It was never going to be the easiest of tasks: to assemble a 90 minute documentary film around a musician about whom the only verifiable facts are that he operates from behind a PO box in Houston, never gives interviews or plays live, and over the past 25 years has released 35 of the most emotionally traumatic and formally wayward recordings ever broadcast via the tongues of humans. Yet Jandek On Corwood, a feature length investigation into the solitary Texas musician known as Jandek put together by director Chad Friedrichs and producer/interviewer Paul Fehler, is, against all the odds, a fantastic evocation of one of the most compelling soundworlds ever to orbit the contemporary underground.
Working from a series of talking head interviews with Jandek scholars and obsessives, including critics Byron Coley, Douglas Wolk, Phil Milstein and Gary 'Pig' Gold, the two film makers assemble a composite portrait of a character that wouldn't be out of place in one of Paul Auster's oblique, circuitous novels.
The film is broken up into a series of revealing chapters, wherein layer upon layer of myth and reality is sifted through and extrapolated upon. Wolk describes Jandek's back catalogue as being almost akin to a "33 volume suicide note," but the theory that all his early work had been cut in one huge burst as part of some kind of herapeutic mental health programme is shot down almost as soon as it rolls off the first critic's tongue.
Coley is particularly lucid, describing Jandek's body of work as being reducible to three semi-distinct phases. Back in 1978 his first album, Ready for the House, recorded under the group name The Units, introduced the kind of blasted interior landscapes that dominate his first seven records, with an expiring acoustic guitar, apparently tuned to the movements of the stars, coiled like barbed wire around a distressed, semi-articulate vocal that conflated eschatological blues imagery, religious iconography and hermetically personal visions of isolation.
1982's Chair Beside a Window signals the beginning of his
second major phase, identifiable by a gradual accumulation of additional
sonic elements, including overdriven electric guitar and contributions
from a clutch of other musicians only identifiable by their first names,
like vocalist "Nancy," and drummer "John." This phase
lasts all the way up until 1987's Blue Corpse where, as Coley describes
it, "the bottom dropped out again" and Jandek once more returns
to the broken tongues of his earlier work, albeit with occasional echoes
of his expansive middle
But it's not all about the fetishisation of dysfunction. Coley also makes the point that to automatically presume Jandek's work traces the arc of his life is to undermine the liberating power of art to create whole new alternative universes that aren't in the least bit representational. But Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening and K Records is the most incisive when tackling this subject, dismissing the idea that just because Jandek chooses to work outside of the music industry's systems of validation, we should immediately presume there's something wrong with him.
Nevertheless, it's a difficult notion to shake, and one that the film ends by reinforcing as they climax with a replay of the only recorded Jandek interview, conducted over the phone by the critic John Trubee in 1985. When Trubee asks him how he met collaborators like Nancy and John he's greeted with a minute's silence, followed by Jandek's assertion that he doesn't "think it'd be right to answer that," further fuelling a bucket load of spurious and infinitely offbeam theories.
But ultimately Jandek on Corwood is a huge success, proof that even this far into the game there are certain semi-desolate corners of the underground that remain impregnable to colonisation by the ever-encroaching monoculture and its accompanying pressures and pay-offs. No matter what the truth is, it makes you believe.