How to describe the music of Jandek? Like most amateur rock critics, start by comparing him to the Beatles. Then strip away melody, catchy hooks, rhythm, and harmony. Next toss out vocal and instrumental ability, along with any trace of human feeling other than dull, lingering pain. Aside from these deficiencies, he's exactly like the Fab Four.
Jandek: The Great Disconnect

Jandek, alone with a guitar and a microphone, sounds like a muttering sleepwalker aimlessly plucking amplified bicycle spokes. His music is dark and gloomy; but it won't make you sad-it will make you tense and uncomfortable. Here is the Ultimate Disconnect. You love it or hate it-and for every one of the former, there are one million of the latter. A sampling of his song titles: "Painted My Teeth," "Twelve Minutes Since February 32'nd" [sic], and "Janitor's Dead." Jandek accompanies himself on acoustic or electric guitar, but for the incoherence of his zombie-like strumming, his hands might as well be accidentally brushing against the strings. His occasional wheezing harmonica approximates early Dylan having an asthma attack. Sometimes Jandek is backed by a drummer who seems unfamiliar with the kit, and who pounds away relentlessly with no ground beat.

If the above seems too flattering a portrait of Jandek's cave-dweller primitivism, imagine a subterranean microphone wired down to a month-old tomb, capturing the sound of maggots nibbling on a decaying corpse and the agonized howls of a departed soul desperate to escape tortuous decomposition and eternal boredom. That's Burt Bacharach compared to Jandek.

Jandek is a recluse named Sterling R. Smith, and he's holed up somewhere near Houston, Texas. (Please don't call the one in the Houston phone book-wrong guy.) Since 1978 Smith has issued, mostly on 12" vinyl, 28 full-length albums-no 7" or 12" singles, no remixes, cassettes, or videos. A few of his cryptic album titles: Staring at the Cellophane, Telegraph Melts, Blue Corpse, Chair Beside a Window. He didn't begin issuing CDs until the early 1990s. His album covers are devoid of any information. He has never issued a press kit, and never performed in public. He rejects all requests for interviews. They found the Unabomber, but so far, no Jandek. Seth Tisue, curator of a Jandek website, notes, "His consistency in this regard far surpasses that of other legendary reclusives such as Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger." Jandek's records rarely turn up in stores-even second-hand shops. Smith is pouring a lot of money into a Deep Dark Hole. (If you'd like to pour in some of yours, write Corwood Industries, PO Box 15375, Houston TX 77220.)

Ready for the House
Ready for the House (1978)
In 1978, Smith released his first album, an LP entitled Ready for the House, recorded under the name The Units. He adopted the "Jandek" moniker on his second album after discovering a band called The Units, with whom he did not wish to be associated.

Richie Unterberger, in Unknown Legends of Rock'n'Roll (Miller Freeman), writes:

When it comes to idiot savants with mystique, no one can beat Jandek...who has self-released over two dozen albums featuring spooky, slightly demented stream of consciousness rambling and guitar playing which rarely strays from set notes and chords, none of which pick out anything close to a melody. His voice can range from a hushed whisper to a Janovian primal scream; unsettlingly, he hardly ever mines the wide territory between those extremes. Sometimes the guitar is acoustic, like a death bed Neil Young; sometimes he sounds like the 13-year-old who's just gotten his first electric for his Bar Mitzvah...The albums are issued in plain sleeves with no liner notes, and enigmatic cover photos with all the attention to framing and focus of the do-it-yourself stalls at Woolworth's.

On the positive side, Jandek is not pretentious. But he's not unpretentious. Neither adjective applies. He's an authentic human satellite, orbiting in a chilly weightless dimension thousands of miles from earth. And Jandek's music is not derivative. He seems to be a recording artist with no discernible influences. Some would call this "genius." And have.

But such acclaim is rare. More common are assessments such the following posting on a Guided By Voices internet chat list. A correspondent we'll call "Glenn" ("I'd prefer that you not use my real name. I don't want him trying to get ahold of me!") wrote, "Jandek's music isn't the cool kind of lo-fi typical of GbV, the 'we-could-do-better-but-we-like-it-sloppy' school. It's just bad musicianship and bad recording; in my opinion, there's nothing cool about it. It's just pathetic."

