Volume 19 Issue 49 | April 20 - 26, 2007


The other man in black

By Todd Simmons

In the entertainment industry, people seem to be fascinated by the idea of a recluse. Perhaps it’s our reluctance to accept that in a business propelled by a publicity machine in constant motion, an artist would go out of their way to remain anonymous. Whether it’s JD Salinger, Greta Garbo, Thomas Pynchon or Scott Walker, there seems to be a mystique that people have a desire to penetrate. In most of these cases, the artist was famous to begin with and eventually receded into the shadows. And then there’s the musician known as “Jandek”.

In Jandek’s case, his elusiveness doesn’t seem to be about dodging celebrity as much as avoiding human interaction entirely. He won’t even admit to calling himself Jandek. He prefers to be listed, if at all, as a “representative of Corwood Industries,” with “Jandek” being the name of the project. His real name is rumored to be Sterling Smith, but there is no proof of that. Last Saturday the Texas musician (who may or may not make a living as a machinist in Houston) appeared on a Lower East Side stage and sure enough there was a capacity house of rubberneckers scrutinizing his every gesture. The curious came out to gawk at the man who has released nearly 50 LPs since 1978 on his own label (Corwood Industries) yet has never given a formal interview and was 26 years into his recording career before ever performing in public.

Jandek is a different sort of man in black. The rail-thin musician walked onto the stage at the Abrons Art Center carrying a black leather satchel and a black guitar. His rhythm section of Tim Foljahn (Two Dollar Guitar, Int’l Shades) on bass and Pete Nolan (Magik Markers, Wooden Wand) on drums assumed their places and waited out the rousing applause (turned anxious silence) as the “Corwood rep” carefully pulled a stack of papers out of his bag and plugged in his guitar. Dressed entirely in black from his flat-brimmed hat to his shoes, he looked like the movie stereotype of an undertaker. There was no acknowledgement of the crowd, and there wouldn’t be all evening, as he tweaked his electric guitar and began uncoiling the first of several twenty-minute noise excursions. He didn’t sing a line of vocals for a solid eleven minutes and those first lyrics were, “Starve my body” followed by more feedback and chugging rhythm and then, “Starve my mind.”

The pattern of his songs remained largely the same throughout the evening. The backdrop light would change from purple to green and then Jandek’s guitar manipulation would usher in a new tune. Nolan and Foljahn (who allegedly rehearsed with him only once, that afternoon, but were outstanding improvisers) would follow his lead and create a solid groove for Jandek to noodle over. His lack of expert riffs or a strong singing voice didn’t keep the three from conjuring up a thickly drenched, dirge-like atmosphere. The lyrics were dark, even sinister, and played out crime and prison scenarios, struggles with God and alcohol sung in a flat, ominous tone. “There are no women here — only men — there’s a sink and a shower but you don’t want to use them”, he sang about somebody’s incarceration. One song was about a property owner going to jail after shooting an intruder. There was a creepy tone throughout but the response between songs was enthusiastic.

Despite a dozen or so walkouts, the bulk of the crowd stayed until the conclusion of the set to see how this ultra-rare appearance would end. And it ended much the same way it began, without Jandek ever looking at the audience or addressing them in any way at all. He simply put his lyric sheets away, unplugged his black guitar and vanished.

As a side note, this show was originally scheduled for Tonic, which sadly closed its doors on Friday April 13th after nine years of eclectic music programming on Norfolk Street, with a final set from John Zorn. Until it finds a new home, Tonic’s Melissa Caruso-Scott will be curating a series of concerts at the Abrons Art Center, beginning with Zorn the first weekend in May.

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