Jandek on Corwood (2004)

[3 December 2004]

By Michael Sandlin

Withholding

Jandek on Corwood, the impressive directorial debut of cinematographer Chad Friedrichs, simultaneously perpetuates and celebrates folk myth. This documentary on defiantly obscure indie-rock cult figure Jandek reveals not so much the man-behind-the-myth, but rather, the myth-behind-the-myth.

The extent of Jandek’s reclusive tendencies makes prominent Texas loner-eccentrics Daniel Johnston and Roky Erickson seem like extroverted publicity hounds. And in a perennially scene-less city like Houston (Jandek’s ostensible home base), even the most ambitious non-blues band gets approximately zero national attention. So it’s fitting that willfully obscure Jandek and his shadowy Houston-based Corwood Industries have attracted a national cult of devotees without first moving to Austin. Through an effective campaign of secrecy and suggestion, tactfully limited self-promotion, and a prolific 38 albums over 25 years, Jandek has even managed to enrapture spotlight-hogging celebs like Beck and Thurston Moore, who’ve actually covered his minimalist anti-songs.

In Jandek on Corwood, Jandek’s nightmarish out-of-tune guitar and ghostly death-warble perfectly complement Friedrichs’ frequent use of stark images (tumbledown shacks, bare trees, streams, moonlit nights). The result is an eerie and compelling combination. The film often uses dramatically lit, iconic still lifes to represent a particular topic under discussion (a beer being poured, cuff-links). There’s even a hint of old-fashioned dramatic tension. Former Spin writer John Trubee, the only known mortal to possess a recorded interview with Jandek, is introduced early on. But Friedrichs wisely withholds the interview’s oddly entrancing (and to an extent, revealing) results until the final frames.

Jandek’s true genius, inadvertent or not, is quickly apparent. Possessing little to no actual musical skills, he’s blessed with a preternatural ability to tweak the naturally obsessive tendencies of a certain proud underclass of indie-snob—you know, the cool-at-any-cost clique that tends to dismiss melody and structure as overrated. Most prominently featured on the film’s panel of Jandek apologists are Village Voice stalwart Douglas Wolk, garage-rock archeologist Richie Unterberger, and Forced Exposure‘s Byron Coley. Coley and VU Appreciation Society founder Phil Milstein’s last starring role was in 1993’s farcical bio of stunt band Half Japanese, in which they joyously hyped the man-child Fair brothers’ primitive racket. Here they marvel at each phase of Jandek’s “development” as a musician: the whispery monotone vocals-set-to-tuneless-guitar period, a brief multi-instrumental collaborative phase, and the later quasi-blues a capella turn. The composition that turned a major stylistic corner in Jandek’s recorded work, “Nancy Sings,” sends Coley’s tribe reeling. The bafflingly literal relationship the title has to the song’s content makes for some humorous highbrow controversy: In “Nancy Sings,” there is, in fact, a girl (presumably named Nancy) singing! And singing well, one might add.

In fact, the commentary gradually builds until it finally reaches a laughable crescendo of wild psychiatric speculation: is Jandek a sociopath? Is he a manic-depressive suicidal loner? Probably not. But when he does deign to speak, there are those undeniably creepy extended silences of his. These pregnant pauses are often triggered by a particularly probing question (ex. who are the other musicians he sometimes collaborates with?). But is Jandek really some psychopath hermit? Of all the talking heads, Beat Happening/K-records founder Calvin Johnson has the only real breakthrough moment: Why, he asks, are certain artists automatically labeled reclusive maniacs just because they shun mainstream media and reject traditional self-marketing gambits?

Judging from the whimsical remarks of the film’s Jandek scholars, the appeal of this elusive man’s legend and music becomes obvious. His ife and work leave much to the imagination, and invite plenty of erotic, acid-casualty free-association. Freidrichs isolates an exemplary review clip from Songs In the Key of Z author Irwin Chusid: “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.” Jandek as Jesus, anyone? Coley tells us that Jandek songs contain a “theoretical presence,” often a favorite stomping ground of the self-conscious Outsider Critic. Obviously with the more restrictive “concrete” presence of, say, the Claptonian scale player comes less theoretical room for crackpot theorizing.

Dubious theories about Jandek’s theoretical presence aside, what absolutes, if any, do we learn about his human qualities? He seems to covet approval. He wants to move units, and appreciates a superficial kind of attention to his work. But not even a beer-soaked interview with Texas Monthly‘s Katy Vine, culminating in the 1999 article “Jandek and Me,” can snooker the Unknowable One into a juicy confession or two. We do learn that he dresses nicely and actually cultivates drinking buddies. He may also have a day job.

Jandek on Corwood suggests that many sycophantic slaves to Jandek legend long for short-term revelations; however, they also dread any eventual breakdown of the impenetrable mystery insulating Jandek from consumer culture’s romance-killing recognition. But you can’t have your enigma and fully understand it, too. And with that in mind, Friedrichs has made the perfect Jandek documentary. Much like its inscrutable subject, the film leads you to the brink of revelation and then leaves you hanging. As Jandek (or, more specifically, “Corwood”) advised in a typically laconic handwritten response to a fan letter’s prying requests: “You may not get the answers you want. It’s better that way.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/jandek-on-corwood/