The End Of It All: Acknowledging The Awfulness Of Jandek

JandekIt started with someone whose taste in music I respected. She was the music director at Iowa’s largest public radio station, responsible for maintaining their vast record library. She also hosted the early evening music slot, a collage of folk, blues, and world beat programming that occasionally tiptoed around the perennial favorites of college rock. I hosted the show immediately following hers and she would spend a few passing moments before she left for the night to talk about music and drop some hints on records she thought were worthy of airplay.

“Have you heard the new Jandek album?” She asked me.

“No,” I informed her, not letting her know that I had no idea who the fuck Jandek was. “Why…is it good?” hoping to gauge her level of enthusiasm.

“It’s fucking great,” she stated without hesitation, adding a bit of profanity for emphasis. “I love Jandek,” she added, for no other reason than to coyly suggest that I should really play a track from this “fucking great” album on my show that evening.

I’m not one to take an enthusiastic recommendation lightly, and from the moment she left, I went straight for the station’s large current record file and sought out the artist and record she assuredly praised.


You Walk Alone looked very similar to the endless homemade records the station received from local artists who hoped that we would use some of the publically funded airwaves to play their music. We did, via a weekly show that provided a spotlight on regional bands called “Down On The Corner,” and on first listen, You Walk Alone rivaled some of those local attempts at recorded history.

It possessed a modicum of fidelity and the cover—in typical Jandek fashion—was strangely bland to the point where I went back into the library and gathered all the Jandek albums I could find.

As it turned out, You Walk Alone may have been the best thing in his catalog. It featured a band, one in which the guitar player seemed to be playing actual notes and one in which the songs themselves seemed to have a traditional structure to them. The rest of the catalog featured Jandek playing open, atonal guitar chords—mostly out of tune—all recorded poorly while the man attempted to sing bits of freshmen poetry and/or stream of consciousness lyrics. It was awful. It was so bad that I actively sought out the music director the next day just so that I could tell her what I thought of this Jandek guy.

At first, I was rattled by her smile. Could it have been that she intentionally led me down a path of Jandek knowing that it was some of the worst music known to man? Was it her mission to have me waste my time with it, a cruel retribution to get back at the fact that she herself wasted her time with the subject? Maybe it was a test of my own pretentiousness, to see how far I would admit to liking something when it was so utterly obvious that the record was utter shit. All of these things fell aside when she reiterated, “Jandek is awesome,” leading me to consider that the pretentiousness may reside on her part.

Years later, I came across a quote by Kurt Cobain, which addressed that very topic: “He’s not pretentious, but only pretentious people like his music.” There’s no better explanation for Jandek fans, but it falls short in describing what his intentions really are. It is understood that the story of Jandek is more intriguing than the artist himself. The more you read about his reclusive nature and consider the possibilities as to why he records music in the first place, the more you’re drawn to him. I followed every article I could, and with each unanswered question, there was a part of me that wanted his music to be better. It’s so much easier to like an enigma when there’s a worthy characteristic or talent to their endeavor. The weirdness of Syd Barrett‘s chord structures and whimsical lyrics appeals to me. The finality and isolationism of Alexander Spence‘s Oar puts it as one of my favorite albums. There is nothing—aside from a few moments on You Walk Alone and “Cathy Sings,” a song from Chair Beside A Window that Jandek doesn’t even sing—that would stir my passion to the point where I want to pursue his recorded output. It is music that is created for one person—Jandek himself—and the fact that there is a contingency of people who identify themselves as Jandek fans is a bit misleading. If the artist’s passions are so pointedly internal, then what is the motivation of those that claim to follow him? It comes down to aligning one’s self with the story, thereby allowing the “fan” to have an audience with each spin of the recording so that they perpetuate the myth of Jandek. The other notion is that the fan—the one that claim to actually enjoy his work—is so completely wrapped up in the story that they’ve actually conditioned themselves to believe that they like it. It’s unlikely that anyone could truly enjoy Jandek; the pleasure comes from admitting to someone else that you do.

