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Meet Jandek the invisible

Documentarians did not get their musician subject on film. And that's OK with them.

February 16, 2004|Steve Hochman | Special to the Times

Most documentary filmmakers go out of their way to get their subject on camera. Chad Freidrichs and Paul Fehler actually went out of their way not to. What's more, they didn't just avoid filming the musician who is the subject of "Jandek on Corwood," which will be screened Thursday by the American Cinematheque at its Egyptian Theatre. They avoided even meeting him.

Before a trip to Houston to get a shot of the post office box that serves as the business address for Corwood Industries, the record label that releases Jandek's music, the pair wrote a letter to the subject to warn him.

"We said, 'We'll be at your post office box at such a time and such a date, and if you want to meet us, we won't tape you, but you can come by,' " says Freidrichs. " 'But if you don't want to meet us, stay away.' We go down to shoot, and he's not there."

That will come as no surprise to anyone who knows even the slightest bit about Jandek, one of the odder cult figures in music. Combining a public profile that makes J.D. Salinger look like Britney Spears with music that has limited appeal at best, Jandek's quarter-century career -- using the term loosely -- is the embodiment of obscurity.

If you can find someone who's heard Jandek's music, you'll likely hear that it's either the most haunting or most annoying thing they've ever heard. A typical Jandek recording (and there have been a lot -- 35 albums since 1978) consists of sparely plunked, carelessly tuned acoustic guitar with a man's shaky voice warbling drawn-out, arrhythmic portrayals of isolation and despair, with occasional mood swings into anger, exuberance or pique. Mid-period albums saw him "going electric," while later ones were often spoken-word, but all with the same pervasive sense of desolation.

Album covers generally consist of fuzzy snapshots (the interior or exterior of a house, sometimes a photo of a young man who may or may not be Jandek, staring intensely like an albino Robert Johnson or posing rakishly). On the back, under a plain-type song listing, each album has only the Corwood Industries name and post-office box address.

Jandek, or a man purporting to be Jandek, has given only one interview (in 1985) and the small, but intense, body of fans he has accrued has been left to blind speculation about who this person is and what exactly he's doing.

"Initially we considered doing a 'Hard Copy' thing, knock on his door and confront him and make him say why he's doing what he's doing," Freidrichs says. "But it seemed silly to do that. The reason people are interested in Jandek is the mystery. If you take that mystery out, what's the point of making the movie? We stayed away from any type of biographical material and just go for the mystery. It's almost like his nonpresence in the film, that's his presence."

The film, then, examines the Jandek mystery through those who have become obsessed with it -- a handful of music critics and record collectors who live their lives decidedly off the beaten track. These are people who have dug deeply into floating and discussing Jandek theories, which began germinating with the first Jandek album's release and have proliferated in the Internet age.

A few of the more common ones: Jandek is really a rich industrialist pulling an extended practical joke. Jandek recorded hundreds of hours of music in one mid-'70s burst and has released it according to his own master plan. Jandek is a loner who never leaves his house. The person seen on many album covers is not actually Jandek but may be a deceased brother.

Then there are the "clues" to his life and identity contained in lyrics and on album covers, developed in remarkable detail. Is the woman who suddenly appears singing -- beautifully -- on the 1982 album "Chair Beside a Window" (on a song titled "Nancy Sings") a new girlfriend? Is her name really Nancy? Is the house on some of the covers actually where Jandek lives? Is it even in Houston? Where are those European-looking street scenes on some of the recent albums? Cork, Ireland? Where Jandek went on vacation?

A few details are clarified in the film, one or two in the centerpiece, the playing of an audio-taped 1985 interview by musician-writer John Trubee for a story in Spin. But mostly, "Jandek on Corwood" paints its portrait of the artist through the perceptions of others.

"By far the most interesting things we discovered were the fans' interpretations, how people create the image, given so few clues," Freidrichs says.

The filmmakers were not actually among the ranks of Jandek obsessives before starting this project. Friends since their St. Louis childhoods, they were merely looking for an enticing topic for a documentary.

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