Nowhere man

The mysterious Jandek apparently exists — and he’s coming to Boston
By JAMES PARKER  |  May 25, 2007

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PHOLK PHREAK: Imagine Roky Erickson spread very, very thin over a slice of Will Oldham, or Nick Drake’s Pink Moon dismantled rivet by rivet.

The buzz about Jandek is . . . is . . . Well, let’s try again. For a start, “buzz” is the wrong word. The quality of interest in Jandek is more dispersed and low-energy, like a faint nibbling or twittering. But it’s out there, and it’s constant; it might even be growing. Since 1978, this Texas singer-songwriter (non-fans might dispute both terms) has been releasing homemade albums of spacy, fractured folk-expressionist music. Imagine Roky Erickson spread very, very thin over a slice of Will Oldham, or Nick Drake’s Pink Moon dismantled rivet by rivet and then left in pieces in the front yard, to be picked over by some of John Frusciante’s early solo work: whimpers, scratching, off-notes, vagrant mumblings. Compelling in the way that a broken window is compelling, the standard Jandek opus features a genderless, curtains-drawn croon and the type of tuning common to guitars that have lain for years in silent neglect. Is he insane? Without talent? A hoax? His vagueness is eerily exact: he seems to be the bluesman of his own neurochemistry. Sample lyric: “There’s bugs in my brain, I can’t feel any pain/Just a shaking shake/Just a breaking break broke me today in the afternoon” (“European Jewel”). You can’t quite turn away from this stuff. To misapply a line from the poet Franz Wright, it is the sound of “a suicide returning an overdue library book.”

Jandek gives very few interviews; those he has done seem to have been given by accident, in moods of rare loquaciousness, or because somebody happened to be standing in the right place at the right time. His albums arrive under the imprint of Corwood Industries — an independent label whose sole output for the last 30 years has been Jandek music. Their cover art often features a bleak-faced, gingery man photographed against couches, doors, or the sides of houses in a style subtly suggestive of mental turbulence. Jandek is not his real name. All the facts point to his real name’s being Sterling Smith, but something in the Jandek ambiance persuades his fans to grow coy in the presence of facts. The idea that he might be a man living quietly in the Houston area who spends a lot — perhaps most — of his time making eccentric recordings in his front room is not one that has much currency among his devotees. No, Jandek is more. Or less. Either way, he is unknowable.

And now he is coming to Boston. In October 2004, the Jandek non-story took a dramatic turn when a slightly senior version of the man on the album covers appeared in Glasgow and played a set of horrible, improvised, undeniably Jandek music. Since then, there have been intermittent live sightings. The most recent was at this year’s South by Southwest Festival in Austin, where Phoenix contributor Brett Milano reported that the live experience “sounded less claustrophobic than Jandek’s records, with the reassuring sense that his back-up band were at least playing all those wrong notes and dropped beats on purpose.” The 25th Jandek appearance (according to a super-fan Web site) will take place June 8 at the ICA. Three local musicians — Jorrit Dijkstra (alto sax, lyricon), Greg Kelley (trumpet), Eli Keszler (percussion) — will accompany a person described on the press release as “the representative from Corwood Industries,” who will play bass.

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