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The Great and Powerful Jandek

Elusive, reclusive and prolific, a mysterious singer-songwriter chooses Richmond for a rare appearance. For reasons no one knows.



Outsider singer-songwriter Jandek is an anti-celebrity, famous for being unknown. Although he's released a pile of idiosyncratic, highly personal recordings, he remains a pseudonymous cipher whose only fixed reference is a post-office box in Houston. His exceedingly rare concert at the Firehouse Theatre Sunday, March 11, promises to be a memorable and unique night.

Since 1978 Jandek has released 49 albums through his mail-order micro-label, Corwood Industries. The records typically feature atonal renditions of elliptical lyrics over a spare and eccentric racket. Critical reaction ranges from bemused condemnation to breathless praise for the subtle depths perceived beneath the primitive surface.

"Outsider music" authority Irwin Chusid, no fan of Jandek's, nevertheless captures the forlorn and damaged void that is the heart of the singer's appeal. "I was stunned at the sheer amusicality or unmusicality or nonmusicality — the sheer emptiness of it," Chusid said in a 2003 radio interview. "This was an album that started nowhere, went nowhere and ended up nowhere. … It was really like hearing a posthumous recording, a recording that was made after they had died. … I had never heard anything that was so naked."

After 28 years in the shadows, Jandek first performed live at a 2005 Glasgow music festival (he was billed cryptically as "a representative of Corwood Industries"). He has played fewer than two dozen times since, most often in Great Britain, although he has performed a handful of shows in the United States. Bringing him to Richmond is a coup for local avant-garde musicians and art advocates The Patchwork Collective.

But if there's a secret to Patchwork's success, it is a secret to them as well; the show was Jandek's idea.

"I have no idea why he's coming," the Patchwork's Matt White says. "He wanted us to find a place that had bolted-down seats, didn't serve alcohol and seated 200 to 400 people."

All of the contact was through Tidewater drummer and show co-sponsor Beats Ugh Lee (aka Tim Strange), who White suspects might be a relative of Jandek's. "Since we set it up we haven't had much to do with it since," White says.

The chance to see the iconic outsider in an intimate setting thrilled his small but enthusiastic fan base. Anxious calls came into Patchwork from Canada and the Midwest, asking when tickets would go on sale. The Richmond show is going to be recorded and filmed.

"There is a buzz that something special is going to happen," White says. "Lee told me not to say too much. 'A little magic goes a long way.'"

Mystique is the saving grace for an artist whose work, innocent of the conventional virtues of tone, rhythm and structure, is challenging even by the trial-by-ordeal standards of the avant-garde. But Jandek's kind of mystery may be impossible to completely sustain in the Internet age. There's an encyclopedic fan site that reveals the singer's likely name (Sterling Smith) and age (62). Mere details, perhaps, but it points to the most impressive aspect of the singer's career: his longevity.

Jandek is a creature of a vanished age: the recent but irretrievable past. His once quixotic enterprise — self-recording, manufacturing and selling his recordings — has become a digital-era commonplace. His enterprise remains completely offline — except for a MySpace page that may not actually be his.

Despite his aversion to talking about himself and his work (he's given only two known interviews, both in the '80s), he responded to a handwritten letter from Style asking what makes a performance successful for him.

The answer came in block capitals, enclosed in a white business envelope with a rubber-stamped Corwood Industries return address:

"When a mistake is made it can't be a mistake. It must be repeated and delved into as if a clear indication of a new direction. Success is failure. Everything is irrelevant, stupid and inconsequential. It's just dreaming out loud.

"Why do it? I don't know."

It was, of course, unsigned. S

Jandek performs at the Firehouse Theatre Sunday, March 11, at 7 p.m. Tickets, $25 plus service charge, are available at www Day-of-show tickets are $27. 355-2001.

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