Not So Worthless, Not So Reclusive: On Jandek

by Ben Arzate

In 1978, a mysterious album called Ready for the House, credited to The Units, was released by a new record label calling itself Corwood Industries. The front cover was a poorly lit picture of a brightly decorated room with no text on the front. Despite the name implying a band, the album was clearly done by one guy with a guitar.

Everything about the album was strange and off-putting; from its oddly mundane cover, to its lo-fi sound, to the seemingly out-of-tune guitar playing, to the strained singing of abstract lyrics. Even its final song, the most conventional sounding one on the album, cuts off in the middle of a verse.

The music could probably be best described as about what The Residents doing their own version of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon album would sound like. All the songs are a simple acoustic guitar and voice arrangement, except for the last song “European Jewel,” which uses an electric guitar.

It’s little wonder the album only sold two copies between the years 1978 to 1980 according to a representative from Corwood Industries. It did, however, catch the attention of another band called The Units who sent Corwood a cease and desist. After that, the first album was reissued with a new band name. It and all subsequent albums from Corwood are now credited to Jandek.

Eventually, radio DJ, music journalist, and outsider music connoisseur Irwin Chusid discovered the album. He wrote to Corwood Industries and received a phone call from the representative, Sterling Smith, shortly after. Smith was reluctant to talk about his personal life or even to refer to himself as Jandek. The advice and encouragement Smith received from Chusid was apparently enough to continue the Jandek project. Corwood released the second album, Six and Six, in 1981 and has been regularly putting out albums since.

Sterling Smith has continued to be very protective of his privacy and little is known about his personal life. For the longest time, he avoided interviews, though a few “off the record” ones ended up being made public. In some of these he revealed things like that his guitar tunings were intentional and it was tuned specifically for each song, contrary to the rumor that he didn’t know how to tune a guitar. He also revealed that name “Jandek” came from having a phone conversation with someone named Decker while he looked at a calendar in the month of January.

The music of Jandek has evolved over the many releases, adding drums and bass and sometimes going in radically different directions. Given how radically different the music already is, that’s really saying something. One example of this is his trilogy of a capella/spoken word albums, Put My Dream on This Planet, This Narrow Road, and Worthless Recluse, released between 2000 and 2001. I won’t lie, I haven’t been able to get through any of these albums despite some of the very poetic turns of phrase. Another example is The Song of Morgan released in 2013. This is a nine CD set with over nine hours of solo piano music.

However, not all Jandek’s work is difficult or inaccessible. For example, 2012’s Maze of the Phantom is a soothing, vaguely Eastern inspired album that fans of ambient music will certainly enjoy. 1982’s Chair Beside a Window, while still pretty erratic, is like a more lo-fi version of an early Velvet Underground album from the gentle and beautiful song “Nancy Sings” (one of the few times a guest artist is credited) to the pounding, angry version of “European Jewel,” which starts off where the incomplete version from Ready for the House cut off.

Jandek has become less reclusive over the years as well. While they still keep to themselves in regard to their personal life, they began making live appearances, the first being at a music festival in Glasglow, Scotland in 2004. Since then, they’ve done regular live performances as well as recorded live albums and DVDs. In fact, since 2014, all Jandek’s releases have been live albums and DVDs. They even starred in a short film which aired on PBS in 2014, credited as The Representative.

Jandek really is in a class of their own. Even as weird as many of their releases are, there’s an obvious passion and care put into all of it, they’ve gone through many creative phases, and there’s nearly nothing else that sounds like them. They’ve been putting out music for over 40 years and they don’t show any sign of stopping anytime soon. I eagerly anticipate seeing the direction Corwood Industries will take after the current live performance phase.

The Art of Noise: Forays into the Avant-Garde

It’s important to note in our foray into the history of avant-garde art that painting wasn’t the only medium impacted by experimentation. I’ve written several posts on music, and every band or independent musician mentioned in them bears the impact mark of the stylistic upheavals characteristic of the early 20th century. One particular character piques my interest at the moment for his musical innovations: Luigi Russolo.

