Keep on the Sunny Side

My dinner with Jandek

In 1978, a stream of beautiful and heartbreakingly strange records began flowing out of a post office box in Houston like fresh blood into a warm bath. It has been a prodigious rate of production, pumping out at least two records a year for more than 30 years. The records are credited simply to Jandek.

Several generations of nerd-style record store workers and superfans of mind-destroying outsider art have grown up drinking from that free-flowing tap, and trying to fill in the blanks regarding the reclusive artist who has chosen to remain nearly anonymous.

Enigmatic photographs of a furtive skinny man, minimalist suburban interiors, or views of unnamed cities — the record covers reveal very little other than a strict aesthetic.

The only written information other than the song titles is a post office box under the name “Corwood Industries.” Some superficial questions have been answered since Jandek’s first public performance eight years ago in Glasgow, Scotland, but, like all true artists, he remains an enigma.

Jandek was playing Louisville’s Cropped Out Festival, an event so pure that, as a city, we barely deserve it. He has been using spontaneous pick-up bands since he began touring in 2004, and fest co-director Ryan provided him with a list of sympathetic local musicians to choose from. I was picked to play bass, mostly because I am not a bass player.

When Ryan asked if I would play, the show was well more than three weeks away. I will agree to do almost anything that is more than three weeks away, because I am pretty certain the future is never really going to get here.

This doesn’t worry me. It actually keeps me from worrying. I have a long list of natural and supernatural events most likely to nullify contractual obligations beyond the three-week cut-off point. I hate religion on account of all the “hope,” but the rapture is high on my list of things that might get me out of a jam someday.

I will probably just be hit by a TARC bus. A bus would take me out way before I could borrow a bass, or start to practice faking like I knew how it worked.

Jandek looks almost exactly like Joseph Beuys. He has the black hat and regal bearing of a German conceptual artist. You can tell he is famous, but you don’t know why. This town was truly made to look like a hotbed of cool when Jandek was recognized while getting a shoeshine downtown at Roy E. Steele. This astute fan gave the artist an architectural tour of Old Louisville and of his backyard garden, where they ate organic lima beans and talked about Gergiev. It is a really friendly town.

Like always, time just kept moving forward, doing its thing. Pretty soon, I was standing on stage at the American Turners holding a red, white and blue stars-and-stripes sequin-covered bass guitar. With the Ohio River behind us, we stood in the dusk at this ancient site of softball and fish-frys.

The band was a giant squid, and Jandek was our single freaky eye. Unblinking. Chris’ synthesizer wound tight around the song, pulling us under. No rules means you can’t go wrong. I thought I was lost, but I fell right back in. The Belle of Louisville swam by, dragging its lights across the inky grooves. Jordan somehow checked his phone without missing a beat. Our Krautrock rollercoaster had disrupted Martian communications for a solid hour.

During the set, Dane had blown everybody’s mind by singing like the muskrats from that Captain & Tennille song. She is a shining star. In the dressing room after the show, we talked about eating nutria.

The Maestro made a comment regarding the ideal preparation of these critters, which suggested he might have grown up in the coastal region near the Louisiana/Texas border. When I asked if that was true, he said no, but his family had come from “a town near a river where they eat meat pies …” That’s when I remembered about the mystery.

Catherine Irwin has been making records with the band Freakwater for more than 20 years. Her second solo record, Little Heater, was released in September. She has just agreed to play a show in Buffalo in January, because it seems like January will never really happen.