The Gospel According To Presents… ‘It’s Not The Band I Hate, It’s Their Fans: A Look At The Culture Of Jandek’
Sorry for the delay in new content, folks: I’ve been trying to get my life back together lately, and my other writers have been busy as well. However, Jonathan has some great bile to spew towards a certain subset of fandom, while Danielle Bakker has pics that we shall post tomorrow! And now, without further ado…
I hate humourless, closed-minded people, and I continue to be amazed by how many of them I still encounter at the extremes of taste.
Amazed, but sadly, not surprised: I’ve been seriously listening to music for fifteen years (I turn twenty-five in a little over a week and I was ten when I bought my first Beatles albums; even though I’ve been a ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic fan since I was eight, I obviously wasn’t drawn in by my cognizance of his strength as a musician or brilliance as a satirist – just that the sound of his work made both inches of my pre-pubescent member shiver in juvenile delight), and it becomes apparent through conversation or analysis that most people don’t ‘get it’ in terms of the things that they digest, that there’s an innate quality to most things that becomes overlooked in peoples’ mission to derive a superficial pleasure from stimuli, in the process forsaking the infinitely fuller satisfaction from grasping the depth, context, intention, and consequent integrity of a work. It is in this regard that most people become complacent consumers instead of self-aware digesters of work – there is much to be gained from picking out and tasting the various flavours of a meal as opposed to indiscriminately shoving food down your gullet because you’re hungry, and although I’m spending my weekend indoors giving the shallowest of listens to my The Sea And Cake CDs (one skipped and needs to be replaced, so now I have to make sure that they all function), my approach to any sort of art is to try and get inside the head or heads of whomever dictated the artistic direction and process of the work.
You would think that the more difficult that a piece of art is to enjoy by conventional merit, the more scrutinizing and intellectual the individuals at the other end of the experience would be. I would hope this, too – it’s very difficult to find anybody to converse with that’s a fan of anything that isn’t able to engage in any sort of rational, balanced discourse that deviates from the party line or consensus. I’ve never been somebody that seeks to fit in or belong at the expense of blindly drinking in any opinions, as I wouldn’t want be held in reverence for holding my tongue on any matter in which I felt obliged to speak up about: as such, I have no issue poking holes in arguments or tipping sacred cows: in fact, I relish pointing out when I feel that the obvious solution or answer contrasts greatly with the accepted (which are generally easy) notions of what something stands for. Like I said, you would think that the more esoteric that one’s predilections stretched, the more amenable they’d be to constructive, enlightening debate – or, at least, to boast enough maturity to handle disagreement in a mature matter.
I would think this, too, but you and I would both be very wrong, and it is particularly related to my experience with Jandek fans that they have cemented themselves as the most myopic, blindly faithful, and ultimately pitiful group of people with whom I’d had the misfortune of consorting with.
Which is not to say that everybody that enjoys the music of Jandek has been a shitty person to deal with, per se: there is one notable Jandek fan of whom I’m fairly fond whose YouTube videos exhibiting his vast collection of every Corwood Industries product was one of the main influences in me pursuing my digestion of Jandek’s work when initial attempts to swallow it were met with results more befitting ipecac than the more-realistically vinegary nature of the artist’s catalogue. He’s also a fairly eccentric guy, and though we don’t see eye to eye on every matter regarding the artist (there is a very clear inherent bias on his end that needs to afford Sterling Smith – the man behind the Jandek moniker – an almost superhuman amount of proficiency given that he is convinced that the musical nature of most [if not all] of the work is both deliberate in composition and repeatable, if the constant player involved was at all moved to do so). It’s not that he’s untalented, this person opines, but that his talents are on a different plain.
While I wouldn’t call Sterling ‘talented’ in that he would be able to play conventional music with ease, I will certainly agree with the notion that he is capable on a level that is entirely his own: as a musician that straddles the lines of folk primitivism and free-improvisation without enough verve or understanding of what he’s doing to reach the logical ‘free-folk’ conclusions that the work of more traditionally competent acts like Thuja or Sunburned Hand of the Man has been designated to qualify as, the work of Jandek – particularly any record in which he is performing alone and on a stringed instrument – undoubtedly occupies a rather unique, inimitable territory: not inimitable because it’s hard to do, but because most people (especially those who are already musicians) would lack the ability to perform such convention-free music with serious, unwavering conviction, not to mention the self-release of 73 albums (that are repressed when one run sells out, too – and they actually do sell out!) since 1978. Even if one disagrees that there’s qualifiable or quantifiable integrity in the content of Jandek’s work, I can think of very few artists operating in any realm – never mind avant-garde music – with a comparable integrity in regards to work ethic or ensuring the availability of their work.
