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Jandek On Corwood: Defiant Ambiguity and Psychological Projection

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Emerson Dameron gets intimate with the ever elusive Jandek via the documentary Jandek on Corwood.

Jandek On Corwood: Defiant Ambiguity and Psychological Projection

Compared to singer/guitarist Jandek, Swans are Doves and Charles Manson is a poor man’s Leonard Cohen. The mysterious Houston performer has pumped out dozens of albums over the last few decades, each profoundly devoid of structure. Like a gifted, isolated adolescent fresh from having his palm pressed to a hot stove, he bangs artlessly on his mistuned instrument and freestyles the loneliest lyrics in the world. His music is incomparable. It’s also some of the most abysmally depressing shit I’ve ever heard.

Among oddity-drunk hipsters, it’s his persona, or lack thereof, that gets him most of his meager attention. Until recently, he never performed live. Although he’s always been super-cordial to anyone who mails his enigmatic label Corwood Industries, he’s never been at all forthcoming with background info. He doesn’t elucidate his creative process. When rock writer Katy Vine successfully sought him out in his hometown, he behaved so strangely that the resulting profile only doubled the stakes.

Through its first two acts, the elegantly spare but laughably pretentious documentary Jandek On Corwood does likewise. Seldom have I seen a film that strained to hard to be moody. We get extended shots of beaches, bombed-out shacks, and all the other hallmarks of the quietly creepy world the filmmakers imagine for Jandek. All the while, his lack of input – or any presence at all – rings out like a scream. At one point, our absent hero’s face appears in a full moon, and it’s hard not to groan aloud.

Music nerds are masters of psychological projection. As his music bears no kinship with anything else out there – and as he’s little more than a blank screen in public life – Jandek is perhaps the most apt performer for this treatment, ever. So long as the man himself remains AWOL, the film revolves around interviews with DJs, critics and record store clerks eager to smother Jandek in their own half-formed ideas and theories. Some posit intriguing thoughts on what attracts people to music as inaccessible as this, but whenever talk turns to the artist, no one has much to say that applies outside his or her head, but it’s all slapped straight onto Jandek. Would you sit through a movie that consisted of drunks talking about how much that one Bob Mould record helped them when they got dumped? Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

After awhile, the chats descend into some conspiratorial “Paul Is Dead” type shit. When one guy describes phoning a woman in Indiana he thinks might be Jandek’s ex-wife, I want to punch him.

Then, near the end, Jandek appears, via telephone, to wipe away a lot of his mystique. He comes off as well-adjusted and self-aware, if inexplicably reluctant to pass along some seemingly minor details. He gladly spills what beans he has on Corwood’s history an sales figures. (They’re practically non-existent, which makes me wonder if there’s a single Jandek “fan” who doesn’t get all his albums gratis.) However, he offers nothing on his rotating cast of collaborators, which might be more polite than disturbing. Oddly, the man behind some of the world’s emptiest music doesn’t seem nearly as hung-up on art or suffering as most of his fans.

All the sadness and weirdness and sundry psychic shit on a Jandek record comes from inside the listener. No matter how blatantly the man’s whole scheme waves this in front of them, most of the talking heads in Jandek On Corwood confine their fascination to the shadowy creator, and seldom pause for introspection or own up to their own roles in the symbiosis of fandom.

The most soulful thing on this DVD is a special feature: A long interview with Songs In the Key of Z author Irwin Chusid, conducted by a pair of sadistic college radio jocks as they play Jandek records, back to back, for hours on end. Chusid both dismisses Jandek’s music and makes the strongest, most honest case for its appeal you’ll hear here, as he describes isolating himself during KoZ’s writing process and feeling his “inner outsider” emerge, to his horror. The average “outsider music” wonk should be so blessed.

By Emerson Dameron

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