When last heard from in these parts, the reclusive Texas musician known as Jandek was busy appearing not at all in the 2003 documentary Jandek on Corwood.
It recited the classic Jandek lore: Real name, Sterling R. Smith. Location, Houston. First record released in 1978 by his mail-order company, Corwood Industries; 47 more follow (six this year alone!), often sent by the crate to unwilling radio DJs.
His lyrics? Moaned fragments with all the jaunty joie de vivre of Samuel Beckett. Music? Guitar or piano, bluesy but about as melodic as the slow crank of a medieval torture rack; usually solo, but with just enough exceptions to confuse the rule. Album art? Blurry photos, often of a redheaded male at various ages. Publicity? One-and-a-half reluctant interviews, in which he divulged nothing. Most people can't abide two minutes of Jandek, let alone 48 albums.
All of which has made him a kind of anti-superstar for a fervent knot of fans (Kurt Cobain once among them) who love to speculate on his identity, mental state and artistic intentions or lack thereof. It was hardly necessary to add that Jandek never, ever played concerts.
But in October of 2004, those verities were shaken by the appearance of a tall, gaunt "Corwood representative" at a Scottish music festival. He has performed with increasing frequency ever since -- including his first time in Canada, in Toronto tomorrow night.
It's hard to convey how thoroughly this screws up the Jandek mythos. It's the meteor hitting the dinosaurs. It's the Jandek Reformation: A man who lived like classified intelligence now takes the spotlight in a natty black suit and wide-brimmed hat. A guy who seemed allergic to humanity now jets into foreign cities and gets onstage with pickup bands of total strangers.
The accompanists are usually prominent local improvising musicians (recruited by the promoters), with whom this supposed musical primitive meshes with apparent ease. For each gig Jandek writes a new batch of lyrics, which he reads from a music stand.
The Toronto band is percussionist Nick Fraser, acoustic bassist Rob Clutton and guitarist Nilan Perera. Their only rehearsal will be to meet Jandek in the afternoon for a quick sound check and chat.
Perera admits that the initial lure was that "you're going to play with this ultimate cult figure," but the more he listened to Jandek's albums, the more sympathetic he found them. "The back-and-forth between his poetry and his instrument, whatever it may be, is very defined." (In Toronto, Jandek will play a pair of Korg synthesizers instead of his usual guitar, as he did in a recent New York show.) "His way of playing is in the vein of free jazz, in that it's following and commenting from one line to another."
Fraser extends the parallel: "When you're used to experimenting, you wonder about this idea of 'outsider' art. Look at [free-jazz pioneer]Ornette Coleman! People thought he was nuts, and maybe they're right, but it doesn't matter."
"I suspect," says Perera, "that Jandek's found out what improvisers can do -- that there are these other people who are willing to play out of time and by feel. Like any good artist, if his work starts to get rote, he's going to find another way."
Danen Jobe agrees: "He's found a way to make it fresh, and that's great." Jobe has special insight into the mood at Corwood these days, as he has been in close written contact about a project that demonstrates the devotion Jandek can spark.
A young author and university teacher in rural Arkansas, Jobe has just published the first book in a planned fiction trilogy that uses Jandek's songs "to create what seemed to me could be the life of the person that released these albums and made this music." He is giving readings in conjunction with the Toronto show and at Jandek's next stop, Chicago.
Named after the first Jandek song Jobe ever heard, Niagra Blues (sic), the tale uses only scraps of the facts about Sterling Smith, whose name never appears. Instead, Jobe supplies Jandek with a childhood in the Ozarks and a long affinity with the Delta blues. Jandek has approved and serves as musical consultant by correspondence -- Jobe sends him notes and "sometimes I get something back," mostly corrections on lyrics or technical details.
In one memorable case, Jobe sent Jandek a list of possible blues influences, including Blind Lemon Jefferson. "He wrote back and said no, not him, but Blind Willie Johnson. I put it on and could see what he meant. Like a lot of those guys, Jandek moves from gospel to total psychotic stuff. Listen to Charley Patton, or Tommy Johnson talking about drinking Sterno. Except those guys were serious."
Not, Jobe adds, that Jandek is kidding -- you don't put out 48 albums on a lark -- but he has "a hell of a sense of humour, a sly sense of sarcasm, and as you get familiar with the music, you can tell."
Later volumes will imagine Jandek into Texas and the present day. "I'm interested in identity, the things that define you. . . . It starts with your childhood and extends through your interests, and down the line you find you've become the peculiar person you are, whether it's Harry Houdini [the subject of another project]or Jandek.
"I'm not doing his biography," he's careful to specify. "It's this character, Jandek, that he's created, and I'm just creating another place for that person to be."
Jobe thinks Smith is more conscious of constructing a character than observers presume. "He put out his first album and expected people to dig it, to take it seriously, but no one did. So when he released the second one, that's when he became Mr. Anonymous. And he definitely cultivated the mystique, though never at the expense of putting out the music he wanted."
Adds Perera, "The mythology is amazing: that Jandek is an employee of Corwood Industries, but at the same time is its product -- to give yourself that many separations and divisions. . . . And to maintain anonymity, that lack of visual identity in North American culture -- that never happens."
But with the success of the documentary, this strategy may have gotten Jandek as far as it can. "So the mystique is changing," says Jobe. "He doesn't talk onstage, but I think it's because so much emphasis would be put on whatever he said -- even if it was 'Hello, Cleveland!' -- that no one would pay attention to the music. Without a word, Jandek really does command the stage, by looks and gestures, the way Miles Davis used to do."
The crazy, tuneless Texas cracker being compared to the coolest icon of New York jazz? As Jandek once said, "A little intrigue goes a long way." The gap between outsider and insider may be just a matter of a decade or three.
Jandek plays tomorrow at 7 p.m. at The Centre of Gravity, 1300 Gerrard St. E., Toronto (888-222-6608). Danen Jobe reads at Circus Books and Music, 253 Gerrard St. E., Monday, Sept. 18 at 6 p.m., free.