Jandek, "Glasgow Sunday" DVD

The last time we covered a Jandek DVD on The Brain, it was Chad Friedrichs' 2003 documentary film Jandek on Corwood, a series of talking heads speculating about the music and the mythos, Jandek himself a no-show apart from a disembodied telephone voice recorded in 1985.  A lot can change in three years, and this month brings the first official Jandek DVD released on Corwood Industries, a DV recording of Jandek's first-ever live performance at the Instal festival in Scotland in October 2004.  Even if you've heard the widely distributed bootlegs, or Corwood's official CD release of the show, the Glasgow Sunday DVD still provides a shock to the system.


Corwood Industries

It would be repetitive to talk at length about the musical content of the performance captured on this DVD, as we already covered that in our review of the Glasgow Sunday  CD, which you can find archived here.  Suffice to say that—even if it wasn't one of the most historically significant milestones in the annals of outsider music—the performance that the man from Corwood, Richard Youngs and Alex Nielson delivered at The Arches on that October 17th would still be significant for anyone interested in seeing just how far the borders can be blasted open and transgressed, while still producing dynamic, exciting music that is recognizable as blues-based rock.  The unrehearsed improvisational energy created between Jandek and these two skilled adepts of the UK improv scene proves at times to be explosive, crackling and sparking with tense, enervating electricity.  Even when the music threatens to fall into a sullen pit of muddy and unstructured noise and pathetic wailing, it remains utterly hypnotizing.

Convincing arguments could be made that the entire Jandek phenomenon is simply another example of the emperor wearing no clothes; a cadre of pretentious intellectuals who have convinced themselves that Jandek's tuneless strumming and irritating vocals are the substance of genius.  However, even if this contention could be proven true, the Jandek phenomenon would still be fascinating, if only for the tireless productivity of the man from Corwood: his uncompromising individualism, starkly minimalist aesthetics, his near-total refusal to engage in any way with the music press and his increasingly more esoteric and befuddling musical output.  Indeed, Jandek's apparent need for privacy borders on Pynchon/Salinger-style reclusiveness.  This, coupled with his refusal to explain or enlighten the public about his project for the nearly 30 years he's been releasing albums on Corwood, sets the background for this surprise, unannounced public performance at the Instal festival.

Listening to the previously available recordings of the concert gave me a rough idea of what a Jandek live performance is like, but nothing compares to actually seeing the performance on this DVD.  Actually glimpsing a real, live, walking, talking Jandek in action is worth a thousand bootleg MP3s.  As the concert begins, a skeletal, pale apparition appears on stage, cutting a wraithlike alienated figure, dressed all in black with a black fedora, and plugs in his guitar.  The man we call Jandek is tall, preternaturally thin and akward, and seems way out of his element, but cuts right through any stage fright and gives the people what they didn't even know they came for.  Jandek sings from sheets of paper on a music stand, his lyrics still containing that familiar manic depressive blend of fatalistic miserablism and playful dark humor.  Though the churning atonal improvs change very little from song to song, there is a world of lyrical difference between the suffocatingly dismal set opener "Not Even Water" and the mischievous "Real Wild," in which Jandek sings:  "I got up on Sunday/And I washed my clothes/I made the decision to get real wild."  This last line is met with thunderous applause from the audience, who by now seem to have realized what they are witnessing. 

The Jandek performance was unannounced to all but a few, the man from Corwood listed only as a "special guest," so as the word spreads through the crowd the audience becomes increasingly attentive, reacting to Jandek's mood swings and inscrutable, unpredictable soloing.  By the end of the performance, a few in the audience are chanting for an encore: "Jandek! Jandek! Jandek!"  It's hard not to wonder just what the man from Corwood thought of this fanatical reception.  Did it make him wish he had started performing live 30 years ago?  Or did it make him want to crawl under a rock?  Was this always his plan - to build the world's strangest cult following with three decades of weird music and near-total press silence, and then suddenly appear on stage unannounced at a festival in Scotland?  Could anyone be that calculating?  The myriad questions and speculations that follow from viewing this DVD are half the fun.

I didn't know what to expect from Corwood's very first DVD release, and was very pleasantly surprised.  The DVD is packaged in a regular CD-sized jewel case (strangely, with a cover identical to the Glasgow Sunday CD), fitting nicely on the shelf next to the 46 other Jandek CDs I've gotten from Corwood over the years.  The DVD menu uses the same nondescript, generic font that has appeared on almost every other release, proving that Corwood is nothing if not consistent.  The viewer is given the choice between Camera 1 (a mostly static medium shot of the man himself), Camera 2 (a full shot of the trio which occasionally zooms in on Youngs and Nielson), or a skillfully edited compilation of the two shots.  Camera 2 begins with a wide shot so one can see the unique, cave-like venue where the performance occured.  There is also a song selection menu that allows the viewer to skip to a particular track.  I'm very impressed that these options are offered; many big-name DVD companies with far more money and technology at their disposal provide far less for their customers, and charge far more.

It's anyone's guess if Corwood plans to make DVDs available for all (or even most) of the recent run of gigs (I'm particularly interested in seeing his multiple-movement piano piece "The Cell," which comprises the newly-released Glasgow Monday CD), but I am thankful that Jandek wasn't too camera-shy to allow us to see this one.  It's a very classy release from an artist who paradoxically seems to have gotten even more interesting since shedding some of his trademark mystery.

Video extract of "Real Wild" provided courtesy of random YouTube user: