[Jandek] Notes on Toronto Concert

Mark Fenton MFenton at aic.com
Thu Sep 21 08:50:20 PDT 2006




The Centre of Gravity is, I understand, a clown school, on this occasion
set up with about 200 chairs, and as we were an hour early my friend
Mark and I got the 2nd row. TCG had a concession which only sold
microwave popcorn and pop, which served as my dinner, and, in
retrospect, that might have been a mistake.


At about 7:10 we were told that the show would begin at 7:15 precisely,
as the cameras were synchronized to start then. This was obviously a
professional job. I've never heard sound this good at an electric
concert. Only slightly louder than a classical chamber concert would
have been in the same space, as balanced and clean as a Manfred Eicher
recording for ECM, (rather a surprise given that the production values
of Corwood Studio releases are sort of Manfred Eicher's worst


Three musicians, rather casually dressed, were followed by a pale man
wearing fine wool pants possessing a crease you could cut things with, a
dusty silk shirt of-- under the blue light-- a dark indeterminate
colour, a matt black brimmed hat that I wish I knew where he bought, and
an equally matt black jacket which he took off and folded in a
conspicuously studied manner, as he sat at the keyboards. He has the
slow deliberate movements of a blind man, and a light footprint such
that I imagine he could startle you by being suddenly and inexplicably
behind you when you turned, having not heard him approach. He had a
black binder of notes he placed on a music stand, presumably with
lyrics, though his eyes didn't indicate that he needed to lean on the
lyric sheet that much. He looked as though his clothes were the only
thing holding his skeleton together, and that every movement required
the full force of his will. An initial nod to the musicians was only
motion of acknowledgement to other people in the room.  During applause
between songs he was stiller and more expressionless than the
stereotypical catatonia of shoe-gazer bands, and when the last piece was
done he departed as silently as he'd arrived.


The set lasted for just under two hours (there were no other acts)
roughly six very long songs bookended by an instrumental intro and
outro. The musicians were impressively rehearsed, as though fully aware
of the arc and resolution of each piece. There was no sense that the
singer was on his own agenda, and that the backup musicians were simply
filling in. 


As others have noted, there are many sides to Jandek, including a Jandek
who likes to rock out, and a Jandek capable of a light-textured, oddball
whimsy. This was not one of those Jandeks. This was a night of intense
introspection; a dark night of the soul.


The singer played two keyboards, one, to my ears set to a glass
harmonica timbre, and the other closer to a church organ. The whole
ensemble gave an unprecedented prettiness, with, however, the usual
unpredictable yet strangely inevitable sense of what was coming next,
making the prettiness more disconcerting than comforting. The lyrics
were a definite set, very text heavy and sprechtgesang with the emphasis
on speech rather than singing. They suggested a serious illness (a sick
bed was referred to continuously), and after about the third song a
dialectic emerged between "I" and "he," "he" being someone "I" wanted to
kill, and who finally is found dead in the water and then resurrected.
At a certain point it seems that the identities have switched. "Was he
really me?/ We didn't want the world to know we were two/It was out
secret."  "I decided to make him do what I wanted to do/What I needed/ I
was tired of the years of regret." Sometime though, after "I" reports
"him" dead floating in the water, "I"'s memories seem not to suffice and
"he" is brought back from the dead in order to have the memories for
himself, and around this point identity between the two is pretty much
dissolved: "He longed for the days when he just roasted wild animals
over the open fire/ When he just pulled fish from the water." One
suspects a serious illness fragmenting the psyche and annihilating part
of it, perhaps for better, perhaps not, particularly given that the
"sickbed" is referred to throughout. My friend Mark suggested that this
struggle between identities might hold a clue to the radical decision to
make live appearances.


I too was struck by the numbers of people who fled the hall following
each song, due I suppose to the unbearable intensity. I was reminded of
an account of Jackson Pollock going to see Waiting for Godot with his
friend, Ruth Kligman, in the early 1950s, who reported that "he started
to cry, really cry, and then the crying turned to sobs and then it went
into heartbreaking moans," and they had to leave the theatre. I felt
that this performance could have pushed people to such intensity of
feeling, since this was, I'm reasonably certain, a crowd of converts,
not people who just came in of the street because they were wandering
down Gerrard East on a Sunday night, and who might well, after, say, an
hour, go "What thuf---!" and storm out. 


On leaving I had no sense of what amount of time had passed. It could
have been half and hour; it could have been four hours we were in there.
But night had fallen, and it seemed a very, very dark night.  I left
more convinced than ever that Jandek is at the vanguard of seeing deeply
into the world we inhabit, a world for which we need an artist of such
vision: a world of unsustainability, of incomprehensible global wars, of
the indeterminate borders and vanishing centres of sprawling cities, and
the hard, uncharted path of the self adrift in it; a world in which our
capacity to gain instant information on what's happening around the
world, only mocks our inability to affect what's happening around the
world. This to me comes from the abstraction of his music with it's
hard-edged near-repetition of simple pitch-relations that never become
formulaic, and lyrics which offer few signposts of contemporary events
or even proper nouns, but whose brief shafts of illumination embedded in
the detritus of linguistic exhaustion force the audience into
individual, and perhaps harrowing, revelations.  I wouldn't have missed
it, but I couldn't experience this emotional pitch too often. I'd skip
the microwave popcorn next time, at least on an empty stomach. My friend
Mark declined my offer to get him a bag (the least I could do, since
he'd picked up the tickets). He said he worked a popcorn concession once
and couldn't eat the stuff, since he now knew all its nasty secrets.
Wise words.


Mark Fenton, Hamilton Ontario



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