The Jandek show in Ann Arbor last weekend has been the buzz of many sites on the Internet since Monday. Some have termed it "brilliant"; others have called it "the emperor's new clothes." At the very least, everyone thinks the show can be described as "interesting"...
Here's a first-hand, eye-witness report from local writer and drummer Laura Witkowski, who we'll hopefully be seeing more of both here and in the paper:
Jandek, my Jandek...
ANN ARBOR -- I first heard about Jandek in August of 2005 when my best friend sent me an e-mail with what is still to this day my favorite subject line: "Fw: Nick and Jandek -WHAT'S WRONG WITH ME?!?" The latter part of the line refers to the fact she’d sent the e-mail to me twice before and failed to include the link that revealed the first part of the subject: A story that included a photo of her husband playing drums at Jandek's Austin show earlier that month. Nick was SO excited to be playing the show -- he is a big Jandek fan, so what better honor than to get the chance to play live with somebody so mysterious and under the radar?
His excitement intrigued me, so I did a little searching on the Internet and found out more about the man and his music. The little I'd managed to hear was spooky acoustic folk -- out of tune but somehow captivating. I made a mental note to find more of his stuff, and then he kinda fell off my radar. In December of '07, NPR did a piece on Jandek and a new film called Jandek On Corwood, and my intrigue was renewed. I vowed to watch the documentary and learn more about this odd and prolific songwriter. Then, as life goes, off my radar again he fell...
So when I heard the day beforehand, that Jandek was going to be playing a FREE show on Saturday in Ann Arbor, I knew I had to go. I had only heard two songs, hardly a representational sampling of his 52 or so albums of work. But part of the thrill of music discovery is the “not knowing,” yes? I initially vowed to go alone -- after all, I wasn't even sure what I was getting myself into, let alone dragging along somebody who, depending on their interpretation of the evening, might well stop returning my calls. When my friend said he was interested, I said I'd drive. Alas, he didn't make it, and I made the trek to Ann Arbor alone.
Seeing as I was unencumbered by anybody else's schedule, and I wasn't exactly sure where the Mendelssohn Theatre was, I left super early. Word on the Internets was that there would certainly be a line to get in. I brought along my new issue of Harper's magazine, stopped for a cup of coffee, and proceeded to the lobby of the theater about 6:45 pm. Doors were at 7:30 and the show was to "promptly start at 8 p.m.," according to the posters.
When I got there, the lobby was already filled with people. Not surprisingly, many of these were wallflower-ish, socially impaired white men, who had also come alone, incredibly early, and brought along reading material to pass the time. I will not lie -- this made me feel depressed. There were also some hipster kids -- a whole gaggle of thrift store thread bearing youngsters who were cracking each other up and just having fun. I really wanted to ask them what brought them out to the show, what their take on Jandek was -- but I realized they probably saw me as having more in common with the 45-year-old guy wearing a mock turtle neck and white tennis shoes, reading Don DeLillo and eating hummus and pita than with anything they cared about. I don't think you can feel more lonely or less hip than while waiting for a Jandek show by yourself on a Saturday night.
So after sitting on the floor of the lobby reading most of a Harper’s article called "A Mind Dismembered: In Search of the Magical Penis Thieves" (yes... seriously!), doors opened and the crowd started to trickle into the actual theater. Being by myself, I managed to get a really great seat in the fifth row. I overheard an usher telling the people next to me that Jandek will be set up on our side of the stage so we'd have a "fantastic view." I am now starting to feel excited -- who knows what's in store? There's a reason that literally hundreds of people are here -- something magical is about to happen, right?
A couple sits down next to me and I overhear them comment about my magazine. "Harper's. Now there's a magazine with substance!" the woman says. Her male companion shoots back, "Yeah, but you have to pay for that." I ignore them and, having trouble concentrating on the penis thieves in Nigeria, I flip to the last page of the magazine, which is a feature called "Findings." Of the many random things in this column, one sentence in particular stands out to me: "A 2,000-year-old ghost forest on the coast of Oregon was uncovered by rough seas." That's all it says -- no further explanation. It seems a fitting thought for the night, and as I'm thinking this, the lights go down.
I had read that Jandek would be playing the show with local area musicians. When Nick played with him in Austin, he was one of two drummers and a bassist. For this performance, Jandek was slated to play with a trumpeter, a harpsichord player and... an interpretive dancer? Yep. That's certainly an adventurous back up band! The curtain goes up, and without a word, Jandek starts playing his first song. He's dressed virtually the same as in the pictures from the Austin show -- really nice button down shirt and dress pants, shiny black shoes, and a big black hat. He does not look like he gets much sun. The harpsichordist looks like a heavier James McNew from Yo La Tengo. The trumpet player is wearing jeans and sunglasses. The interpretive dancer is motionless at first, and when she finally starts to move in very subtle, stiff motions, I immediately notice that her black shirt and black pants do not match. I find this distracting for the rest of the show.
To say that Jandek "played" the electric bass guitar for the duration of the show seems like a bit of a stretch. He seemed to improvise each note -- and I use the term “note” loosely as most of what he played sounded like tuning -- or like if I decided to pick up a bass (or anybody who has never played bass in any real sense before), set it on my lap, and began to tentatively pluck and tap it. Although there are music stands in front of all the performers (save the dancer -- who does have a microphone and occasionally adds some improvised vocalizations), I couldn't begin to tell you what the performers may have been reading. There was very little structure, very little cohesion, and very little differentiation between pieces. Jandek's vocals were mostly haunting statements like, "I am a piece of trash..." and "It can't be all that bad -- there's still eating and drinking... and sleeping and waking." That last line seemed somehow profound to me, and despite the difficult nature of the performance, I couldn't get up and leave like more and more people did between pieces. Was it because I was finding it particularly enjoyable? No. But I also like to be tested -- music is so disposable and easy to come by and it's not hard for me to get bored and antsy. I always like a good musical challenge. So even though I had to pee, and certainly wouldn't be out any ticket money should I decide to leave, I vowed to stay until the end.
The end came after about two hours. Jandek never spoke to the audience or acknowledged the other players onstage. To call this "outsider music" seems like an understatement. After the last piece, the audience whooped and cheered and even gave Mr. Mystery a standing ovation. I stood up too -- but it was because I am short and couldn't see once the people in front of me stood up, not really because I felt a standing ovation was in order. But I have to acknowledge, it certainly takes some kind of talent to get that many people to show up for such a weird, joyless, and angular performance. And that alone must count for something.
As for me, I'm still scratching my head. The show left me with more questions than answers. In the dark, I wrote one of Jandek's lines down on the cover of my magazine. To me, it sums up the whole evening, and proves that regardless of his motives, Jandek possesses some level of genius:
It's not about anything... You just got bamboozled into thinking it was something...
Ah, Jandek, you sneaky devil, you
Laura Witkowski is a freelance music writer and drummer. She just recently moved back to her hometown of Detroit after almost four years in Charlotte, NC. She hearts music majorly and would love to play in your band.
Jandek: The man of mystery...