The man understates the sheer horror of a Jandek record. 99.99999997% of all sentient life on the planet could not listen to three Jandek tunes all the way through.

Did someone say "rock and roll"? Jandek's neither "rock" nor "roll." He's not even "and."

In 1980, while working at a syndicated radio production studio called Thirsty Ear, I was given a copy of Ready for the House by a co-worker. Knowing my predilection for odd music, he winked, "I think you'll find this very unusual."

At home, I dropped the needle on the first track, "Naked in the Afternoon." It frightened me. Accompanied by what sounded like someone strumming an out-of-tune tennis racket, a creepy, monotonous voice croaked:

"Had a vision of a teenager daughter who's growin' up naked in the afternoon"

The melody went nowhere. There was no rhythm per se, or chord structure. No dynamics, no particular focus. The "song"-if that's what it was-just kinda meandered in low gear like a beat-up Chevy without a driver. I skipped to the second track, "First You Think Your Fortune's Lovely." Same non-story. Not just the same characteristics-except for the lyrics, it was the same song. Ditto track three. Ditto all the way to the end of the album-leading to quasi-relief on the final track,"European Jewel (Incomplete)," which featured electric guitar, in place of acoustic, and a semblance of chordal tuning. Not much, and the song still didn't make any sense or develop into an identifiable framework.

It sounded like an album-length recording of a listless, beer-numbed trailer-park teen picking scabs, mumbling to himself and accidentally stumbling over his guitar. So-who wouldn't be intrigued? The LP wasn't just unlistenable, it was unashamedly repellent. And yet, unlike much of what passes for anti-music in some precincts of NYC, Ready for the House lacked attitude. It was devoid of artistic ambition; there was a naturalism about its repugnance. The jacket had no liner notes, photos, or personnel; it disclosed nothing but song titles, track timings, and an address: Corwood Industries, at a Houston PO box.

My antennae were atwitter. Who would release such a record? And why? What was "Corwood Industries"? Was it a large multinational, run by a CEO with a retarded son who made recordings at home, and the dutiful Dad pressed this album without commercial intent, as a simple gesture of paternal devotion?

I wrote to Corwood:

Oct 20, 1980.

To Whom:

A friend passed along a copy of 'Ready for the House.' I've listened to it three times [I lied], and I've concluded it is one of the most frightening albums I've ever heard. It is horribly grotesque. I've run out of adjectives to describe the shock of this record.

Can you give me any information? Who's on it? It could be the worst record ever released, but somebody went to a lot of trouble putting it together and I want to know why. I am mystified.

It could also be the greatest record ever released. I can't figure it out, but every time I place it on the turntable, it's like stepping into the Twilight Zone. Can you help?

I gave my address and phone number.

Two weeks later, Sterling Smith called. He rambled in a halting monotone. I asked questions; he gave oblique answers. He wouldn't explain what he did for a living. He'd pressed one thousand copies of Ready for the House--and sold two. He'd recorded enough material for ten albums, and hoped to release them all. He'd written seven novels, but after they'd been rejected by New York publishers, he'd burned all the manuscripts. He had no friends, but didn't seem concerned.

Great. A deranged loner had my phone number and home address.

I stressed how "unique" I found his music. "There's nothing like it...anywhere," I offered, truthfully.

"Do you know stores that will carry my records?," he inquired. "I need to move them." We chatted about 15 minutes, and I chose my words carefully, mindful that New Jersey was a four-hour flight from Houston. The conversation was disjointed. Smith had an Etch-A-Sketch mind: one jostling distraction and his thoughts were wiped clean, the next sentence a non-sequitur.

He was grateful for my interest, and shipped me 25 copies of Ready for the House. I distributed them to WFMU staffers as Christmas gifts. One colleague, Jim Pansulla, used two sealed copies as a cushion on the torn driver's seat in his VW Beetle for over five years. (They eventually warped, but he never fell through.)

Smith and I exchanged a few more letters, and he called occasionally. His confidence bolstered by my "encouragement," he promised more releases. He called me his "mentor" for suggesting that he persevere, despite the indifference of the market. In follow-up correspondence, his ingenuous marketing campaign continued: "Send me some addresses of record stores...that deal in my music," one of his notes implored, "and I'll ship them free boxes of my recordings. I need to move them." I received 25-unit cartons of each new recording up to the sixth or seventh. Eventually, we lost contact. I figured the mothership had returned to collect the expedition.

