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.