Jandek on Corwood (2003)

In the Pacific Northwest there is Sasquatch. In the Himalayas there is the Yeti. In Scotland there is the Loch Ness Monster. In the world of outside music there is Jandek. At some point in time filmmakers have gone in search of these mythical creatures. Chad Friedrichs sought to expose the world to the mystery that has been Jandek.

The first record, Ready for the House,came in 1978. It was attributed to a group, known as the Units, but the the slow tempo, oddly tuned guitar accompanied by a wavering voice, singing a mournful variation of the blues, would be come typical of the Jandek sound. By the second album, Six and Six the music was being credited to Jandek. The discordant, repetitive songs one each album are nearly unidentifiable from one another. Only the most strident fans can recognize one song from the next, but as a whole the sound is unmistakable, perhaps listenable.

For over 25 years and 50 albums Jandek has released his very unique and personal on his own record label. Identified only by a post office box in Houston, Texas, Corwood Industries appears to be exclusive to the music of Jandek. For years, a simple advertisement stating “Jandek on Corwood” was the only promotion for this reclusive artist. It was the location of this post office box that lead to the speculation that Jandek, whoever he really was, called Houston home.

Out of focus, obscured images of a skinny, Caucasian male, with a dusty blonde hair provided a clue as to what Jandek might look like, if that was him at all. His blank stairs and shadowy figure only added to the mystery as well as the depressed state of his music. Rumors circulated that perhaps this was the work of a madman, some sort of music therapy. As new albums kept being released, sometimes two or three in one year, fans began to speculate that perhaps all the recordings were done in one huge marathon recording session and slowly released across the years. However, the music never stopped coming and subtle changes from guitar to piano to the accompaniment of additional musicians showed that Jandek was not afraid to change.

His anonymity, however, was something he refused to change. Outside of a phone interview in 1985 and another interview by outsider music expert Irwin Chusid, few people were ever able to speak with Jandek. As the legend of Jandek grew, music critics, college radio dj’s and other musicians all created their own theories to explain the man behind the music. Jandek on Corwood compiles these urban legends in a less than interesting fashion.

The film mixes overly staged images with uninteresting interviews resulting in a film that no more explains the mystery of Jandek than it deepens it. Often too literal with its imagery, the filmmaker’s use of imaginatively lit props and barren rooms work as poor static substitutes for a lack of visual material directly related to Jandek. The list of subjects paraded before the camera is less than spectacular and only the most devout of alternative music fans is going to recognize the various critics and artist interviewed. One must endure all of this for a payoff that comes in the last few minutes of the film, albeit it is one of the smallest payoffs in the history of film. Even for a Jandek fan, the promise of hearing that one recorded phone interview with Jandek is not enough to excuse the languid pace of this film or its less than committed approach.

When you set out to expose a mysterious figure like Bigfoot or Nessie or even Jandek you must do one of two things. You must either expose the creature in question, so that there is no longer a question or you must help to perpetuate the myth.

Just how it is that a musician has remained anonymous for over 30 years and 50 albums excites the imagination more than Jandek’s music. It’s the one question on every Jandek fan’s mind and its exactly what you suspect a filmmaker interested in Jandek would set out to answer. However, Friedrichs does no investigation what so ever, into just who Jandek might be. All the background information we are presented is gleaned from research that others have done.

During the course of the film it never comes to light that Jandek may be a fellow by the name of Sterling Richard Smith, the name to whom the copyright of Jandek’s music is accredited. A phone call to Corwood Industries will put you in touch with the Sterling Smith Corporation. Still, this is not the sort of limited insight people really crave. So, why is it that the filmmaker does not stake out the post office box or even interview the employees as the post office? Why not hire a private detective to help unravel the case of Jandek?

