This Heat drummer Charles Hayward once said, about the alienating and isolating experience of playing drums in Keiji Haino’s Fushitsusha, “I love it, but it’s like, ‘yeah, you go there because you want to go there.’”
Where does Jandek want to go, and why does he want to go there?
It’s 2014, and we’re a decade into the post-reveal Jandek era. Rather than becoming a live gimmick, he has widened the possibilities and scope of his sound, enlisting an impressive list of musicians as short-term backing bands. These resulting live albums — available on Corwood Industries’ newly internet-friendly website — have yielded equally impressive range: vital rock deconstruction (the trio with Richard Youngs and Alex Neilson on Glasgow Sunday and others); lyrically wry chamber-drone (Athens Saturday); a dead-eyed, motorik, post-punk set in Chicago in 2007 that made us wonder whether he had really gone to prison (Chicago Wednesday); and so much more. And this isn’t even counting the impressive range of non-live efforts, like The Song of Morgan or Maze of the Phantom.
Sterling Smith has revealed himself to be, rapturously for long-time listeners, a normal artist; he goes about his process, both exciting and documenting the human condition. He’s living, evolving.
And stumbling, as he always has. Pre-reveal Jandek made many out-of-focus records, where the detuned workouts did not coalesce, where the new instrument (or lack thereof) did not wring the right balance, giving the impression to new college radio DJs and curious YouTube surfers alike that this “weird Jandek guy thing” was not worth their time. These albums said: the Emperor has no clothes. In fact, he had burned his garments and mutilated his body in the process.
And this is the Jandek of the greater cultural imagination — the grasping one. As a grunge musician once said of the man, “Jandek’s not pretentious, but only pretentious people like his music.” I think if you edit Jandek’s catalog in the style of a cable TV news producer, that’s certainly true. But there’s more to it than a guy sitting along fumbling with a detuned guitar and describing his loneliness. Heck, there’s a whole “Boogie Period.”
But edit this Houston Saturday set into the “Greatest Bloopers” reel. Recorded live on June 1, 2013 at an outdoor festival in Houston with the Representative on guitar/vocals, Stefan Gonzales on drums, and Mike Watt on bass, this single, 35-minute-long track is a mess of scattered starts and stops without clear or even unclear direction, a funk-less early Half-Japanese practice played without energy, the music swirling down the drain and into a bubbling, dad-rock septic tank. It’s that bad.
I don’t want to dwell too much on the other musicians; it’s Jandek’s show, but he plays like he’s not even there. There’s little force or meaning in any of the guitar playing, and his voice sounds as distant as ever. Pick up any of the other power trio records with Neilson/Youngs or McEntire/Abrams, and you will notice not only how often those artists lock in behind the Representative’s no-wave-like guitar stutter, but how the energy and expression all start with Jandek.
So where does he want to go? Why this performance, and why this record? Corwood is not releasing these live records in chronological order, so Houston Saturday is a conscious choice. (In fact, Corwood just released a previous Houston performance done on a Saturday, this time called Houston Saturday 2011.)
The single track is titled “I Know I’m Alive: Excited,” so I guess that’s the only clue to the Jandek program. His lyrics investigate, predictably, the intensity of being alive and the dread of communicating, experiencing, and releasing said intensity. About 25 minutes into the performance, Jandek stops touching the guitar, and the bass and drums hit enough of a swirl to buoy a long stream of words delivered in an anguished but distant — so distant! — voice:
I can’t see / I can’t feel / I’m obsessed / That’s what’s real / I took a look / Now I can’t see / I touched / Now I can’t feel / I listen / Now I can’t hear / I see your mouth is moving / But I can only look / I don’t need to see / I don’t need to hear / I don’t need to feel / If I can touch you / If I can look at you / Take away my senses / My mind is crazy / I think I got relief / For a little while / I almost forgot / My obsession / I need to drive the car / I need to walk the streets / I’m too alive / But I don’t want to lose it / So I’ll lay real low / So nobody can know / That I’m all shook up / No, I won’t turn / My insides out / But here it comes again / It’s so hot / It’s so cold / At the same time / It’s so extreme / So much intensity / And you know all about it / Let’s try to make some sense / Of all these things / Except there goes my body / There goes my mind / I can’t control it / I don’t want to / It’s not happy / It’s not sad / It doesn’t stop / To know those things / I’m delirious / It’s dangerous / I have to watch what I do / But I can’t stop / It keeps going on / There’s no control / Because I’m in my mind / With my obsession / You can cry all you want / I don’t know about it / I just try to hold on / It’s what I tell myself / I got me spinning / (moan) Round and round / Where it’s off to / Your guess good is mine / I thought I was ok / Sometime ago / I thought it was all right / But I was dead / I didn’t have my obsession / But now I got it / Nobody can take it away / Because it’s in my mind / I’m using you / To stay alive / Please / Use me, too / Be my obsession / (moan) And I’ll be yours
This section hints at the power possible in his music, but then he goes back to the guitar, gives what looks and sounds like a few half-hearted strums, and the set abruptly ends. I’m tempted to say he could’ve gotten away with a record like this more easily in the pre-reveal days, mostly because it’s so clear now that he’s much more than a personification of some romantic ideal of a lonely outsider. He’s out in the open, and often his playing is, too. You can watch this live set on YouTube, and, like I said, it’s like he’s not even there, like he’s not performing. But he is there! He is performing! We see you, Jandek; you’re standing in the light. I don’t know where you want to go, but that’s where you are.