Ready for the House
By Douglas Wolk
The longest-running, weirdest, loneliest enigma in "popular" music is a guy from Texas who calls himself Jandek. His latest album, The Beginning, was released late last year on the Corwood Industries label, which has put out all 28 of his albums and nothing else that anyone knows of. It was accompanied by a reissue of his very first album, Ready for the House, which originally came out in 1978 and was credited to the Units. (He's the only musician on it; all subsequent albums, and the reissue, are attributed to Jandek.)
Jandek has never performed in public. He has never willingly given an interview, though a reporter from Texas Monthly tracked him down this summer: they chatted about allergies, gardening, and The Matrix, and he politely told her that he never wanted to be contacted in person about Jandek by anybody ever again. All his albums have a fuzzy photograph on the front cover--of a man, or part of a house, or some curtains, or some combination of these. The back covers have his name, the album title, the track titles and times, and Corwood's address (P.O. Box 15375, Houston, Texas 77220), all typeset in the same nondescript lettering--except for One Foot in the North (1991), which uses a sort of Chinese-restaurant font. No one knows why.
And what do these records sound like? Like pure desolation. Jandek is not just solo but profoundly alone on most of his recordings, picking distractedly at a guitar tuned to no particular notes, moaning in no particular key about thinking and love and wandering around and staying in the same place and God. Beyond that, there's just emptiness--each off-key ping floats out separately into black space. Sometimes Jandek sounds as if he's swallowed the grimmest death-letter blues of the 20s and is pulling them back out of himself hair by hair. His songs have no choruses, no hooks, no melodies, no rhythms, no internal progression, nothing but the inexorable Chinese-water-torture plod of Samuel Beckett's The Unnamable: "I can't go on, I'll go on."
Some people think Jandek is some kind of put-on--but it's hard to imagine a joke's being maintained so scrupulously for more than 20 years. Most people simply find Jandek unbearable--monotonous, deeply unpretty and (for the most part) uncathartic, and all but completely structureless. But a few people can hardly stand to listen to anything else, for days or weeks on end, obsessing over the mystery of Jandek. I'm usually in the second category and sometimes find myself in the third. Seth Tisue, a Northwestern grad student and WNUR DJ, is more committed. He's set up a Web site (www.cs.nwu.edu/-tisue/jandek) with an extensively annotated discography that tracks the nuances of Jandek's career, describing each album's themes and cover images. White Box Requiem (1996), he notes, is "almost catatonically mopey and meandering....He sounds hopeless. It's not like Blue Corpse , which is a record about emotional devastation with some perspective on it, not from totally inside it. Also different from the weird detachment and diffidence of Twelfth Apostle  and Graven Image ." Of the cover to On the Way (1988) he notes, "This is one of those pictures that the photo lab gives you a refund on."
The rewards of a Jandek obsession are discovering the variations in his oeuvre's gray expanses that become, by comparison, as spectacular as cherry blossoms. On a few albums, a woman who might be named Nancy (song title: "Nancy Sings") sings a bit; occasionally other people wander in and play drums or another guitar, instruments they don't seem to have encountered before. The title track of The Beginning is a 15-minute improvisation on piano, an instrument Jandek's never previously essayed, though it's as far out of tune as you'd imagine. Sometimes he plays electric guitar instead of acoustic. Lost Cause (1992) includes a couple pieces that are almost conventionally songlike, plus a 20-minute screeching blowout called "The Electric End."
But though each album produces its own little shocks of revelation, Jandek's work is essentially of a piece--the despairing one-note-at-a-time meanderings of Ready for the House's "They Told Me About You" and The Beginning's "I Never Left You Anyway" might have grown from the same afternoon's impulse. And in many ways, Ready is a Rosetta stone for the rest of Jandek's music: he's used fragments of its lyrics as titles for later albums (Staring at the Cellophane, Chair Beside a Window, Somebody in the Snow), rerecorded its "European Jewel" many times, and made the template for his "career" out of its bold, willful disposal of all the essential qualities of songs but their desperate need to be heard. Compared to "real" pop music, Jandek's songs are terrifyingly ugly, but in the context of his decades of persistence, the range and mass of his work, they become intensely beautiful and meaningful--an unfocused, unlit snapshot of an entire adult life.