Outsider musicians don’t get any more outsidery than the mysterious Texas singer-songwriter who, for years, was known to the world only as Jandek. Over the course of 40 years and 91 albums — all released through his own label, Corwood Industries — he’s done everything from minimalist, atonal folk to minimalist, Velvet Underground-ish psych-rock to minimalist piano nocturnes to — do you sense a theme here? Well, you can forget it, because sometimes he also likes to get funky. About the only thing you can expect from Jandek is that he will defy your expectations — including your expectations of what “outsider music” is supposed to sound like.
Jandek first surfaced in 1978 with Ready for the House, an album of nine ghostly dirges performed on a detuned (or, according to Jandek, alternately tuned) acoustic guitar and sung in an oddly affectless murmur, as though all the vocals were recorded at 3 a.m. while trying not to wake a sleeping infant in the next room. The tone throughout is melancholy and claustrophobic; you get the sense that whoever recorded these songs doesn’t get out much. Relief seems to come on the album’s final track, “European Jewel (Incomplete),” when Jandek breaks out a slightly more tuneful electric guitar — until he sings, “There’s bugs in my brain/I can’t feel any pain,” right before the tape abruptly cuts off (hence, one presumes, the “Incomplete” in the song title) and you realize you might be listening to the ramblings of an actual crazy person.
Even though it’s clearly the work of a lone individual, Ready for the House was originally attributed to a band called The Units — until another band of the same name sent Jandek a cease-and-desist. I’m not sure how they even learned of Ready for the House‘s existence, since Corwood Industries apparently had zero distribution at the time. In his classic book on outsider music, Songs in the Key of Z, Irwin Chusid describes writing to Jandek in 1980, two years after Ready for the House‘s initial release, and receiving a letter back noting that the album had only sold two copies. Further correspondence yielded 25 free copies of the LP; “I need to move them,” their creator explained. (For years, this was part of Jandek’s appeal; you could mail-order his records from him directly, via a P.O. box in Houston, and he’d often send more records than you requested, swamping his tiny fan base with product.)
Even though subsequent Jandek albums, including 1981’s Six and Six and 1982’s Chair Beside a Window, featured cover photos of a pale young man with a bowl cut and a piercing stare, the project remained essentially anonymous. None of the records included any liner notes, and whatever press Jandek did seemed to be almost inadvertent. He agreed to a 1985 interview with John Trubee, a writer for a then brand-new magazine called Spin, but listening to the full audio of the recording (which has been widely disseminated by Jandek fans eager for any insight into their reclusive hero), it’s not clear that he understood he was being recorded and might be quoted in Trubee’s article. “You don’t want any personal information printed?” Trubee asks at one point. “Rather not,” Jandek tersely replies. “You can quote any of the lyrics,” he adds, sounding like he’s trying to be helpful. Then, true to form, he offers to send Trubee more copies of all his records.
It’s since been revealed, through copyright information and other public records, that Jandek is the work of one Sterling R. Smith, who lives in the Houston area and is believed to now be in his late 60s or early 70s. However, out of respect for his extremely private nature, many fans still refer to him only as Jandek — or, to distinguish him from the musical project, which over the years has occasionally incorporated other musicians, as “the representative from Corwood Industries” or simply “the representative.”
For a taste of early, acoustic Jandek, here’s “The Janitor,” from his third album, Later On, Corwood Industries catalog no. 741. Oh, did I mention that he gave Ready for the House catalog no. 739, for no particular reason? Unless he’s got 738 albums’ worth of unreleased songs like this, which seems entirely possible.
Reactions to Jandek’s early music ranged, predictably, from confusion to disgust and even terror; Chusid called Ready for the House “one of the most frightening records I’ve ever heard.” I don’t find it quite that chilling, but there is something undeniably unsettling about it. There has to be something not quite right, you think as you listen to Jandek, with any man who’d churn out these atonal dirges so prolifically.
Jandek wasn’t a total tinfoil-on-the-windows loner, however. His 1982 album, Chair Beside a Window, featured a guest female vocalist named Nancy on a track helpfully titled “Nancy Sings.” And by 1985, he had even assembled a band and gone electric, though the results — still featuring the aforementioned Nancy — were less Dylan at Newport and more The Shaggs at Lou Reed’s garage sale.
Not all of Jandek’s early work was out-of-tune caterwauling. By the late ’80s, his guitar work could occasionally be bluesy and elegiac, and his deadpan murmur had been largely replaced by a breathy delivery that carried just the hint of a melody and suggested he might own a Nick Drake record or two. Either he was learning on the job, or the earlier, more atonal stuff was a deliberate move and not the mere amateurism his many detractors have long accused him of (and though he has fans like Thurston Moore, Ben Gibbard and Conor Oberst, he has many, many more detractors).