Jandek - You Walk Alone

I’ve now had over twenty years to learn, study, and digest the myth of Jandek—more than enough time to formulate an opinion and revisit it just to be certain—I put Jandek On Corwood into my Netflix queue to bring some finality to my own opinion. The resurgence came from Jandek’s decision to start performing. What began as a “Holy shit. I think we just saw Jandek perform live…” from a ’04 surprise gig in Scotland to a full-fledged tour, we’ve witnessed the transformation of an artist whose notoriety was his anonymity to one with little reason to examine further. With each live performance, the myth is diminished, leaving behind a guy from Texas with no real musical talent who took a bunch of conceited record geeks for a three-decade ride.

With so little to offer in terms of musicality, and with increased opportunities to see Jandek (assuming there will be more), it’s logical to ask, “Why would you want to?” To see his performance would most certainly be the finality of a quarter-century of myth making.

As for Jandek On Corwood, its ninety minutes devoted to perpetuating the story while doing little to explain the musical aspect of Corwood Industry‘s only recording artist. You get about a dozen experts that wax on about Jandek’s state of mind, his motivation, and interpretations of his massive recorded output. Occasionally, one will admit to how unlistenable his music is, before suggesting that it’s all part of appeal. It would have been more intriguing to hear them confess that the story is the appeal and how his music is not even worth examining.

Essentially, you get a film that mirrors Jandek himself. The filmmakers coyly weave a thin web of interest, playing portions of the man’s catalog over a moderately entertaining narrative. Towards the end of the movie, you begin to lose interest. From the ridiculously over-analyzing “experts,” to the increasingly intolerable soundtrack, I began contemplating the next film in my Netflix queue. At that moment, they introduce the Rosetta Stone of everything Jandek: the 1985 phone interview that John Trubee did with the Rep for Spin magazine. The recording proves to be both the first and last word on everything one needs to know about the artist. Sterling Richard Smith (a/k/a Jandek himself) recounts the story of Jandek, admitting how a positive review in OPtion magazine prompted him to turn a therapeutic hobby into a full-fledged cottage industry. The intrigue lies in what he refuses to say—the long pauses in his replies—typically involving the other performers or the motivation of his muse. Both topics would be worthy of anyone’s silence, and for a guy that was selling under 100 copies of each release, it’s easy to understand why he would want to prevent a powder keg of interest that an article in Spin magazine would provide.

Of course, the article fueled the interest of a few brave souls who’d have been better served by stories on the amateur musicians who reside in their own hometown. But since Jandek was featured in Spin and the local cover-band guitar player wasn’t, it became a very trendy thing to claim, “I like Jandek.”

Regarding his more recent material, the albums that are a cappella, it’s almost like Jandek was attempting to create something that would finally cause people to resent him to the point of ignoring him. They are the ultimate declarations of “fuck you,” beyond unlistenable and about as environmentally friendly as a Styrofoam cup. And when even those albums failed to alienate the few dozen supporters, Mr. Smith began to use his 30 year legacy into a sweet little retirement plan.

Now we have a man who’s able to do a few weeks of sight-seeing each year at our expense while managing to chip away at the notoriety with each encounter. I don’t blame him, in fact I envy it: who wouldn’t want to have their travels funded just by playing a few hours of poorly executed songs in front of a few hundred people with a backing band that needs little to no rehearsal time to prepare?

At the same time, it’s been long overdue to have a candid admission on the true artistic merit of Jandek. For me, it’s taken a few decades to consider that his oeuvre is nothing more than a bunch of self-indulgent bullshit, and to begin to question the logic of his fans. I consider one of rock and roll’s more reliable litmus tests is “How honest is the artist and their music?” On both accounts, Jandek fails, and because of that, I question how honest his fans are being with themselves.

Trailer: Jandek on Corwood

Jandek: iTunes, Amazon, Insound, Forced Exposure, Hype Machine, wiki.

30 thoughts on “The End Of It All: Acknowledging The Awfulness Of Jandek”

  1. “With each live performance, the myth is diminished, leaving behind a guy from Texas with no real musical talent who took a bunch of conceited record geeks for a three-decade ride.”