But, I digress – it’s not only this one individual with whom my fraternizing is owing to a mutual interest in this artist and his output. I’m friends – as in I actually encounter these people in my physical existence with some regularity – with an older, married couple, the female of whom is pursuing her doctorate in ethnomusicology with an academic dissertation relating rather specifically to the tunings employed on the early, definitive Jandek records. They have managed to accumulate the original vinyl pressings of the 23 Jandek albums that were issued in that medium so as to have the best possible sources from which to gauge the intervals (the sound quality is markedly better on the vinyl – not because vinyl is a better medium [it’s not], but because whoever is mastering the CDs is doing a very bad job). My first comment regarding my friend’s goal to determine the tunings used on the records was that it was a fool’s errand (Jandek is theoretically bereft and the microtonal tunings used on the albums are a result of his aleatory experimentation and not based on any aforethought science or contemplation), and I still hold to this, but I’ve come to learn that she didn’t necessarily disagree, preferring to catalogue the information as it’s a curious facet of the work that has been talked about for ages but never academically scrutinized. My point was that it wasn’t like the only factor precluding Sterling Smith from playing any previously-released material was his inability to recreate the tunings. After all, the improvisatory nature of the work in tandem with the necessary ineptitude of its principal performer guarantees the one-shot nature of any musical outing he takes.
But, you get a bunch of people – especially some denizens of the Jandek mailing list group on Seth Tisue’s otherwise wonderful (if not outdated) fansite – who refuse to subscribe to any beliefs or conversations that don’t give the Corwood proprietor anything less than omniscience and an ungodly amount of intentionality and control regarding his work. And heaven forbid you think of him as a mere mortal: there was a fantastic article published in 2009 by Houston-based singer/songwriter Andrew Karnavas wherein he turns a chance encounter at a bar with the man from Corwood into a philosophical conversation that gives a rare look into his process as an artistic entity as well as an even rarer degree of insight into how he perceives his work. As a fan, a musician/artist/what-have-you, and someone who gets a particular thrill from dissecting the intentionality of a work based on the instinctual stimuli of the listening experience in combination with what I can psychologically process from the artist’s mindset, an article like this was especially exciting. For me, held against some personal correspondence I’ve had with the man (I’ve been writing him since right before my first order in 2009), it confirmed for me Jandek had a strong work ethic and considerable naïveté regarding the sheer otherworldliness of his art. I found it to be an enthralling read and it made me feel positive about the man and his project. You’d think that other people would have found the encounter and its subsequent recounting as invigorating and empowering as I did, right?
Nope: the comments section for the article was flooded with hateful, arguably violent Jandextremist ranting and derision.
One user, Benjamin, was the first person to express dissent, albeit reasonably: do you really think Jandek would say it is okay to publish this private conversation?
You can see a bit of that ‘overprotective fan’ thing come out, but not in any way that attacks or persecutes the publishing. Given Jandek’s historical preference for privacy (which – since his initial 2004 live performance in Glasglow – have seen further precedents of undoing), this was a reasonable ethical consideration when held to the standard of his earlier days, but now – especially in the internet age – it hardly seems like a big deal. It’s not as if he’s truly a ‘recluse’ as was painted by the media: an introvert, yes, but he’s always had a public address and phone number. He doesn’t live behind a gate like your Tom Cruises, your John Travoltas, and innumerable other closeted Hollywood types, after all: I’ve always made the argument that Jandek’s an easier artist to have a direct interaction with than most other people working in the entertainment world – it’s just the aesthetic of the work that intimidates.
Another user, going by the pseudonym ctopshelf, completely embodies what I’d like to call sheer cunthood. I will publish their idiotic comment as it originally appeared, care for punctuation be damned:
I got lost in the blog thinking this was sneaky.Interesting your recollection of the conversation, maybe you recorded and transcribed, right? Nice. You got him though, he never suspected you to blog out his personal views, and of course you never asked. Even got a pic. Pat yourself on the back, but be careful there’s not much backbone there.
