Friday, June 10, 2005


For those of you who have never heard of Jandek, you should go here, where you can find out everything you ever wanted to know about the legendary outsider-art musician. I would recommend an album, but singling out any one of the albums for special recognition is tricky, even churlish, since to the ear's of most listeners, they are all likely to sound equally unlistenable. Put any one of them on, and immediately you are transported to a utterly alien sonic universe devoid of any familiar anchoring points from which you can begin to relate it to what you already know. The thing is, you can't assimilate it. It constitutes pure alterity; it is as ineffable and unknowable as the man himself, who until very recently remained resolutely anonymous.

Jandek's approach is idiosyncratic to say the least: Most of his compositions are almost certainly improvised on the spot on
instruments -- usually guitar, but more recently piano -- that he can't seem to play in any conventional sense. No chords or melodies here; he seems to speak a musical language that has only one word in it, and no grammar. But what's amazing is the varying levels of intensity his music uncovers; his records delineate more degrees of sadness then you ever thought existed. His lyrics are broken, meandering interior monologues mumbled to no one, utterly stripped of the ornament we use to frame our feelings for others' consumption. His voice, haunted and forlorn, equally prone to moan, whisper, or shout, is usually saturated in echo, making it sound as though he's singing from inside a sensory deprivation tank. Sometimes his voive is so close, it sounds like the mic was placed somewhere inside his cerebellum. Sometimes he sounds impossibly far away, broadcasting from the dark side of the moon.

Don't try listening to Jandek with other people, because you'll inevitably break into nervous and embarrassed giggles to shield yourself from the enormity and the near-obscene intimacy of what you're hearing -- not that its lewd, it's just spiritually naked, as disconcerting as suddenly eavesdropping on the voices in someone else's head. Accordingly, Jandek is best listened to on headphones, preferably at night, and preferably while walking through deserted streets. Because his music challenges every assumption about why people make it and why people listen to it (he demonstrates no musical talent, he has no interest in fame or money, and he has no apparent interest in being in any way entertaining), it forces you to a zero degree of musical comprehension -- all the prejudices and preferences about music you may have accumulated over the years are suddenly wiped away, because they simply don't apply here. Some people find this terrifying; being cast into a entirely unpredictable world without rules, where all your assumptions are wrong or moot is pretty much analogous to being driven insane. But others find this strangely liberating. Listening to Jandek can have a purifying effect, it washes your ears clean so you can really hear other music again.

Because Jandek's music is so intensely subjective, because its so thorough a rejection of the music that's familiar and easily
consumable, listeners are confronted with their own subjectivity to a degree that can be startling. You realize what you bring to listening, and how far you are willing to be challenged, how much you are willing to pay attention to what's there. We hear normal music everywhere, we are so saturated with it, it's almost impossible to hear. But Jandek is unthinkable until you hear him; and if you care anything at all about music as some form of the individual spirit holding out against the increasing conformity and commodification of all aspects of life, you have to hear him.

With many of his songs, it's more important to imagine the physical activity and the intensity of will involved in making sounds you hear than the actual sounds themselves, which are just traces of the original burst of creativity, if that's what you'd call it -- some might call them spasms or psychotic episodes enacted on musical equipment. Because in his anonymity you had so much room to imagine what Jandek is all about, it's a bit disconcerting to read about his concerts, which after nearly 30 years of total seclusion, he's just begun to perform. Was the point of Jandek always his refusal to appear? Was that refusal what animated and charged his music with that palpable desolation? His albums seared you with the sense of a person on the other side of communication, some one who could not muster the energy to abide the codes of ordinary social discourse, and all the personal pain and isolation incumbent on that. Now that he appears in the same world we live in, is the other place from where he used to speak now lost to all of us, except in our own personal nightmares of alienation?

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