ALTHOUGH JANDEK HAS PUT OUT 27 original recordings since 1978—more than Prince, Bruce Springsteen, or countless other stars—he isn’t a household name. But he’s definitely famous in certain circles. He was picked by Spin magazine as one of the ten “most interesting” musicians of the late eighties and name-dropped by Kurt Cobain, and record collectors have cradled his albums in their arms for years. Adding to his cultish status is the fact that he’s a J. D. Salinger-style recluse: All that’s known about him is that he probably lives in Houston. But this spring I found the person I believe is Jandek, and to my amazement, he invited me to go out for a beer.
He’s not what you’d call an ordinary guy, though given his creative output—one of the most unusual bodies of work in recent memory—it would have been surprising if he hadn’t shown flashes of eccentricity. There has been, on average, one full-length Jandek (pronounced Jan-deck) release every year since 1981. Each album or CD cover is illustrated with a grainy photo depicting either a house with the curtains drawn, furniture, or the same tidy, expressionless, fair-featured young man. The back covers are white with black type listing nothing but the title, the song list, and an address: P.O. Box 15375, Houston, TX, 77220. If you line up all the records side by side, the uniformity of their design is enough to give you a headache.
And that’s before you hear the music. You cannot play air guitar to Jandek, and you can’t snap your fingers or sing along. It sounds like his guitar strings are horribly out of tune, yet he strums away as if nothing is wrong. His songs typically last for two to four minutes. His guitar playing—if you can call it that—usually consists of his repeating two chords over and over. He begins by singing in a high voice, holding notes for long periods, and sometimes slides down the scale, reciting dark, deeply personal lyrics so close to the microphone that it’s impossible to imagine him performing. It’s more like he has crawled in between your ears and sat down for a pow-wow.
If you think these oddball characteristics have endeared him to the hipster set, think again; the number of people who consider him a genius could fit in a sedan. But even though most listeners would agree that his records are amateurish, there is something appealing about him. Maybe it lies in the stark, desolate picture of the world he paints in his lyrics, or maybe it’s his level of inaccessibility, which is almost unheard of—even for an underground musician. His records have no liner notes, he doesn’t perform live, and he has never made a video. He doesn’t grant interviews, has never been professionally photographed, and refuses to communicate with the public. All this secrecy gives rise to fascinating theories: that the name of Jandek’s record label—Corwood Industries—somehow incorporates his real surname, that he’s a mental patient, that he works in a Houston record-pressing plant, that his father works in a record-pressing plant, that it’s all a practical joke.
“Jandek’s not pretentious, but only pretentious people like his music,” Cobain told Spin in 1993. If so, there are close to one hundred pretentious people out there, since that’s the number of Jandek’s fans on an e-mail list kept by Seth Tisue, a Northwestern University graduate student. “You have to have a tolerance for really strange-sounding music,” says Tisue, who hosts a Jandek Web site. “I mean, not just strange sounding but almost amateur sounding. His guitar is out of tune, and he can’t sing. People who like Jandek also appreciate the whole loner mystique.” Some diehards try to find similarities between Jandek’s albums and those by other artists, most of them almost as obscure: the solo release by Moby Grape’s Alexander “Skip” Spence, for instance, or the recordings of sixties proto-punk rockers the Godz. Yet Jandek seems to have conceived his music in creative isolation, almost willing his CDs to be filed in the bin marked “other” at your local record store—that is, if your local record store carried them, which it doesn’t. His work is sold only through the mail, though I bet the staff at the post office doesn’t have to check Box 15375 that often.
Part of Jandek’s peculiar charm is that he prefers to sell his albums in bulk. Early in his career, selected fans were occasionally mailed boxes of 50 LPs and asked to give them away. People who wrote to Corwood Industries received a catalog of dirt-cheap releases: In the eighties you could get a box of 25 for $50, though now that the label has switched to CDs and no longer carries anything from before 1994, you get 20 for $80. A line at the bottom of the current catalog states that you can buy 1,000 copies wholesale for $3,000 (by comparison, the out-of-print LPs can sell for as much as $40 each). In the old days copies were also mailed to college and co-op radio stations, which became Jandek’s window to the world. He wasn’t always played with urgency, but if a station manager was courteous enough to at least keep his albums on the shelf and not turn them into Frisbees, a new group of deejays would rediscover him every few years.
Only a few fans have had phone contact with Corwood Industries, but they all report the same thing: There’s something strange about the man or men involved. Some have been lucky enough to reach Jandek’s representative, Sterling Smith, who nervously and politely says as little as possible. One of the first deejays to give Jandek airplay and open the lines of communication was Irwin Chusid of the alternative station WFMU in East Orange, New Jersey. According to his forthcoming book, Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music (A Cappella Books), Chusid sent a letter to the post office box in 1980 stating, “I’ve