Russolo (30 April 1885 – 6 February 1947) was an Italian Futurist. The Futurists will certainly find themselves mentioned here again at some point in our meditations on the avant-garde and the weird arts. With their celebration of technological progress, violence, speed, airplanes and cars, they may seem to match the aesthetic of the Transporter movie franchise closer than the more paranoid overtones of postmodernist art typically celebrated here, but I can shelve my scorn long enough to acknowledge that the Futurists really were cutting-edge, for their time (thanks to Robert P. Harrison’s excellent podcast Entitled Opinions, I’m somewhat more familiar with the Italian Futurists than with the other art movements, like Neoplasticism, that I’m blundering through here). For now, however, I want to focus strictly on Russolo and music… or, more accurately, Russolo and noise.

In 1913, Russolo wrote a manifesto entitled The Art of Noises. This appeared nearly a decade before Schoenberg’s “emancipation of the dissonance,” and I can’t help speculating that Russolo’s concepts must’ve influenced Schoenberg. I haven’t read Russolo’s manifesto, but it seems easy enough to summarize based on it’s description in the wonderful world of Wikipedia:

Russolo argues that the modern ear has essentially become accustomed to the new world of noise as it was introduced by industrialization. Noise, according to Russolo, didn’t exist in it’s sustained state before machinery. Therefore, to address the needs of an audience desensitized by noise to the limited range of the orchestra, music should employ noise to recapture its magic over the listener.

Fair enough, I’d say: Russolo doesn’t want the audience to fall into complacency. Any admirer of weird art would surely applaud this concern, if not Russolo’s methods. Of course, pure noise isn’t interesting, and it seems like Russolo acknowledges this himself. Compare Pharmakon’s horrifying album Bestial Burden to Merzbow’s Venereology for a lesson on interesting noise vs. annoying, nearly “pure” noise (sorry Merzbow fans. I know that’s pure blasphemy). I wager it would be difficult to listen to Bestial Burden without acknowledging the potential power of noise.

So what does noise do in music? Does it shock us out of our complacency? I think that it does. I would, however, take this a step further. Careful readers will recognize the following theme, which I’ve employed in discussions of literature and art so far. It’s high time I apply it to music.

The Wikipedia article on The Art of Noises (man, that title would’ve been so much better with the singular “Noise,” even if a little less precise), mentions that Russolo acknowledges thunder, earthquakes, volcanoes, etc. as pre-industrial noises familiar to humans. I find it interesting that these naturally noisy occurrences seemed to evoke the most fear in wonder in pre-industrial man. Is it that we are “desensitized” by noise and are therefore unable to enjoy classical music? I find it much more likely that noise was and is always a potentially powerful experience to human listeners. Noise itself is an element scorned by the Enlightenment; it is much better suited for the Romantics (just listen to Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony). It equally opposed to a culture that values information and, therefore, communication.

Noise is a lack of meaning in information theory, just as perfect order is. Neither randomness, nor a series of perfectly ordered integers (1,2,3,4,5… etc) conveys information. If we consider industrialization an outgrowth or byproduct of the Enlightenment, then noise is industrialization’s opposite. Noise harkens back to a primordial unknowable; it recalls the mystery of thunder gods and the elements of nature beheld in awe by pre-scientific humanity. We aren’t held in awe by noise simply because it reminds us of washing machines (unless you’re listening to Merzbow. Sorry. I couldn’t help myself). Orchestrated noise, rather, faces us with something we are unable to assimilate to our rational worldview. It presents us with a gap to the unknown.

This is only unfortunate insofar as Russolo intended to advocate Futurism with his noise theory. We should applaud him for his audacity, nonetheless. Noise is not the sound of the future. Noise is always the sound of a cosmically mysterious worldview increasingly forgotten. Noise is the sound of the weird.