“Upon the Grandeur,” a rambling, eight-minute guitar idyll from 1991’s One Foot in the North, is especially beautiful, with inscrutable lyrics that may or may not be about religious salvation. It sounds like he’s singing, “Join hands another way/Be born again today,” but it’s hard to tell — and, as always, there are no lyric sheets or liner notes to help decipher his slurred delivery.
In the ’90s, Jandek returned to acoustic solo recordings. By this time he had acquired a sizable cult following who embraced his quirky, lo-fi approach — but even that following was not prepared for 2000’s Put My Dream on This Planet, on which he ditched the guitar and just sang shakily into what sounded like a cheap, voice-activated tape recorder. Two of the album’s three tracks stretched on for over 20 minutes, testing all but the most dedicated fans’ patience. (Don’t worry, if you don’t make it through all 28 minutes of “I Need Your Life,” we won’t report you to the Jandek police.)
Not content to stop there, Jandek released two more a cappella/spoken word albums — the third and (for now) final of which is called Worthless Recluse, a title he probably lifted from a dismissive review in some underground rock zine that could only hang with Jandek if there was a weirdly tuned guitar involved.
In 2004, Jandek got a little less mysterious when he began performing live. At first, he would only appear unannounced, on the bill at larger festivals. But by 2005 he was headlining the occasional show, first in the U.K. and later in Austin, New York and elsewhere around the U.S. and Europe. He also began releasing live albums based on these still-infrequent appearances, each named after the location and day of the week of the show: Glasgow Sunday, Newcastle Monday, Manhattan Tuesday. At these shows, a man who looked unmistakably like an older version of the pale kid on the cover of early Jandek albums took the stage, usually playing guitar but occasionally piano, bass or keyboard, with a rotating cast of backing musicians. Musicians who have played with him at these gigs report that he invariably refers to himself as “the representative from Corwood Industries.”
Playing live seems to have inspired Jandek to expand his sonic palette, dabbling in everything from noise-rock to avant-garde classical to free jazz, sometimes all in the same show. Here, for example, is “Part Three” of Manhattan Tuesday, recorded on Sept. 6, 2005 with several leading musicians from New York’s experimental rock scene and released in 2007.
This new phase of sonic experimentation has affected Jandek’s studio recordings as well. In 2013, he released The Song of Morgan, a 9-disc set featuring nine numbered “Nocturnes” for piano, each about an hour in length. There are no accompanying vocals or other instrumentation — just Jandek’s spare, simple piano chords, which somehow manage to simultaneously evoke George Winston, Erik Satie and a child noodling away after a year or two of lessons (an association seemingly made explicit by the cover photo, the youngest image he’s ever released of the “Corwood representative”). He followed that up a year later with Ghost Passing, a 6-disc set of more hour-long piano-only compositions.
At least two documentaries have been made about Jandek: 2003’s Jandek on Corwood, in which “the representative” never appears (and for which the filmmakers explicitly avoided interviewing him, preferring to tell his story through commentary from various musicians and journalists) and 2015’s I Know You Well, which follows Jandek’s forays into live performing. Though he appears onscreen in the latter film, he remains no less enigmatic. Explaining at one point why he prefers playing to seated audiences, he says, “It’s easier for them to dream. And to feel like, ‘I hate it, but I can’t leave.'”
The debate over Jandek tends to polarize into two extremes: Is he a genius or a charlatan? Personally, I think he’s neither. Like all good outsider musicians, Jandek forces his listeners to decide where they draw the line between “real” music and aimless noise, between art and doodling, meaning and nonsense. Doing that doesn’t take any particular genius, but it does take a singular, selfish vision and a willingness to completely ignore all considerations of convention and commercialism — or even the expectations of your own fans and the precedent of your own catalog. You could made a strong case that no other musician has done this longer, or more consistently, than Jandek. Like I said, when it comes to outsider musicians, he’s the outsider-iest.
I’ll leave you with more late ’80s Jandek — not because I claim it’s his best period, or his weirdest, but just because it happens to be my favorite. Liking this version of Jandek — when his aimless songwriting alit on something that was part blues shaman, part discount-bin Dylan and part Velvet Underground circa “Pale Blue Eyes” — is probably the equivalent of liking Picasso before he discovered cubism, but I don’t care. I love that something can simultaneously sound so transcendent and so like it’s in danger of falling apart at any moment. I think that’s the promise implicit in all outsider music — that coloring so far outside the lines can lead to moments that can’t be reached through conventional means.
P.S. Thanks to every reader who has patiently suggested for years that we add Jandek to the Weird List. Your patience has finally been rewarded. Hope that, like Jandek’s captive live audiences, you didn’t hate the wait too much.