Sunday, 1 May 2011

Jandek: A representative from Corwood Industries

Jandek appeared live for the first time at an obscure music festival in Glasgow, Scotland in 2004.
This, on the surface, is unremarkable.
Doubtlessly other bands on the bill were making their live debuts but it is unlikely that any other band playing that show, or indeed any other, would be playing live for the first time having already released 34 albums with the first being recorded 26 years previously.
That debut record, 'Ready for the House', set the template for the majority of the early Jandek recordings, featuring a man singing on his own accompanied by an open-tuned acoustic or electric guitar.
The final track 'European Jewel (Incomplete)' cuts off halfway through a line of the song and the album ends there.
Since then Jandek has recorded 67 albums and has released at least one a year since 1981.
However, for many, Jandek's output is a triumph of quantity over quality.
Music writer Richie Unterberger has described it as:

'...slightly demented stream-of-consciousness rambling and guitar playing which rarely strays from set notes and chords, none of which pick out anything close to a melody. His voice can range from a hushed whisper to a Janovian primal scream; unsettlingly, he hardly ever mines the wide territory between those two extremes.
Sometimes that guitar is acoustic, like a deathbed Neil Young; sometimes he sounds like a 13-year-old who's just got his first electric for his Bar Mitzvah...'

Although it has never been confirmed, it is widely accepted that Jandek is Sterling R. Smith, a mysterious figure from Houston, Texas.
Jandek's records are released through a company called Corwood Industries which has no address but instead operates from a post office box in Houston.
Cheques written to Corwood Industries are endorsed by Smith and he is listed as the copyright owner for the Jandek recordings in the Library of Congress.
The contact telephone number for Corwood Industries in the Houston area phone book is also identical to a number for 'Sterling Smith Corporation', a stocks and securities broker.
The hostile response to the debut album seems to have been unanticipated by Corwood Industries. They had pressed a thousand copies of 'Ready for the House' and managed to sell two.
Any enquiries to the post office box from journalists or record stores would see them being delivered boxes with up to fifty copies of the album to be given away in an attempt by Corwood Industries to spread the word.
Smilarly, any enquiries from curious music fans over the following years would see them sent a catalogue of Jandek's prolific output and the opportunity to order 25 LPs for $25 or 20 CDs for $80.
Smith's desire to remain in control of the production and distribution of his material may be a result of his rejection by publishers for seven novels he had submitted to them as a young man.
Eventually he gave up on his dream of being a published writer and burned the manuscripts. He said of their eventual fate:

'Of course, we took the printed matter to the countryside for an unfettered, proper cremation. Stirred the ashes into the ground. The dirt was hungry...'

Smith has never admitted to being the man behind Jandek and for appearances at gigs the man performing the songs is never named as Smith or Jandek but is referred to as 'a representative from Corwood Industries'.
The one interview given on behalf of Corwood Industries was to journalist Katy Vine in 1999.
The man she spoke to was not prepared to confirm that he was Sterling Smith or Jandek, refused to be recorded or photographed and declared that he was unwilling to discuss music but would happily talk about food, gardening or allergies.
However, after discussing a North Texas town where the residents have no cavities in their teeth, he was drawn onto the subject of Jandek.
He revealed that he enjoyed a critic's description of the music as 'pentantic, refractive dissonance' and described the photos on the covers of Jandek records as 'the pictures that the photo lab gives you a refund on'.
When Vine asked if he felt people would get what he was trying to do the representatives reply was succinct:

'There's nothing to get'

Other requests for information from Corwood Industries are similarly vague and usually put the onus back on the questioner. One attempt to ask for the story of Jandek received this response:

The story must be crafted from what you have or know from the music. We cannot provide interviews or other exchanges of information outside of the releases at present. It's probable that your crafted story would be more interesting than any other. Intrigue goes a long way sometimes.

Please stay in touch.
Your friends at Corwood

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