Chair Beside a Window
In his one and only recorded interview – done with John Trubie for Spin in 1985 – The Representative From Corwood Industries / Jandek / Sterling Smith said that he felt he had to release at least two albums every year in order to prevent his music from being forgotten. In the same interview he also said that he’d sold 9 copies. “Of the latest one?” “No, of all of them” he replies, meaning 9 copies in total of ten albums in a period of seven years (he talks of Nine-Thirty being the new one). Yet, amazingly, this tactic would eventually pay off. Throughout the 80’s Jandek released a huge amount of material, sending them to record stores, college radio stations, the independent press etc. The music – sometimes eerie and quite, other times discordant and loud (like the opposite states of manic depression) – coupled with his deliberately cultivated anti-image (no other interviews, no live performances, almost no personal information known, no guest presenting spots on MTV’s 120 Minutes) helped to create a mysterious aura that generated all kinds of rumours about the man behind it all. One story I like is that the first 19 albums were all recorded in a very short space of time – possibly as a form of therapy for a manic depressive – and that when they had all been released that would be the end (this was dispelled by album number 20, One Foot In the North, in 1991).
Eventually the mystery of Jandek became self perpetuating – and still exists to an extent despite his decision to start playing live in 2004. Jandek has gone from a marginalized artist that few cared about or understood to something well respected and revered – in certain circles at least. However, his vast discography can be problematic for anyone new to him. Many albums contain a few vital songs, surrounded by filler and throwaways. Chair Beside a Window, the 4th album, varies in quality, but contains some of Jandek’s greatest works along the way.
The album opens with the remarkable ‘Down In a Mirror’. The first verse sets up the song perfectly: “We can’t deny, there’s spirits in this house. You shut the door, the wind closes two more”. The faint percussion sounds like eerie footsteps in an abandoned house, as Sterling’s acoustic guitar somehow finds a midpoint between dissonant twang and forlorn jangle. Then there’s the voice. He sounds so completely alone, torn between a need for solitude and a desperate loneliness. For me, it may well be the man’s finest ever recording.
This delicately sombre atmosphere is then completely obliterated by the careening rock action of ‘European Jewel’. Picking up where the “incomplete” version from 1978’s Ready For the House left up, with pounding drums, Velvet Underground and Nico sounding guitar and even a bass solo. It’s thrillingly loose and another great moment.
On ‘Nancy Sings’, the album’s other high-water mark, Sterling slowly and methodically plucks an acoustic guitar while Nancy beautifully sings about nature in a voice as sharp and clear as glass. (side note: I’ve only ever heard the remastered CD version and I’ve always wondered why there are a couple of noticeable sounding edits in this song. Apparently you could hear a motorbike outside on the original vinyl release. Sterling alludes to this in the John Trubee interview, but says he doesn’t want to mention which song this is on. I think he was probably testing Trubee seeing as he’d already told Sterling earlier in the interview how much he liked ‘Nancy Sings’. The remaster also omits the line “smoking cigarettes” from ‘Blue Blister’ for some strange reason, leaving the song with just a single line of lyrics.)
Elsewhere Nancy randomly tells Janky he’s “nuts” and “a jerk” on ‘No Break’, which doesn’t stop him from getting uncharacteristically soppy on ‘Love, Love’ and the spirit of Nick Drake is seemingly channelled on ‘Poor Boy’. If you’re looking for somewhere to start your Jandek adventure, this is as good a place as anywhere.
A footnote: in April 2012 me and a friend went to see Jandek play at a small church in Manchester. Afterwards my friend casually chatted to him about the gig and previously live performances. Turns out he’s just a man who happens to make interesting music. Who would’ve thought it?