Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Jandek is one of the strangest stories in the whole of recorded music. Starting in 1978, Jandek released a steady stream of albums, most of which were amateurish and barely listenable. He did not release them conventionally, sending them instead of radio stations and shipping them mail-order to anyone who requested them (not for free but for a price so low that it eliminates any suggestion that he was in it for the money). Until 2004, absolutely nothing was know with certainty about the man except that he lived in Houston: he refused requests for interviews and made no attempt at conventional 'marketing'. Due mostly to his tunelessness, a Jandek cult was slow to grow. Due mostly to his tenacity, sooner or later it did arrive. Starting in 2004, he appeared in public for the first time, and it appears that slowly (perhaps upon retiring from whatever his day job once was) he has decided to 'play the game' at least a little bit. By his own rules, of course, which is how it's always been. Jandek is influenced by no one and has influenced no one. He exists entirely outside of the music industry, and for that reason he's fascinating. The contents of his albums are at times less interesting than their very existence, and are rarely conventionally listenable. His album covers are an important part of his mystique, but in this case we're not speaking of an amateurish naïf: it's my opinion that many of these covers are excellent in their own way. Jandek clearly old photos he has lying around as his source, and as a photographer he never seems to go out of his way to shoot anything above the mundane basics of his surroundings (if he is indeed the photographer, which - particuarly since he features in many of them as subject - is by no means beyond dispute). And yet a good many of these covers reveal an eye for finding beauty in the mundane. I'm not doing a complete gallery of all 66 Jandek album covers - as that would take too long and dull the impact through endless repetition. But here are nineteen that, to me anyway, really stand out.
Ready for the House, from 1978, is Jandek's début, and immediately the cover art is striking. It's just a chair and a window, with some books and maybe an ashtray. What is striking is (a) those jurid colours, and (b) the fact that no element in the cover is actually the focus, or in any way seems like 'album cover' material. Jandek plays music as if he was unaware that anyone else out there was actually making music. His approach to album cover design is equally sui generis.
The Rocks Crumble was Jandek's third release of 1983 and his first-ever 'electric' album. Merely a picture of a drumkit behind a wall, this cover still manages to be indistinct and creepy. The drawn curtains (famously, many Jandek covers feature drawn curtains) supply the light source that illuminates the drums. Like Jandek's music, the cover gives this impression of stumbling upon something you weren't meant to see.
Foreign Keys came out in 1985 and features a major theme from covers of the period: buildings, taken from the outside. Jandek is entering a door, not in the centre of the picture but off to the side. By now, we can call this man Jandek, but at the time of this release, it was not clear whether this man, who graced many but by no means all Jandek covers, was the singer on the albums or not: almost nothing was known about Jandek. It was this extreme level of mystery that made him so compelling (though I didn't hear of him for another ten years or so after this).
Modern Dances, from 1987, has a very similar cover to its follow-up Blue Corpse, but the latter is a central piece in his body of work whereas this one, well, isn't. But the cover is better, once again Jandek in front of a building, off-centre. But it's all more naked: Jandek is shirtless, the building is bare brick. He's facing away from the camera, looking at the more interesting stuff that is merely hinted at, crammed into the rightmost 10% of the cover.
You Walk Alone, from 1988, is Jandek's sixteenth, and while it's similar to Foreign Keys (it might be the same building), Jandek is well-dressed and has a confident, almost cocky, look on his face. And he's not entering the house but leaving it, defiantly. Maybe he's on his way to his high school prom?
On the Way has a particularly amazing cover - it's a drum kit, I guess, but the picture is so poorly taken that the whole thing is just a blue haze. Abstract art, and as amazingly weird as the contents of the album itself.
One Foot in the North, from 1991, is one of Jandek's last vinyl releases, and one of about ten or so I've held in my hands: I can be sure because I distinctly recall the 'Chinese restaurant' lettering on the back cover, the sole Jandek back cover to deviate at all from the strictest of formats - and then only in that the font is different. Otherwise, all Jandek back covers are essentially the same. Anyway, this beautiful cover looks very similar to one of his first ones, except that that was clearly a portrait, and this one looks like a photograph of Jandek's shadow, except that you can make out details of his hand at the bottom. Confounding, but utterly beautiful.
White Box Requiem, from 1996 (approximately the year I first came across this strange man's recorded output), is Jandek's third CD, but 25th album. This incredibly grainy photo, perhaps blown up from a much smaller image, shows Jandek, in suit and tie, sporting some rather magical sideburns.
