Let's say your head has been buried deep between two pillows since 1977, and the only nutrients you've been given to sustain yourself are a few crumbs of bread, a glass of water and a tiny transistor radio blaring Billboard's Top 40. You have no idea there's an underground, much less a king of it. For a quarter of a century--from 1978 to 2003--a mysterious recording entity called Jandek released over 30 albums of very personal, dissonant folk blues that mostly emanated from a monotonous mouth and a strangely tuned guitar.
These albums were shrouded in non-descript covers, most of which featured one blurry photo on the front depicting what was assumed to be Jandek himself, his instruments or his dilapidated neighborhood. The bare bones back covers contained the artist's name, album and song titles, and the post office box of his mysterious label, Corwood Industries. No musician credits, recording dates or locations were ever offered. Likewise, Jandek never played a live gig, reluctantly granted only two very vague mail and phone interviews, and pretty much vacuum-sealed himself off from the outside world of music.
In 2001, filmmakers Chad Freidrichs and Paul Fehler caught wind of the Jandek legend, which had snowballed over the years, and decided to take a cinematic crack at it. With their cameras in tow, they traversed the United States to interview a couple of dozen Jandek fans and experts, many of whom are in some way involved with the music industry--journalists, record store clerks, disc jockeys and the like. The result is an epic, speaking cranium documentary chock-full of very intelligent discussion of Jandek's entire career up to that point.
Of course, plenty of wild speculation about his personal life is bandied about, as well as a sober assessment of the very few facts about the man and his record label that have ever emerged. Most importantly though, the film, instead of trying to expose Jandek, handles his mystique like a couple of grubby hands slowly shuffling a monochromatic Rubik's Cube. Simply put, it's a really fun and challenging yet ultimately futile pursuit.
The interviews are intercut with gorgeous visuals that appropriately depict bleak landscapes and seashores as Jandek's dismal music drones on. Also sprinkled throughout are objects that one would assume inhabited Jandek's sparse world--a vintage rotary phone, a cheap Spanish acoustic guitar, an old reel-to-reel tape deck, a messy bed--plus ultra close-ups of magazine reviews, record labels and other ephemera. The white hole that it all orbits around is a recurring image of a full moon in the background of numerous scenes, which perfectly echoes the spooky, solitary nature of Jandek.
Public Impact: Immediately after the theatrical and DVD release of Jandek on Corwood in 2004, Jandek, the ultimate recluse, ironically--and seemingly right on cue--detonated a series of shockwaves throughout the underground music world when he played his first-ever live show completely unannounced at a small music festival called Instal in Glasgow, Scotland. Since then, he has played numerous sold-out gigs with local improvising musicians in the United States and Europe, yet still he makes no eye contact, grants no interviews, and gives no explanations. And the Jandek legend only grows.
All album covers enlarge.