Monday, November 14, 2011

Jandek on Corwood: A Documentary

Caustic rock writer Byron Coley (who I used to rip off blind, stylistically speaking, back in my teenage sleazegrinder days), figures prominently in this creepy-crawly documentary about tuneless spacecase Jandek. He was one of the first scribblers to ‘discover’ the infamous outsider, so he gets to opine at length about the many moods of J. Which is cool, I mean, I’m not arguing. I’m just mentioning him because that’s how I came to know Jandek, by loitering in the store he worked at/co-owned/whatever in the 80’s, In Your Ear, in Allston Rock City (still running, I was there yesterday).

In Your Ear carried all – or at least plenty – of Jandek’s ugly ass records. They all had blurry black and white covers and they smelled weird, like old people, or rash ointment. I never once even considered buying one, but I figured must have had some kind of sizable following, since IYE carried so much of his junk. I also figured that every other record store in town probably sold his albums too, I just never checked, because what good J bands were there in the early 80’s, besides Priest, and maybe Joan Jett?

Turns out that In Your Ear was probably one of the only record stores in the whole country that carried his nightmarish releases, and the reason they were always fully stocked is because nobody ever bought them. By Jandek’s own admission, he’d only sold 150 albums, TOTAL, 7 releases and ten years into his ‘career’. And that ain’t much, even in the weirdo-slacker-punk-rock loserdom world of Lisa Suckdog and Eugene Chadbourne and whatever other loonies that snagged hipster ink in the 80’s.

Come to think of it, they were big on playing endurance-test records back then – I distinctly remember when the first Melvins album came out, and you could walk into In Your Ear on any given Sunday afternoon to hear the great crashing kinghellnoisedoom of “Gluey Porch Treatments” rattling the windows. So they might have played Jandek’s retard blues at some point, I dunno. All I know is that once around 1984 or so, Byron Coley said to me, he says, “Hey, why don’t you move out of your mom’s basement?” because I was buying a Truck Stop Women poster, which might have been suitably snarky if I was 25 at the time, but I was only 15. I mean, where the fuck was I gonna move to, Byron? Juvey? Fuck you, pal. And fuck your unlistenable Jandek bullshit, too.

But I digress. For the uninitiated, Jandek is a reclusive, possibly insane creature from Texas who, since 1978, has been releasing a cuppla albums a year that are filled with what sounds like a guy with iron claws for hands trying to kill an acoustic guitar while he bemoans his pitiable plight in a ‘singing’ voice that brings to mind a mental patient in the throes of violent hallucinations. Like, 20-30 album’s worth. Now, I realize that when anyone describes Jandek’s music, it sounds fun, like a hearty laugh at some fool’s expense, but it is not fun, it is SICK and AWFUL, and will only make you feel like crying. And if all you had to go on was how Jandek’s trainwreck musick sounded, then we would not be speaking of him at all. He would have been forced to melt all those awful records down and go back to muttering to himself on the bus. But because he so shrewdly marketed his music as the strange and mysterious ramblings of an otherworldly loner from Nowhere, USA, a cult of awe and reverence formed over the years, made up of over-educated rock scribes and desperate-to-be-cool college radio programmers and (presumably) hardcore masochists.

And so, a documentary, artfully shot by first time director Chad Freidrichs. Only one problem, though – the subject is nowhere to be found. About the closest Freidrich gets is a close-up of Jandek’s post office box, an audio interview from 1985, and an anecdote from writer Katy Vine (Texas Monthly), about the time she drank beer with Jandek, but was not allowed to ask him about his music. Compelling and puzzling evidence, to be sure, but the rest of the 89 minute doc is filled with talking heads like Richie Unterberger (Unknown Legends of Rock n’ Roll) and Dr Demento, who pontificate on who this bizarre anti-musician really is, and what, if anything, could this nonsense really be about?

And of course, nobody knows, not even Jandek. The tape of John Trubee’s ’85 Spin interview with J closes out the film, and it’s something of an anti-climax, because he sounds relatively normal, if not a little aloof and…well, kinda boring. Just another hopeless, tone-deaf rocker trying to move units. No wonder he refused to do interviews after that one, he would have blown the whole suicidal weirdo shut-in aura completely. Since the doc's release in '05. Jandek even made a few appearances in public, played a few awkward gigs,and basically admitted, yeah, I'm real. Weird, but real. And the world shrugged and went  back to work.

So, it's a Use Your Illusion situation, really. You can walk away from Jandek on Corwood (Corwood is his one-man record label, by the way) fully convinced that Jandek is some sort of high priest in the church of the gonzo freakvibe sent here from Planet Thorazine to enlighten us all in the pleasures of sticking our heads in the oven, or you can take the more cynical approach, and just assume he’s a slightly imbecilic prankster with too much time and money on his hands, who doesn’t know when to quit. Either way, there remains a man named Jandek making miserable, scary puke-folk in Texas, and a whole buncha graying smart-asses in the rock-crit world that think he’s some sort of demented, reclusive genius, and this documentary will tell you all about it. Unless you like the sound of small things being eaten alive by bigger things, then there is very little chance that it will convert you to the cult of Jandek, but it will creep you out for days, and I can’t imagine the strange, elusive man behind it all would want it any other way.

- Ken McIntyre


  1. Last time I was at In Your Ear, it was 5:00 and my dad drove me through 45 minutes of the worst rush-hour traffic I've ever seen.

    When we finally reached the university, he stopped, fired off the sweetest parallel-park ever, then slumped over the steering wheel exhausted. "I hope this is worth, to you, a fraction of the trouble it took to get us here!"

    Turns out I only had 15 minutes to run around the store. By now it was 6 and we had to be in Mystic, CT by nightfall.

    So yeah, that was pretty nuts.

  2. Oh yeah, I remember that.
    45 minutes is not enough time to dig through 100,000 records!

  3. I like the song, especially the drumming.