This person is clearly a member of the Jandek mailing list (or at least shares in their myopic dissent towards anyone daring to shed light on their proud little secret), because this is the sort of asshole that posts there: someone who – due to their own idiocy or their inexplicable need to elevate another human being to idol status – holds an artist as a sacred being worthy of more courtesy than anybody else they’d meet on the street. This phenomena isn’t only unique to Jandek fans, but I’m heavily into many acts, and I’ve only ever witnessed (both firsthand and otherwise) the level of overreactive drama – and to something as innocuous as a retelling of a simple meeting with an artist that all parties involved admire, no less! – with this pathetic, ultimately sad fanbase.
And I mean, as far as the sad thing goes, one clearly has to be sad or have considerably sadness experience to get Jandek’s work (I mean, it only clicked for me after my first relationship ended) but people like these – people who have the double-whammy of not only being shitty people to begin with, but also pitiful, emotionally-unfulfilled people who need to treat the artist as an enigmatic figure to replace a God (actual or metaphorical) that failed them, and they take it out on those who aren’t as conservative with the man and his image by denigrating our interest as predatory or of low ethical standing. Regarding the circumstance of the article, I think it’s fantastic that Sterling is open to discussing his work in public, and as relatively few Jandek fans exist to begin with, those of us with any knowledge of him beyond what the records may or may not provide are a privileged few to start with: the Karnavas encounter was the first published of what I’d hope would be many meetings with Jandek, but whether out of fear of reprimand or people realizing that ‘hey, this was just a conversation with another human being’, anything further is few and far between.
But, for every person like me who wants to piece together whatever we can regarding a great, prolific, and ultimately peerless artist like Jandek, there will be a ‘david ames’ to say ‘[y]ou violated his privacy. You are a lowlife.’
On that same mailing list, sometime in the Fall of 2010, you can find messages from various beta male pieces of shit condemning me to death based on a tongue-in-cheek review that I wrote for Jandek’s Chair Beside A Window – the version that they saw no longer exists because I didn’t think it was worth stoking the flames of their stupidity with further defiance (and also it was frightening to have such heavy hatred levelled at me over creative writing), but the gist of it was that ‘[a]t this blog, we respect Jandek, so you’ll have to go elsewhere to find out that his name is Sterling Smith; and don’t even think about finding out that his phone number is…‘ et cetera – all with published information. The kicker was that at one point, the article says ‘on an unrelated note, here’s what his house looks like’, with the Google Maps applet embedded underneath and set to view the lovely townhouse that he occupies in Houston.
Yes, my independent article was apparently worthy of my receiving death threats. My review of the fourth Jandek album had become the hobby-journalist equivalent of Rushdie’s Satanic Diaries.
Also, the new Jandek album – the 9-disc The Song Of Morgan – wasn’t particularly good. For starters, it’s just him fucking around on the piano (no vocals) for eight-and-a-half hours without any preconceived direction or thought. It’s pleasant at best and excruciatingly dull at worst. Anybody that thinks that the work has any merit beyond its volume is listening to the artist’s biography on loop in their head as they take it in: unless you were someone who was drawn into the artist’s fanbase because of Glasgow Monday (and nobody was), this is not what you signed up for and you wouldn’t even consider buying it if the box said Yanni or John Tesh on it instead. You are not a special snowflake because you enjoy a difficult artist. No matter who you are, you become pitiful when your idolatry of another human being (for whatever reason) causes you to encroach on anybody else’s feelings of security or safety.
This is going to get more hits than anything else I’ve done because Jandek fans – whether they want to admit it or not – have a ravenous appetite for any Jandek information they can get their hands on, so long as it’s not part of anyone else’s knowledge: I’ll be the first to say that I’m aware of (and have heard one firsthand) bootlegs of unreleased or extended Jandek material circulating, copied from tapes that were allegedly stolen from the man himself, have learned elements of his family history, as well as have accrued other miscellany about the fellow from conversations. Information like this – truly privacy violating stuff that is procured and traded by the same ‘fans’ who throw a shit fit when someone takes a picture of the Rep shopping at Whole Foods or recount an anecdotal conversation that they shared – is not the sort of stuff I’m willing to divulge (partly because a lot of it is speculative), and I also don’t want to create problems for anybody else.
In short, if you’re a Jandek fan who wants to attack somebody else because they wish to humanize the man behind the project, feel the need to express their natural curiosity about our shared hermetic hero (and we all have our curiosities; don’t lie), or – like myself – take humourous jabs at the ridiculous situation we’ve helped to create, you should go fuck yourself. Preferably with a bullet.
Doesn’t feel so good, now, does it?