    Could you have put it any more succinctly? An elaborate, wonderful hoax, of the sort that is perpetrated in the art world more frequently than in the music world.

  2. I’m now eagerly awaiting the part where hoards of Jandek fans call Todd a racist stinky-pants for dissing the man.

    Fantastic review.

  3. his last show in houston was with a funk band and very well received. i cant say ive been able to listen to much of his catalog at all but the footage of that show is good

  4. This recent Jandek news is pretty amusing: a now funkier Jandek played Houston (video), is playing NYU. The shots of the crowd dancing (and making out!) tells you everything you need to know.

    …Or maybe not. I remember thinking that nobody could sincerely like Beat Happening, but now I actually enjoy a lot of that stuff.

    And closer to home: I sincerely enjoyed the Great Daryl Nathan. I didn’t think he was an incredible artist or musician or anything like that, but he was entertaining and his music and performances made me very, very, very happy.

  5. jake… great daryl nathan. that’s awesome. i know it’s sincere. but it still makes me think that it’s really a tracy morgan character.

    duke ellington had put it best, “there are only two types of music, good music and the rest.” it’s up to the individual to decipher what that means to them. for me, i’ll pass on jandek. never cared for it, never will. it’s a great story. just don’t have time for that crap.

    great article, todd!

  6. I’ve always been interested in avant garde music. Jandek happens to be an avant garde musician with a lot of output. Like most experimental music, some of it I like, some of it I don’t. The fact that each time he plays live, he picks a different backing band comprised of local, well-respected improvisational musicians, shows me not only is he aware of what he’s doing, but that he’s interested in creating art that’s meaningful to him rather than carrying out some elaborate, decades-long ruse. Not to mention, his performances are usually quite thoughtful and I’d argue his lyrics are top notch as they have been since the beginning.

    I realize the “myth of Jandek” can be disconcerting, but once you approach his career the same way you might approach say, Derek Bailey’s, it’s a lot easier to stomach and maybe even a lot less worth bitching about.

    Anyway, I enjoyed your article.

  7. Thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking article.

    One problem, though: I genuinely do like Jandek. I think a lot of the songs (for example, “This is a Death Dream” from Nine-Thirty) have lyrics that would stand alone at a poetry recital and, in the end, the man pushes the musical boundaries, which is what music should be all about.

    I have spent many a night working on an assignment, where I would listen to 5 or 6 Jandek albums in a row (I have 35 of the things). I didn’t do it to impress anyone, I did it because I like the mood that the music creates. I will still be listening to Jandek long after everyone has forgotten about him.

    Anyway, just my two cents:)

  8. Great article.

    I also like Jandek and own all of his albums. I enjoy the singular quality of his music. Granted, most of my friends who have heard him don’t agree, but that doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for his music. I’ve given some open minded friends copies of his music, but mostly I keep him to myself, listening to him when I’m in the mood. Sometimes three or four albums in a row. It’s less about what he’s singing or playing for me, the notes and lyrics. Instead, I like where my head goes when I listen to his music. I guess just like any genre of music (indie rock especially) there are people who emulate the image but don’t get the music. I’ve yet to meet that fan in relation to Jandek, but I’m sure they’re out there. Cobain admitted he was one himself, apparently.

    However, to say that every fan is suspect of being pretentious… MAKES YOU A RACIST STINKY PANTS!!!

    Ahem… carry on.

  9. I initially rejected Jandek, with the exception of “Nancy Sings” – where did that come from, why couldn’t he do more of that? I’ve come to understand that you get from Jandek exactly what he feels like offering – it’s an incredibly wide range, and you never know what’s coming next. And the whole approach to performance – how cool is that? The world would be a better place if more artists took that approach. The idea of identifying and refuting pretention is a funny one… like beauty, pretention is in the eye of the beholder, I found this blog post pretentious, but that’s just my opinion. However, unlike Kurt Cobain, I’m still alive and creating, as is Jandek. Cobain was a sadly poorly adjusted person, a misanthrope and a drug addict, and it baffles me why anybody would cite him as an authority on anything (other than depression).

