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Thursday, Jan 18, 2007

It’s strange to think of the intensely private musician Jandek as an icon of what the Internet has done to music, but I think he exemplifies the phenomenon of how the Web aggregates people around obscure interests and solidifies them, intensifies them, perfects them into a form fit for proselytizing. Thanks to the Internet, Jandek went from impossibly obscure, noted only in a few small impossible-to-find ‘zines and in a very, very few passing mentions in the national press, to being intensely and minutely documented, accessible to anyone who somehow became curious about him. For a long time Jandek preserved an almost total anonymity, which amplified the significance of what little information he revealed (through enigmatic album covers, cryptic lyrics and messages scrawled on the catalog sent out by his record label, Corwood Industries). That would seem an awkward, almost contradictory juxtaposition with the way in which the Internet makes massive amounts of information available on just about any subject. But in fact, Jandek records mimic certain notable features of online life—they often seem spontaneous and feature anonymous collaboration, and they hold out the promise that one can maintain an identity in art than is entirely separate from who you are in real life, that you can use technology to sustain a pseudonym that was nonetheless deeply, harrowingly personal and intimate.


Also, the self-published nature of Jandek’s work was a kind of harbinger for what we all take for granted now, that you can pour your deepest inner secrets out into cyberspace and fantasize if you want about a potential audience of millions. Or you can just rest with the notion that you got it out there, whatever you needed to express, and someone might stumble onto it somehow. Almost all of Jandek’s work resonates with that feeling of relief at having found an outlet, of having managed to externalize something fraught and nebulous. Just as now one can create avatars that only exist online, Jandek only existed as the sounds captured on tape (until recently, when he began performing live); like Warhol with film, Jandek seemed to be recording the process of his own discovery of what his medium could be made to conjure, what kind of identity it could mediate and emotions could it express when you began with the absolute minimum of skill or polish, when you have no shortcuts, no traditional methods, and no professional expertise to fall back on. (A good example of this is a 15-minute track called “The Beginning,”  his first using a piano, on which he tries out many different ways to conjure moods and feelings with the instrument without having appearing to have any particular melodies in mind. In fact, most of Jandek’s work rejects melody completely, looking for other ways to summon feeling.)


My history with Jandek’s music is probably typical: I’ve been interested in Jandek since I first read about him in Spin magazine in the 1980s while I was still in high school. It’s hard to remember how scarce information on music was then and scarcer still were weird records like Jandek’s, so I had nothing to go on but a few evocative paragraphs from the “Underground” column describing each of his seven or eight albums at the time, which was enough to implant the name Jandek in my memory permanently. At first it was enough to just know the name. The very idea of a desperate-sounding and reclusive loner self-distributing purportedly unlistenable albums was entertainment enough when I was a teenager, when the despair of others still seemed like a joke to me. It wasn’t until I was in college that I first heard Jandek. Most of the record-store aesthetes I began to associate with tended to dismiss Jandek with an attitude reflected in Kurt Cobain’s remark about him in 1993: “Jandek’s not pretentious, but only pretentious people like his music.” You would have to pretend to like his music to get other people to think you were extreme or eccentric yourself. It was considered party-clearing music, again something you would play only for laughs, not something you would actually put on to listen to seriously.


I got a copy of Jandek’s 1987 album Blue Corpse either from a thrift store or a cut-out bin, and I probably listened to it a few times, but I didn’t feel authorized to actually like it. I found it hard to listen to, almost embarassing, like watching someone cry in a hospital. And I had no context for what I was hearing either; I hadn’t heard any folk-blues then, or any avant-garde noise music, or even the Shaggs—all essential reference points. Plus it was impossible to to tap into any opinions about it from anywhere or even access basic information about its place in the Jandek canon. There was no accessible commmunity of fans or critics to make listening to that difficult music seem to pay off. So the main use I made of the record was to fill out mix tapes with its short songs and try to impress people with my extensive breadth of musical knowledge—that was a lot easier to do back then too. Now it almost wouldn’t even make sense to attempt that ploy; all the obscurities in the world are at the fingertips of anyone with an Internet connection.


I sort of forgot about Jandek then through the 1990s; I never would have thought he had kept making albums. But after going to see a few outsider art exhibits, I thought of him again, how perhaps his project could be likened to Henry Darger’s epic painting cycles or James Hampton’s Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly. And it occurred to me to try something I had just begun to get in the habit of doing: I looked Jandek up on the Internet and found this, Seth Tisue’s guide to Jandek, which remains the most comprehensive Jandek resource around. Well-designed and organized, the site made Jandek into a coherent field of study, a discipline, something clearly legitimate. The vast repository of lyrics and album covers not only made it clear that a singular artistic vision was at work but offered a challenge, an invitation to attempt to develop a scholarly mastery of it all. He seems less an anamolous curiosity, clearly no joke. And his recent string of public performances have freed him from his own Salingeresque myth, allowing his work to stand a bit more on its own. It’s no longer needs to be understood in terms of that specific mystery, which does nothing to dispell the mysteriousness he never fails to evoke. If you respond to album titles like Staring at the Cellophane or Living in a Moon So Blue, or to covers like these:



... you should probably be listening. They are pretty evocative of the general aesthetic at work, with the possible exception of the mid 1980s noise-rock albums (Modern Dances especially). Whereas before, the information on his catalog was scattered, piecemeal, suceptible to being overwhelmed by isolated moments of uncomfortable strangeness that would prompt me to want to dismiss it, now it’s collected together, makes the catalog approachable, legible. We take the context of “normal” music so much for granted—it ties into famliliar pop traditions and the musicians promote themselves in customary ways that have become second nature to us. But Jandek + the Internet = a new way to build essential context for our listening that is free from mainstream distribution channels are dependent instead on the network of individual listeners sharing their enthusiasm and collective passions.

Tagged as: jandek
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