Perfect Sound Forever


photo: Ha Lam

Live at Scottish Rite Theater, Austin TX August 28, 2005
By Michael T. Fournier

Over the course of almost thirty years, Jandek has released forty-two albums. His reclusiveness has been perhaps more legendary than his music- no interviews, no live performances, no contact with the outside world save for the occasional cryptic scrawl inked on a shoddily mimeographed record catalogue from Corwood Records, the man's post office box record label. No self-hype and no context, just the records themselves, atonal blues that have had many convolutions (whispered, shouted, mostly in tune, wildly out of tune, electric, acoustic, solo, accompanied by bass and drums) but remain essentially off-kilter and creepy no matter the permutation.

Jandek's first live appearance was unannounced- he played a set at Glasgow's Instal festival in October of 2004. Two more European shows followed. So did an announcement that the reclusive cipher would be playing three times in the United States: in Austin, New Orleans, and New York City.

The crowd waiting outside of Austin's Scottish Rite was a collection of mild-mannered nerds, grizzled hippies, scenesters and Goths. A quick t-shirt check revealed two people representin' in Grateful Dead shirts. That was it for repeats: Swans, Underdog (the cartoon, not the Chuck Treece vehicle), college radio stations and lots of short-sleeved button-ups.

The doors opened. Everyone filed through the lobbies full of paintings of Masonic bigwigs and into the theater, which sat close to 250 people. There were a great many necks craning around, taking everything in. Listening to Jandek's music is a largely solitary pursuit, best suited to hours after midnight and enough drinks to induce a tactile melancholia. Sitting in a room, putting faces full of like-minded fan(atic)s was a moment many people thought would never come.

Come it did, though. The lights dimmed, filling the room with a silence that stretched for minutes as everyone waited to see what would happen next. First was an announcement asking for no photographs or recordings. Next, the band filed in: the bass player, stage left, with a McSqueeb skater mop; drummer stage left, youngish and mild-mannered; older jazz drummer, stage right.

Then Jandek came on.

The crowd was largely hushed as he walked onstage. He fussed with his guitar strap for a moment or two as everyone sized him up. The black cowboy hat perched atop his head was familiar because of its presence on the covers of A Kingdom He Likes (2004) and When I Took That Train (2005). The man himself had never looked so skinny on any of his album covers- he wore an ill-fitting light blue silky shirt that looked positively huge on his frail frame, with dark pants hitched up a few notches too high. His neck, head, and especially his hands looked oddly disproportionate as if someone had jammed normal-sized parts onto a giant mannequin.

He plugged in without wrapping the cord around his guitar strap, and, without a word, started playing.

The set consisted of ninety minutes of new material. Drummer stage right provided stunning blasts of free jazz thump, as the bassist squeezed out tones and drummer stage left filled in the gaps. Watching Jandek play guitar was fascinating: recognizable chord shapes were providing unique sounds because of his alien tunings. One of the enduring questions regarding his catalogue has always been whether he writes all of his songs ahead of time or fully improvises each album. Probably a little bit of both- he leafed through a notebook, presumably full of lyrics, on a music stand between songs, and often took one more sidelong glance at the chosen page before launching in. Songs often started with him pacing small patterns on the floor, looking at his backing band, cueing them to mood and tempo with his introductions and motions. Similarly, songs would stop with small motions of the hand and gentle nods.

There's been the question of whether Jandek's live appearances would do anything to diminish the recluse mystique he's been cultivating, like it or not, since his arrival. If anything, the subject matter of the songs should serve to elicit more questions about the man and his condition. Why has he started playing shows? Is it a reaction to the almost universal plaudits heaped on the man and his work following the release of the excellent Jandek on Corwood documentary in 2004? Has he decided to hit the road following a retirement from his job? This is a man who travels, as gleaned from song titles, contextual clues and photographic clues on his albums. Perhaps Jandek was unaware of the scope of his fandom.

Or maybe it's darker than that.

Jandek's lyrics in Austin, largely discernable, were grim and full of sobering imagery. In the first song, he howled, "I don't know why I'm in front of you- I'm six feet under/ I guess I asked you for a moment of your time, but really, really it's all out of hand." In subsequent songs, he mentioned "sickness and disaster" and "I've got festering wounds that are consuming me." Other songs featured him singing in the second person, thickly telling the unknown "you" he was singing to (Was it the audience? a girl? the devil?): "You'll feel helpless with the sickness that I have," imploring for the unknown person to "Help me get to the next place, where you don't exist." Could it be that the frail man onstage is terminally-ill, playing a round of shows that will serve as his farewell?

As Jandek played, blue backlight threw a thirty-foot silhouette of the man against one of the Scottish Rite Theater's tan, curtained walls, an image that sent me scrambling to the mental rolodex, trying like hell to remember Plato's cave allegory from freshman philosophy class. A quick internet scan (no dice) revealed that the prisoners shackled in the metaphorical cavern think that shadows cast on the wall are real, and know nothing of what's causing them.

That pretty much sums it up: is it real or is it Jandek?

See the rest of the Jandek tribute

Main Jandek page Album/CD reviews of all Jandek product
Jandek live in NYC review Interview with Loren Connors about Jandek

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