  10. ha let me guess, you find the work of jackson pollock “useless trite garbage” as well?

    I like jandek’s music. not all of it. no artist can constantly release only good music. I don’t care about the myth of jandek. I only listen for the music. I just view him as yet another experimental musician. do you even know what experimental music is? or are you just some lameass fuck that reads vice magazine?

    sheeesh

  11. Jandek definitely makes a totally fantastic ‘soundtrack’ to his ‘story’ that’s for sure!

  12. I completely agree. It seems the story (or the disingenuous lack of information to create a more interesting story) seemed to be how most people latched onto him and kept them going.

    However, the most recent “funk” show was the nail in the coffin for me. I mean, what was that? People dancing and making out in front of him at a Jandek show? What’s next, hip-hop? Will the fans mark that as a bold, new, and surprising move?

    His live performances reveal a man who simply writes really bad poetry delivered in the most pretentious way possible, and relies completely upon the quality of his backing band to really do the musical stuff.

    He’s also demonstrated in public that his guitar skills are extremely lacking, and he’s figured out that he can sell tickets to a show, and then release that recording for even more money.

    And the fanbase still love him. I don’t get it myself.

  13. I would like to declare “publically” that “Cathy Sings” is one of my favorite Jandek songs.

  14. As for the sight-seeing/live shows, it’s worth noting that Corwood actually accepts no payment for travel, accommodations or performing.

  15. The a cappella recordings are brutally honest. If you prefer your “honesty” pretty and polished,fine.

  16. You are like Frank Zappa, the snob who brutally dissed The Fugs in the late ’60s because “they couldn’t play instruments or sing.” Originality has no rules. Give me my tea, that ain’t your cup.

    May you – like Zappa – die soon, you bitch ass hoe motherfucker. Hahahaha… have a nice day!

  17. The Fugs sucked ass. Zappa was right on. Maybe that’s why more people have heard of Zappa instead of the Fugs-because they sucked and he was an innovator. You should throw out the merits of Mrs. Miller next time, hippy.

  18. Come on, you can’t hate the Fugs. Don’t you like boobs a lot? You gotta like boobs a lot!

    And I know you’re joking but it must be pointed out that the number of people having heard of something has no direct corrolation to that thing’s level of quality…

  19. Dear Todd, your article made me think of all the people in college who said they listened to all kinds of music in order to impress people. I’m sure there are many Jandek fans like that!

    Problem is, I didnt have anybody to impress in high school, and I LOVED Jandek. The lyrics are the best part, admittedly, but the music has an eerie quality that would work well in movies.

    The fact that you diss the Fugs makes me suspect you want people to know your taste in music is objective. Next you’ll be whining about Trout Mask Replica. Boo.

  20. I can’t believe this has turned into nutswinging for the fucking Fugs. And for the record Trout Mask is awesome and one album on the shortlist of Lost Classics is Don’s Lick My Decals or Bat Chain Puller which trumps Trout in my world. So your attempts to paint me in a corner have failed.

    But the whole thing about the Fugs is, like Jake fingered out, partly a joke. It’s mainly out of genuine shock that Craig Stewart would comment here, hoping that I die from cancer no less, on the grounds that I don’t like one of his state’s artist. It’s an opinion, and for someone like Craig to take such an angry tone against an opinion is troubling. Particularly considering his background and the fact that he and I probably share a lot in common musical interest. As a matter of fact, Mr. Stewart has profited somewhat from a few purchases of artists that he was directly envolved with. He may be directly associated with Jandek, for all I know, and maybe that’s why the tone took the direction that it did. Is it just business, Mr. Stewart? Do I bitch about the money I dropped on Trance Syndicate shit now? Do I put the glowing Ed Hall article on hold? Do we meet up at SXSW and have a good old 40-something fight in front of the wife and kids? Half of this shit is nothing more than internet mudslinging without a goddamn frame of reference or ten minutes of google searches to figure out a bit more on who’s doing the bitching. Craig would have seen his beloved 13th Floor Elevators praised by yours truly on this very sight. He would learned that Moby Grape’s “Omaha” is one of my most listened to tracks.

