Who is Who?
by Seth Porges

Originally Published Apr. 2004

Over the course of 25 years, Jandek has released 34 albums, making him one of contemporary music's most prolific musicians. The thing is--nobody is quite sure who Jandek is. Since 1978 the identity of this most reclusive of artists has remained a complete mystery.

Jandek has never performed live or made any public appearances, and only one journalist claims to have met him. The only clues to his identity are the records he ceaselessly records and releases, and the blurry, enigmatic photographs that grace their covers. Jandek's record label, Corwood Industries, consists of nothing more than a post office box in Houston.

While musicians such as the Residents have cloaked their identities behind masks and pseudonyms, their anonymity is more of a gimmick than an absolute; to be sure, there are people who know who the Residents are. If anybody knows who Jandek is, they aren't talking.

Moreover, Jandek's music is some of the most abrasive, instantly confrontational, unlistenable music to ever be released. Most of it is depressing, rambling, out-of-key singing backed by out-of-tune guitar strumming that sounds like a 34-album long suicide note played by an adolescent on his first guitar, and a dozen albums could go by over a decade with every song sounding almost exactly the same. Whoever Jandek is, he has invested an enormous amount of financial resources and time into recording his music--even if it is music that is essentially listened to by nobody: through 1985, his first nine records sold a total of about 150 copies. Along the way, though, Jandek's music has picked up a few vocal fans in addition to the rock critics and Harvard radio station DJs. "Jandek's not pretentious," Kurt Cobain explained in a Spin magazine interview in 1993. "But only pretentious people like his music." And Bright Eyes showed up on a Jandek tribute album in 2000.

More recently the Jandek mystery inspired Paul Fehler and Chad Freidrichs to make Jandek on Corwood, a documentary that explores the myth and music of the man. The project, which premiered last October at the Leeds International Film Festival, does not seek to answer all the lingering questions of Jandekalia--to do so might very well be impossible--but rather sinks its teeth into the unusual relationship between a reclusive artist and his audience. To that end, the film is related entirely in the words of his fans--a demographic so small that it makes one wonder if the film presents a sizable percentage of its entirety. The fans' reverence for an artist who essentially doesn't exist outside the confines of his obscure releases allows the film to communicate the idea that there's something special to the music beyond its unlistenability to outsiders. See Jandek on Corwood and you might walk away with more questions than answers about the indie icon, but perhaps that is the whole point of Jandek's work. As a note the filmmakers received in the mail from Corwood Industries put it: "You may not get all the answers you want. It's better that way."

Seth Porges