but wonder to what extent the "myth" of Jandek is part of the appeal of his music — or if the two can be separated. Jandek on Corwood's passionate respondents — mostly college radio DJs and music critics — only deepened the question of what exactly comprises the appeal of this bizarre, nearly antimusical music. Would Jandek's songs be feted to the same degree if they were instead the product of someone way more unmysterious? (David Lee Roth?)
The Jandek filmmakers shot a few scenes in the record library at the University of Chicago's WHPK-FM — where Jandek fans are legion — and spoke to a few DJs on camera. I asked other station folk what they thought about the fan mythos. "Jandek used to be the most obscure and inaccessible thing ever," says Bob Abrahamian, a soul DJ and record collector. "You had to go to a local record store that somehow would get in this privately pressed LP, or write to Corwood and get it yourself." He points out that Jandek albums' status as elusive objects made them perfect signifiers of individualistic taste — yet, perhaps contrarily, created one of the most enduring legends in underground music. "I think [the fact that] Jandek always represented the ultimate end of obscurity is the reason why he specifically — and not other obscure music — has gotten circulated in the new media."
One telling detail in Jandek on Corwood is the stark, recurring imagery of typewriters and guitars. Together they suggest a commonality between Jandek's almost aggressively personal music and his mostly bookish, eccentric admirers. At one point in the film, a commentator says, "We have to talk to other people to get the full picture." Jandek fans are bound together by the need to share information, trivia, and mythology as a way of reconstructing his world, a world that wouldn't otherwise exist. A world built not in Jandek's image, but in the image of the beholder.
Though a longtime fan, musician Ian Wadley is not as beholden to the Jandek aura. He came to the U.S. from Melbourne last spring for an ad hoc solo musical adventure that, serendipitously, found him backing Jandek on drums at Austin's South by Southwest festival. Wadley and the two other enlisted musicians met Jandek around noon on the day of the show, and spent a few hours working through the set. "He was nice to meet, polite and disarming," Wadley says. "My general impression was that he was not much of a loner, but also not especially enamored with idle chatter. He has the air of someone who thinks before he speaks, considers every word." They played the set — Jandek seemed happy with it — had a drink afterward, and haven't spoken since. "I'm told he doesn't do e-mail," Wadley adds.
As for the Jandek legacy, Wadley says, "People who've put out their own music since the late '70s and shunned publicity are by no means a rare species." Perhaps, though, in this celebrity-saturated 24-hour media epoch, such a pristinely DIY stance can be as radical and disorienting — and speak as loudly — as the music itself.