    Never mind that I’ve had over twenty years to formulate an opinion while Stewart’s had two fucking minutes to wish me adenocarcinoma. Craig Stewart used a fucking comment section on a website to wish that I die, this ungrateful fuck that I’ve given more than a few Jacksons to in my life shows his gratitude in the same manner as a thirteen year old flogs a someone he feels dresses funny. Craig Stewart has proven himself to be the face that the groundbreaking artists he represents rebel against. I used to think that Gerard Cosloy was a real prick, but I now know of someone who gives even him a run for his money.

  21. Why write an article about not liking something as weird as Jandek? You are not in the minority. Also, by writing about him, you are in fact playing into and spreading that self-same Jandek myth you reference in your article.

    Not only does music have no rules, but the world has no rules. Society has only public perception and the public outcry that occurs when a particular anybody doesn’t follow some traditional status quo.

    Jandek doesn’t produce pleasurable sound, usually (I’ve only listened to a few albums), but I find it quite hard to believe he put out as many albums as he did, for as long as he did, and didn’t believe in what he was doing. And it takes a certain nerve for you to suggest just that.

    And even if Jandek may have started as a “Let’s see how far I can take this” or “Let’s see if I can fool people into believing I am some demented genius,” it must have changed into different things at different times over so many years.

    Personally, I believe all art involves a certain amount of trickery and talent at being able to convince other people of your own importance. Ask Bob Dylan.

  22. The thing is, the lyrics are not actually like freshman poetry. They are more original and honest than that. And your speculations on Jandeks motives are very odd and dubious. You think he released 50 or so records over 30 years to take people for a ride, or eventually get a couple gigs? If nothing else he is clearly sincere in his pursuit of his art, and the awfulness of the music does become fascinating in it’s persistence. It is hard to listen to though, it’s almost like my mind refuses to focus on it.

  23. Jandek is not a good musician? What a bombshell. I guess I should stop listening to him right away.

    The attempt to insulate yourself against criticism is transparent. It went like this: people who claim to like Jandek are just pretentious.

    Please publish your rules on what we should and should not enjoy asap. We’re all floundering here.My horizons may shrink quite a bit, my fascination may go unsatisfied more often and there will certainly be less interesting sounds in my life, but at least I won’t be wasting my time enjoying things that are just “self-indulgent bullshit”.

    I listen to different music for different reasons. And I have a rule: it’s OK to like anything for any reason. Basically, no one should have to explain, justify or come up with a good reason why they like one thing or another. If they do, they either need to graduate high school or get new friends to discuss music with.

    Maybe they should have thrown away everything they found in Henry Darger’s apartment after he died. Because he wasn’t a very good artist either.

  24. “I question how honest his fans are being with themselves.”

    What does that mean? And why do you care?

    Your language makes it difficult to respond as a “fan” without implying to anyone who agrees with you several (mostly negative) things, but I am one and I find this article kind of depressing.

    I’m sure I couldn’t defend him on artistic grounds and I haven’t listened to him in years, but I do genuinely like him and it bothers me that this article is so antagonistic toward him, especially since you say you used to be interested.

    Because that’s just it. He did something interesting with his time on earth. He reached out to us in an interesting way, and for a very long time. Now he’s old and still doing what he loves (I hope), but that experience of following something so discreet — the fact that we even know who he is — that is his legacy.

    So what if it’s self-indulgent bullshit? Bless him.

  25. This article is hateful and not edited very well “Cathy Sings” and “Corwood Industry’s” and I don’t know where you got your research about Corwood making profits off the shows…You clearly “don’t get it” I take it personal that you don’t believe his fans are “being honest with themselves” Fuck you and your opinion! This is what makes me sick of the internet…the opportunity for every asshole to voice his or her opinion…well i’m gonna take advantage of the system myself…you, todd, are a fucking asshole…I hope that Craig dude whipped your ass…

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