[Jandek] Canada on Corwood
PIGPROD at aol.com
PIGPROD at aol.com
Sun Jun 13 10:59:34 PDT 2004
Jessica Simpson, Jandek's not
A new documentary spins the tale of a most unusual recording artist, who in
26 years has made 35 recordings and no public appearances
By BRUCE MOWAT
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, June 11, 2004 - Page R8
For his first feature-length film Jandek on Corwood, director Chad Freidrichs
made a documentary in which the central character never appears on the screen.
And it works in spite of -- or even perhaps because of that, in its own weird
The film, which makes its Canadian debut at Toronto's North by Northeast
Festival on Sunday, deals with the mystique and myths surrounding the reclusive,
Houston, Tex.-based recording act Jandek through a series of interviews with
the writers, DJs and fans who have followed the artist's oblique and opaque
26-year career trajectory.
Among those interviewed is Gary Pig Gold, a 49-year-old native of Port
Credit, Ont. Perhaps more than anyone else, he is responsible for spreading the
peanut-butter-thick mystique of Jandek in this country, via his writings in the
reference book MusicHound Rock: Essential Album Guide and the literally hundreds
of magazines, fanzines and on-line publications he has written for in the
past 30 years. Judging by his prominent role in the film, Jandek is one of his
favourite topics of discussion.
"I've been told I get the most laughs during the screenings," says Gold, who
lives in New Jersey. "The line about Eric Clapton cracks people up. Which is
good, because I didn't want to end up on the editing floor." (Gold says in the
film: "I like Eric Clapton but he's no Jandek." )
For the uninitiated, Jandek has released some 35 full-length recordings over
the past 26 years on his own Corwood Industries label, none of which has ever
gone anywhere near the charts -- unless you count the more adventurous North
American campus stations who've played his discs over the years.
The label is, and always has been based at P.O. Box 15375, Houston, Tex.,
77220. It is the sole information portal for his audience. It is generally
believed Jandek is the brainchild/alter ego of Sterling R. Smith. If that's true,
Smith makes fellow recluse J. D. Salinger look like a social butterfly by
comparison. He has consented to only two interviews in his career, once in 1985 to
Spin writer John Trubee, and once in 1999, to Texas Monthly reporter Katy Vine.
Both appear in the film. Both seem equally baffled by the man. He has never
performed live, and annotates his generic-looking recordings with only the most
generic of information: titles, times and the post-office-box number. The
quality of the disc's cover photos range from grainy Polaroids to grainier
shopping-mall-booth shots in quality. The fair-haired person gracing some of the
sleeves' covers may or may not be Smith: He has never confirmed or denied it.
In short, he's drawn an inordinate amount of ink for over a quarter-century
by studiously avoiding public scrutiny of any sort.
So that explains part of the mystique, but what does the music sound like?
Truth be told, 99.9995 per cent of the sentient population could not listen
to a single Jandek recording in its entirety. The songs consist of Jandek's
moaned, whooped and rasped vocals recorded at an extremely close range. As a
result, sibilants and popped "p"s are the norm, not the exception. He accompanies
himself usually with an acoustic guitar, tuned to keys known only to him, but
he has been known to go electric -- with equally dissonant results. He has
also collaborated with other singers and players over the years. They are
identified on a first-name-only basis in the song titles, and tend to follow the band
leader's methodology to a tee, although the female vocals of "Nancy" could
almost be considered conventionally melodic. Two of his recent releases (Put My
Dream on This Planet (2000) and This Narrow Road (2001)) are a cappella
recordings: spoken-word monologues that would try the patience of the saints of any
The above description, however, shouldn't (and hasn't) discouraged the more
adventurous listeners out there over the years from enjoying Jandek. Gold, in
his lengthy MusicHound entry, claims his work "can be heard slowly but surely
creeping towards the mainstream via such diverse artists as Beck, Courtney Love
and even Nine Inch Nails."
As it is, the very inaccessibility of the music has fuelled the myth. There
are lots of theories about Jandek floating around, including one about the
recordings being part of an ongoing mental-health therapy session. This, no doubt,
would strike a note of verisimilitude for most casual listeners.
"I heard about Jandek before I actually heard him," stresses the 27-year-old
Freidrichs, a University of Missouri English graduate. "Everybody kept telling
me about how weird he was, so when I actually first heard him, I was kind of
disappointed at first. It wasn't what I expected."
Gold, on the other hand, took to Jandek immediately, without even seeing so
much as an album jacket. This was in part due to Gold's early aural
conditioning sessions with such musical "outsiders" as the Plastic (Yoko) Ono Band, The
Shaggs and Wild Man Fischer, and partly because Gold first came into contact
with Jandek's music via generic white cassettes supplied by The New Music
Review, an industry tip sheet in Florida, which later mutated into the on-line
publication The Outer Shell (members.aol.com/outershel/outer.html).
When he would return to his parents' home for the holidays, Gold would find
entire cases of LPs with that Texas return address waiting for him. The extra
albums would in turn be distributed to record stores (one stack of wax was
swapped for a 99-cent Blue Shadows CD single) and Gold's Canadian campus-radio
Jandek's creepy and sleepless-at-4 a.m. persona eventually crept up on
Freidrichs, to the point where he was ready to commit to filming a documentary,
rather than a fictionalized account of the man's life.
"The more I talked to people, the more I realized the film should be done as
a documentary," he recounts. "Which wasn't what I set out to do, initially,
but the truth turned out to be far more compelling."
During the filming, the director kept in touch with the Houston Post Office's
most famous tenant, occasionally getting notes of encouragement. Not
surprisingly, the end product makes an excellent visual analogue to the man's music,
thanks to the "found" shots and scenery of the few specific geographic places
(for example, the rocky beaches of Point Judith, R.I.) mentioned in the
For his part, the film reminds Gold of such Michelangelo Antonioni classics
as Blow-Up or Zabriskie Point.
"As with all things in life, the last 10 minutes are the best," he chortles.
He's right about the film, at least. The last minutes are devoted to the only
known phone interview ever recorded with the elusive Jandek (who appears as
an audio presence only, of course).
Jandek on Corwood
will be shown at 5 p.m. Sunday at the NFB Cinema, 150 John St., Toronto
for information, www.nxne.com/filmfest.html
More information about the jandek