Monday, March 24, 2014

Jandek Live at the Billiken Club

In an act that was purely kismet, I came across a black cat at a Jandek show in St. Louis this past Friday. My nerves to the point of short-circuiting at waiting for the famed Rep, I wandered out onto St. Louis University's metropolitan campus to gulp down fresh air. Not 100 feet outside of the venue, standing in front of orange lawn light I saw a black cat. With its shadow magnified and light bouncing off its shimmering black fur, I was instantly mesmerized. All my long-kept Irish superstitions flew out the window. In that moment, standing on a rocky sidewalk, I could do nothing but stare. 

From the first time I ever heard the oblique artist known as Jandek, I've had a similar feeling. Every marker tells me to stay away, that if I hear one of his haunting lullabies I need to head in the other direction as quickly as possible. But I can't. When I hear his painfully whispered voice uncurling over roughly picked guitar strings, I draw as close as I can.

That strange hypnosis started before his set at SLU's Billiken Club began. Not long after he had finished doing sound checks, I saw him standing in front of the stage taking stock of the room. "S***," was all I could mutter when I saw them. I've been fortunate enough to meet the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne and Patrick Stickles of Titus Andronicus, but I never had that moment with either of them. They both possess a terrific relatability; you feel comfort when you're in their presence. Not so with a figure like Jandek, who has spent 3 and a half decades cultivating a shadowy personae. From the issuance of his first, Ready for the House in 1978, he's felt at odds with his audience. Though they're released for public consumption, the songs are often so intensely personal it's easy to believe their release was a mistake.

In fact, one of Jandek's first exhalations of the night was "I can give it, but nobody wants it," a firm acknowledgement of his outside status. He's a nightmarish take on the idea of the "artist's artist." Artists from the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle to Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst sing the praises of Jandek far and wide, though they'd never court the same kind of chaos he so readily does. Hearing his first song of the night on the small stage, it's easy to assume the chaos comes from a place of stark loneliness, a notion that falls apart as soon Sheila Smith sets up residency at the drum kit. The chaos continues. Smith falls all over the drums; she climbs on top of them and lays her head down when she feels like it. And all Jandek can do is drift further into an unfathomable abyss, confirming the idea that "the only thing worse than being alone, is being with people that make you feel alone."

Even when she teasingly paws the Man in Black, it registers as an act of cruelty. Instead of reaching back, he retreats further into a miasma of regret and disillusionment. There's "prostitution in Chicago" he howls in the role of twisted minister. In that number, mankind's sins are laid out for everyone to see in the unbiased light of day. However the morality play is short lived, as he finishes the couplet with the borderline nihilistic "I don't care about that." Whatever humanity will do, it will continue to do until our planet permanently ices over. 

That lack of concern extends to pick-up members Matty Coonfield (of Bug Chaser, Tone Rodent) and Joseph Hess (Spelling Bee, Braining) who rotate along with Smith every few songs. Hess in particular stands out for the crop of stained golden hair he sports. He feels entirely out of place with the ramshackle outfit, until his turn at the microphone comes. Not wanting to waste an opportunity, he nearly rips his larynx as he sings. Jandek's dark aura is like Michael Myers in musical form; it won't die and only grows stronger over time. Anyone coming closer enough will be infected by it, no matter how inhospitable it first appears.

No one got caught up in the aura quite like Sheila Smith. Throughout the night she occupies the roles of: punk front woman, jokester, siren, and temptress. "Where were you born? On a ring or Saturn?" she sneeringly questions in a comic turn. The humor fades when she prances over to the Rep himself and swipes at his guitar mid solo. There's an odd sexuality to it; where either a violent laceration or tender lovemaking seems plausible. The tension does briefly dissipate when the Rep passes by Smith on stage and cracks a minuscule smile, temporarily breaking a facade some 30 years in the making. It doesn't last long. Soon the death stare consumes his eyes again as he occupies the keyboard. It's not surprising on a night where anything seems possible. Late in the set, Jandek wails "I'm here or I guess I am?" Seeing an enigma in person doesn't make it any more understandable.

No comments:

Post a Comment