Saturday, September 24, 2005

January + Dekker = ? (Jandek in Austin)

Through some scary harmonic convergence I don’t even want to begin to ponder, I wound up living in the same city where Jandek would play his first ever live show in the US (and mere days before he officially became my object of inquiry for the Authorship course I’m taking this semester). The husband couldn’t (and really didn’t want to) make it. So I gave my esteemed colleague Dave Gurney a late b-day present. Someone’s flesh had to be available for clawing in case things got too intense.

And intense it was. Not the music. Never the music. Rather, it was all the transitional moments that stirred the humors – waiting before, pondering afterward, the “oh gawd, what if someone shouts ‘I love you, Jandek!’?” silences between songs. As always with Janky (and me), the music was an avenue to something much more compelling, starting with the creepy ass venue itself, The Scottish Rite Temple. I mean, where ELSE would Jandek hold his coming out party but the playground of the Freemasons, one of those truths that are out there (but not really) in The X-Files?

Floating past an array of dusty old white men scowling at us from busts and oil canvases, Dave and I found seats about 5 or 6 rows back stage left. We sat behind two beautiful guys, one absolutely gorgeous tall blond boy (with a modest nose ring, if I remember correctly) and a shorter Seth Tisue lookalike. I saw blondie alone outside and assumed he wasn’t with the other dude. And indeed, they didn’t talk to one another for quite some time before the show began. But after a few exchanges which I took to be polite stranger sociability, blondie leaves and returns with a water for the other boy. Were they a quiet indie boy couple? Or was a love connection made?

After several sotto voce stomach ache admissions to Dave, Jandek took the stage precisely at 7:30pm. There he was, my beloved referent, making a path behind the two drum sets like a just-busted grammar school student choosing the longest route possible to get to teacher’s desk for his punishment. There were three other musicians including a HOT little drummer boy who I later found out was one Nick Hennies, a local noisemaker. I watched him as much as Jandek and not only because I was rehearsing fantasy scenarios in which I card him for cigarettes. In a kind of performer-conductor rapport, he kept looking at Janky for some sort of cues. At one point, Janky even smiled at him and Hottie Hennies smiled back.

But cues for what exactly? The unsurprisingly discordant music sounded like the product of people with nothing to say to one another. Now I’m sure someone out there will fire back that these four men were as in tune with each other as four men have ever been. And he (no doubt it’ll be a he) can back it up with musicological evidence. For sure, I’m no expert on this kind of stuff. I still don’t get Coltrane’s Interstellar Space and much as I adore 1970s Miles, it’s largely fantastically funky workout music to me (which is more than enough).

But let’s face it. WE were Jandek’s punishment that night. After all, this is a man for whom interacting with anyone has likely always felt like some sort of punishment. That’s why it was no surprise (to me, at least) that he never once addressed the audience – because there’s always a chance that we’ll answer back. After the show, a fan from Arkansas bravely admitted that he wished the man said at least one thank you to us. But for every person like me who appreciated such honesty, there are two (or more) who would have found it clueless, hopelessly out of sync with whatever makes Jandek a genius of sorts.

I imagine that this latter group comprises most of the “music over the myth” clan. But whatever pleasure they took in the music that night, it couldn’t have much to do with synergy. Rather, it inhered in discordance which, in this context, I take to mean an opportunity to “say” something with no fear that someone will “say” something back. Jandek isn’t the only person who experiences the entire world as a punishment. And for those who share this particularity with him, this is their music. But then why a concert? (I guess this is why the word “show” has more currency in relation to indie/underground/outsider sounds – it masks the interaction inherent in “concert.”)

Not that I didn’t enjoy the discord in fits and starts myself. The songs were best at their most DNA-like – you know, songs like “Not Moving” that actually kinda moved. One relatively windy number excoriating cops still stands out. But in the end, can discordance really build a musical community? Were we not all discrete little pulsations of self-interest once the curtain closed (and even after)?

Look, I know I overrate the community building aspects of groove. Gurney pointed this out to me in what turned out to be the most eloquent defense of prog rock known to me. Went something like this (through my distortion pedals, of course): “People who listen to prog rock aren’t comfortable with their bodies and those meter changes every measure reflect that fact. You, Kevin, require groove because you ARE comfortable with your body.” Which, in a way, is a laugh if you’ve ever seen my chunky A, a fact made brutally clear to me while watching a video of myself teaching yesterday.

But what can I do? It’ll take a while to lose the weight. And even then, will Sterling Smith still fuck me tomorrow? The public sphere is a punishment to us all. All egos are battered things, sez Freud/Terry Eagleton. Some of us just take it harder than others, e.g. Jandek. That predicament makes for a lot of shite music from Emerson, Lake and Palmer to Smog. What pulls Jandek out from this muck is that he actually shines light on these public sphere dilemmas rather than smothering them in bullshit mysticism and Appalachian alligator tears.

So in the absence of some changing same from the band, the pleasure I took in the evening was a “perversely” pop one. The non-interaction, the antisocial cauterwaul of the music that impelled you not to listen, the (ironic? campy? merely solemn?) pageantry with which he packed up his guitar – all went towards a Warholesque attempt to be in the public sphere but not of it, to express oneself but not. Like Sun Ra, like Prince, like Milli Vanilli, like New Order (all to varying degrees), Jandek has found a way to do it. A live show “merely” ups the stakes (as it does for all the artists listed above, again with varying degrees of threat involved). Jandek was seeing how far into publicity he could still remain cloaked and his dance with fire that night was thrilling to witness.

And yet writing all this in the wake of Katrina and her waves (not to mention lovely Rita), I cannot help but see this testing of the limits of publicity as an ultimately privileged affair. Katrina is one of those moments when we’re all supposed to drop the pose and help our brothers and sisters out. As such, it’s a model for the socialist revolution to come – a pathetic and probably clueless model but hey, at least it’s better than Christmas. But could an artist like Jandek, where a huge gap between performer and audience is part of what makes him signify, respond to Katrina in any meaningful way? And I ask this as someone who, on one level, doesn’t want to see that gap disappear and not as someone holier than thou who’s clocked in countless hours helping victims (because I haven’t). That gap is a reminder to us that everyday life (its codes, its processes, its ability to churn out Jandeks, for better or worse) is an enemy. So far, the negation of everyday life that Jandek has embarked upon seems to have worked. But only for him, in any absolute sense. So is it even possible to use that (valuable, I say) lesson in the face of thousands whose everyday lives have been quite literally negated by Katrina?

And come the revolution, will there be cake mix (as my bud Jessica Wurster is wont to ask)? Well, forget cake mix, sez I. I fucked up mac & cheese and needed serious help with Hamburger Helper. But which of these will be around come the revolution? Sun Ra? (Dead already.) Milli Vanilli? (1/2 dead already, you fucking bastards!) Prince? (Probably.) New Order? (Gawd, I fuckin’ hope so!!!) Jandek?


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