Last night I saw Jandek at the Abrons Arts Center in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The mere idea of getting to see the mysterious entity known as Jandek play sometime in my lifetime would’ve been laughable a few years ago, but since 2004 the representative from Corwood Industries has made intermittent appearances in such far-flung locales as New York, Glasgow, Austin and Chicago, all with a different cast of musicians each time. For his third (I think?) appearance in New York, Jandek teamed up with Pete Nolan (of Magik Markers) on drums and Tim Foljahn (of 2 Dollar Guitar) on bass, in what turned out to be a rather inspired grouping. Initially I was a little wary as the trio launched into the first number, which was rather squall-some (in a good way), thinking it would be the only mode they’d be in all night. But over the course of the ten “songs” they played that evening, all three showed a lot of stylistic diversity while remaining true to what could undoubtedly be called Jandek’s very singular sound.
The man himself, an apparition of a ghost, was one of the most uncharismatically charismatic and powerful performers I’ve ever seen. He entered the stage wearing all black, with a black fedora and black guitar – indeed it’s almost as if the clothes wore him, seeing as he was basically a skeleton, only defined by what was not there. His shiny belt buckle was the only accoutrement, sticking out a little past his chest. Lyrically, he sang words that were almost as physically alienating as his entire appearance – and this worked beautifully with the music, which only rested at points to give him space to sing. He’d play a guitar squall – very “amateur” in terms of technique but disciplined and focussed in terms of sound and intention, then drop his strumming hand to his side while delivering a lyric like “Starve my body/Starve my mind” in his uniquely mournful moan.
Towards the middle portion of the set, after a good three songs or so of similar construction, things took a very abrupt turn. Lyrically, Jandek moved away from the rather impersonal description of general alienation that had been the theme, and went specifically into songs about prison, all from different narrative perspectives. This was kind of unexpected, at least for me, and really gave the overall set a depth that it might’ve otherwise missed. These songs ranged from description of a hairy, tattooed prisoner “From wrist to neck/From neck to belt/Sides and back” to an amazing jailhouse lawyer’s dialog with a prisoner in for being “provoked.” Really harrowing stuff, in Jandek’s very non-descriptive descriptive way: “There’s a shower and a sink/But you don’t want to USE them” (which got a few chuckles from the crowd).
After this short suite of songs, Jandek moved lyrically back towards general themes of alienation, but the trio moved in a more rock, less free direction, which I found fascinating. One song, anchored by Foljahn’s bass and Nolan’s drums, was basically a primitive punk song – which did not throw Jandek one bit, and his guitar playing became appropriately even more spiky than it had been already. He even cracked a few smiles, and seemed to engage the other players, without giving too much away or even saying anything – not the least acknowledging the audience, whose applause he seemed visibly shaken by.
I looked over at his amp, and noticed a small travel clock set to Houston time on top. After three hours, ten songs and a gripping sound that seemed to revel in every detail, no matter how nuanced, the three sheepishly walked off-stage, and the evening was over. Somebody else’s music – hopelessly inferior to what I’d just witnessed – was played over the PA, and the audience shuffled out into the New York night. I felt like I’d just woken from the best nightmare I’ve ever dreamt. And unlike those who think Jandek’s recent live shows have somehow destroyed the mystery (which isn’t even as interesting as his music), I was left with more questions than before.