If the argument is made that the filmmaker was respecting Jandek’s anonymity and never looked to pull back the curtain, then I argue that the filmmaker must at least continue the myth, even add to it. If you are not going to burst the balloon and show the world who this mystery man is, you should at least introduce the larger world to the notion that there is this musician who simply cannot be identified. It’s a yarn worth spinning, but Friedrichs does not seem as interested as his interview subjects in speculating just who Jandek may be or why it is no one has been able to track him down.

Documentaries on legendary creatures like the abominable snowman or the Jersey Devil or even the question of where Jimmy Hoffa’s body rests tingle our spines and excite our imaginations because we really don’t want to learn the truth. We enjoy the puzzle. Solving the puzzle takes the fun out of guessing. When we watch filmmakers try to answer these urban enigmas we secretly hope they won’t be able to provide conclusive proof. We desire a level of wonderment in our world.

In light of all the technology and information we have access to in the present day, it seems implausible that someone could remain so anonymous, thus it seems that the filmmaker simply choses not to make use of modern resources to uncover the truth. Even if he were to discover who Jandek is and why he desires to keep such a low profile, that would not inherently mean that the filmmaker who uncovers this information would have to share it. Others, who have worked with Jandek or interviewed him have certainly not shared all that they know. Instead, they let the legend grow.

In 2004, Jandek did go public. Jandek (aka Sterling Smith) started playing live. There is no reason given as to why he suddenly chose to pull back the veil. Perhaps, Jandek on Corwood sent people in search of him. Still, little is known. The performances are rare and he still remained reclusive, never admitting that Jandek and Smith were one in the same. The mystery continues, but its no longer as alluring. The question of just who Jandek is has been replaced with the question of why he operates in the shadows has superseded it. This question still holds great interest, but it will take a far greater filmmaker than Friedrichs to keep this legend interesting.

Guide to Jandek


2 thoughts on “Jandek on Corwood (2003)

  1. “During the course of the film it comes to light that Jandek may be a fellow by the name of Sterling Richard Smith”

    Uh… no it doesn’t. That name doesn’t appear in the film, ever. Did you actually WATCH this film?

    It seems like you might’ve missed the point of it. I mean, like, missed it by a few miles.

    I had a few problems with the film myself, some small, some larger, but overall I thought it well-made, and entirely above these softball superficial critisisms you’re lobbing here.

    Don’t you think that it might help your analysis of the film if you were to allow–(not saying that this is “the only” or even “the correct” interpretation… just that one should allow the possibility)–that this is much more a film about Jandek fans… a film about how a community created a mythos… than it is about Jandek himself?

    At a film festival showing, the directors mentioned in the question and answer section after the showing that they were in contact with Corwood Industries almost daily during the making of the film. I’m sure you’ll agree that in light of this fact, the directors not including more “facts” or interjecting more of their research simply MUST have been a stylistic choice. It could be a stylistic choice that you think hurt the movie, or helped it, or anything else… but it’d be wrong to portray it as an oversight or as “sloppyness”/poor research on their part.

  2. My apologies. I dropped the word ‘never’. It has been corrected. Whether or not the filmmakers were sloppy in their research or making a stylistic choice, is exactly what I am questioning. The film contains no mention of their daily contact with Corwood Industries. So, that fact could not be factored into my thoughts on the film. Knowing this now, though not truly believing that a filmmaker saying something makes it a fact, I am even more disappointed in their stylistic choices.

    I never considered that the film might be about the fans. I was a bit annoyed that more musicians who call themselves fans where not interviewed. At least give us the great quote from Cobain about Jandek not being pretentious, but that a lot of pretentious people like him. There simply aren’t enough fans for me to think this is about fans and most of what is discussed is speculation about the artist himself.

    What I am left questioning with this film is not so much the subject of the film, but how filmmakers who seek out the mysterious must decide to either solve a mystery or add to the legend, even if they themselves learn the answer. This idea of keeping a secret or sharing a secret interests me great. Here, I feel the filmmakers were not able to committee to either of these decisions and their film suffers for it.

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