I Woke Up. A complete change of pace, this one: this is a kind of still life made from garbage: a very deteriorated sofa sits in front of an overgrown shrub and is surrounded by pieces of wood. Like almost all Jandek covers, you can't come close to guessing the year the photo was taken - one might take a stab at the late seventies, but it feels more accurately like Jandek inhabits a world that knows nothing about the passage of time and is stuck, Twilight Zone-style, in some permanent Möbius-loop.
Put My Dream on This Planet is an a capella album, which is bizarre even by the standards of history's most bizarre musician. The cover is another beautiful abstract: I think it's a shoulder and arm wearing a white shirt. But it could be anything at all.
Worthless Recluse actually features Jandek posing and (kind of) smiling - as if he had decided he was shooting an album cover as opposed to choosing covers by rifling through his old photographs. The barn behind him is red as barns must be, and the land-out-of-time clearly has a rural area too.
The Humility of Pain is Jandek's 33rd, from 2002, and the second to feature covers taken 'somewhere in Europe' - clearly vacation photos from a trip overseas. Yet it's gorgeous and off-the-beaten-path, as you'd expect. It's Ireland, but once again it gives the impression of places meant to remain unseen glimpsed through stolen furtive looks where one ought not be. An invasion of privacy, but the privacy of an abandoned (or never-completed) ghost town. Somewhere in Ireland, or perhaps anywhere on the planet at all. Gorgeous.
The Place is the very next record, and it's more vacation snaps, but the tone couldn't be more different: it's not a double-exposure but a picture taken of mannequins that reflects the houses across the street in the shop window. The mannequins' lurid red and the overcast sky's dim blue contrast, and the whole thing seems to mock glamour and even 'reality', with the plastic models seeming to communicate but trapped in the density of the image. Hipgnosis has never made a cover this beautiful.
The Door Behind is from 2004, the annus mirabilus when Jandek not only released four albums but - to everyone's shock - actually started performing live, breaking the wall of secrecy that had surrounded him for a quarter of a century. So these covers have to be seen now as creations of someone more conscious of an audience than he had previously been - and this castaway-Jandek, or perhaps captive-Jandek, with stern eyes glaring at the camera like that Afghan girl, might well be an attempt to comment on Jandek's public image (much like naming an album 'Worthless Recluse').
A Kingdom He Likes is the very next cover, and the contrast is striking: like the last was 'old Jandek' and this one is 'new Jandek', comfortable in his own skin and happy to be the centre of attention. He wears his hat like a Texan, and that wooden wall frames him wonderfully. He seems unnervingly normal here.
Khartoum: but not anymore. This goes way back into the weird as its cover, and the cover of the one preceding it, have Jandek looking like a Muslim convert. Nothing in Jandek's music suggests any such thing (though there are a lot of Christian references scattered across his albums), so perhaps he just grew a beard, put on a cleric's hat, and liked the effect. The deep blue monochrome is lovely, and the cover is a return to that out-of-focus feel you get from so many of his covers.
Glasgow Monday is his third live album - in typical form, he appears to have decided to release every concert he plays, and so far has put out 16 live albums, four in Glasgow. Most feature snaps taken from the city where the album was recorded, often with a posed Jandek in front. This one shows an abandoned structure - a farmhouse perhaps - in the rolling green hills of somewhere-in-Europe, or perhaps Scotland. I imagine Jandek has an eye for lonely places like this, and probably pulled the car over for a snap while travelling from here to there.
Glasgow Friday is Jandek's seventh live album, and his 52nd overall, believe it or not. Not a mere farmhouse but some castle, this is probably a tourist destination, and so by rights ought to be a more traditional holiday snap. Yet however Jandek takes his pictures he invariably manages to give them a sense of gloom and a sense of loneliness: this was taken on a cold December day after the nuclear bomb had destroyed all signs of life on the planet excluding atonal guitarists from Texas. How come my holiday snaps never look like this?
London Tuesday: or this? This is as simple as it gets, Jandek is touring Europe, is on a hill in front of a fence, and stops to pose for a tourist snap, urban life sprawled out beneath him. But here's the thing: this may well be London (it'd be logical), and his age in the picture suggests it must be from the 2000s, a relatively recent picture when the CD was released. Yet somehow - like every other album cover Jandek's released across thirty-plus years - it completely belies its date of origin. It's a trick Jandek is very adept at pulling off, and even though Jandek is clearly posing, and even though his head is in dead centre of this picture, it's somehow very much a Jandekesque cover, as beautiful as many of the others even as it remains entirely confounding. Like everything about Jandek.