Jandek cover art
Grey, grainy, unfocused photography, 15 years before it became fashionable: a Jandek album cover sampling.
However, new releases kept arriving with admirable regularity at WFMU. In 1986, WFMU, WKCR, WFDU, and WSIA coordinated a late-night "Jandek Across America" radio conspiracy. From 1:15 a.m. to 2:00 a.m., the man's desolate murmurings seeped across the New York City non-commercial spectrum, programmed independently on each station. He's been covered twice: by Dump, featuring Yo La Tengo's James McNew, who released a 7"single of "License to Kill" (from the Corwood album The Living End) on 18 Wheeler Records; and Charalambides, who covered "Variant" (from Blue Corpse) on a compilation called Drilling the Curve (Fleece Records).

By the early 1990s, the man's recorded output was rivaling Keith Jarrett and John Zorn in terms of petroleum-derivative consumption. But only in those terms. Jandek has continued to release about an album a year, all of which escape critical notice. Each, to quote journalist and fan Byron Coley, "blows around the country like an old dead leaf painted purple."

Jandek's art has evolved. He's added drums, and occasionally features a mournful girl singer, presumably named Nancy (judging from such song titles as "Nancy Sings"). He's begun to display greater dynamics in the songs, although nothing yet approaches accessible pop music. His cadaverous voice intones monotonously over guitar notes spattered Jackson Pollock-like on the musical canvas. Occasionally, something approximating a chord miraculously emerges. The works seem meaningless in and of themselves, but like any form of expression, can accommodate a sympathetic listener's own perceived meaning. Jandek uses no studio gimmickry-not even overdubs-unless you consider occasionally bumping the mic stand to be glossy production polish. The man has one undeniable quality: identity. If record stores would carry Jandek product, they could assign him his own bin-card: Musica Incognita. But record stores don't carry his albums, so he offers ridiculous quantity discounts-$25 for a box of 25 LPs, or $80 for a carton of 20 CDs. He needs to move them.

"Glenn" (the GbV chat room correspondent) recounted: "My friend Max sent him a letter, and what does he get in return but a box of 50 Jandek albums. Max continued the correspondence and started getting more and more records shipped to him, Smith insisting that he not sell them but give them away. After a while, songs started to appear on the records about Max ('So Fly, Max') and his family members (the names of Max's sisters appeared in songs). We finally decided this guy was too weird, and Max wrote to tell him to please stop sending albums."

"I really don't know why anybody would want to listen to these," "Glenn" remarked. "They just make me feel unhappy and kind of creeped-out."

I requested an interview with Jandek via mail in 1998. A month later, a package arrived from the familiar Houston PO Box. It contained two CDs, 1994's Glad to Get Away, and his then-latest, New Town. No surprises in the packaging-artless, inelegant, uninformative. However, Glad to Get Away was.......uh....wet. A brownish muck oozed within the shrinkwrap-not a drop escaped-as if the fluid had been injected at the manufacturing stage. I had to disassemble the jewel case and run the whole mess under a faucet. The parts felt slimy. The bubblewrap shipper included an envelope, with a handwritten letter from Jandek, or rather, from his collective self:

You'll not be forgotten - ever...

The story must be crafted from what you have and know from the music. We cannot provide interviews or other exchanges of information outside of the releases at present. It's probable that your crafted story would be more interesting than any other. Intrigue goes a long way sometimes.

Please stay in touch. Your friends at Corwood

The man continues to live with the curtains drawn and the phone off the hook. I gave the albums a spin. One song on Glad... began with the line: "Hey mister, can you tell me, is that a knife stuck in your face?"

Great. At least he doesn't have my new home address.

Jandek's ultimate mission could be to test the mortal limits of patience, tolerance, and understanding. Perhaps he's the Messiah, dispatched to Earth as an Outsider Musician, giving the human race one last chance to accept the unacceptable, to embrace that which is infinitely difficult to embrace.

If so, by failing to fully grasp his aesthetic, I have forsaken salvation. And come Armageddon, while Jandek ascends with his disciples to a place where harps strum gently all day, I will descend to a region where mighty loudspeakers pipe in nothing but Jandek records for eternity.

This article was adapted from 'Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music', to be published by A Cappella Books in Spring 2000.

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