issue 21 :: March 2012

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Review: Jandek

Houston Concert at Menil Collection, 17 December 2011

After some fifty performances in the past seven years, some available on CD and DVD, the sense of mystery of the Jandek project should be gone by now. But it lives on. Many people have talked with the man behind the name privately, but still no interviews or biographical press information. I assume the mystery is what pulled maybe two hundred people to the Menil to see the unconventional singer and guitarist in a rare solo show in his home town. A half dozen people seated around me, either much older or younger than me, fled half way through what I thought was a moving, haunting, wonderful experience. Seemingly, the mystery wasn't strong enough to fight the average person's aversion to new music.
One of my favorite art museums, the Menil devotes a quarter of its viewing space to an excellent permanent collection of Surrealism, including masterpieces by Max Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico and Yves Tanguy. The Jandek concert, sponsored by Nameless Sound, whose concerts thankfully spill over to Austin, was in conjunction with a Menil exhibit on “Outsider Art.” While I admit Jandek is outside of many things, I don't feel I am seeing an outsider artist when I am stuck 150th in line to see him perform. But maybe the hyper-specialization of Internet discourse has changed the notion of Outsider Art.
Regardless, I was there for the music, and to settle the mystery of what he would do at this show, having seen him twice before in Austin. Originally planned to be held outside, could he play some of the modernist sculptures on the Menil grounds? Would he play guitar? Piano? Bass? Synthesizer, harmonica, sing, speak?
In front of Walter De Maria's long yellow rectangle “The Color Men Choose When They Attack the Earth” (“Think about the color of construction equipment” an elder docent offered, unsolicited, after the show), which was not part of the Outsider Art exhibit, the tall man, dressed in black, slowly walked out, and placed two guitar cases on the stage. He opened a note book, placed it in front of the lone chair, and sat down.
He spoke “I am going to tell you a story, two stories: 'The Door' and 'The Red Tree.'” The stories, really one Kafka-like parable, the first about a door, perfect—for him!—that becomes progressively harder to find as the story slowly grows. The other, even wispier of a tale, was about a red tree, also perfect, that he finds behind the door. The storytelling was slow and deliberate, in a soothing clam voice, seemingly memorized despite the open notebook in front of him; he would have had to have the eyes of a hawk to read at that distance. “The Door” started so vague, I wondered how long it would be, where the story would go. Would it be an hour length spoken word piece? But “The Red Tree” stopped abruptly, as some dreams end.
Leaving the chair, he opens one of the guitar cases and lifts out a nice acoustic guitar. Strumming it zither-like, often just one ringing discordant chord, he began to sing “Johnny Dupree is a loner, walking all over town... No one loved her like he did.” The voice, the song, could have been from an early Jandek LP, strangely unique and plaintive. After introducing the character, Johnny Dupree (J.D. = Jan Dek?), the next eight songs are first person ruminations on secret love, unknown love, broken love, obsessive love. “I know I'll never find my love again,” he sings, the clanging chords strummed and brushed a dozen different ways. Were these songs all from Dupree's view, or perhaps from the people meets in life?
The ninth song ends. He packs up the guitar and leaves the stage, ignoring the waves of great applause.
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