At Carnegie Mellon's WRCT-FM in the 1980s, every few months heralded the arrival of a box from Corwood Industries in Houston, containing several copies of the latest LP from the prolific, mysterious figure named Jandek. The music was primitivistic, atonal folk and blues, both painful and riveting, recorded in the basest fidelity. The grainy, black-and-white cover photos often depicted a young man with short, dirty-blond hair, whom many assumed was Jandek. But with no information save song titles and the Corwood address, a mythos grew.
The saga began with Jandek's 1978 debut LP, Ready for the House, released under the moniker The Units (for which he received a cease-and-desist letter from an identically named synthpunk group). He became a cult icon of "outsider art," with several college stations collaborating on a 1986 "Jandek Across America" broadcast.
Maurice Rickard, now a local guitar-and-electronics improviser, discovered Jandek around the time of the broadcast. "I bought a couple of Jandek LPs, got home at 3 a.m. and put on Blue Corpse. It was the perfect music for that moment -- compelling, haunting, minimal and uniquely personal."
Rickard caught up with much of Jandek's oeuvre, which eventually diversified in instrumentation: electric guitar, fretless bass, harmonica and keyboards, even some controversial a cappella albums. Starting in 2002, Rickard and John Eastridge, then active with WRCT, organized the world's only annual Jandek open-mic tribute night, held at coffeehouses such as Kiva Han, Té Cafe and Morning Glory.
Nationally, Jandek adulation has picked up steam as members of prominent bands like Sonic Youth, Pearl Jam, Bright Eyes and Death Cab for Cutie admitted to being fans. Two Jandek tribute albums were released by the Moscow, Pa.-based Summersteps Records. WFMU DJ Irwin Chusid included a chapter on Jandek in his book Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious World of Outsider Music.
Che Elias, Pittsburgh-based co-owner of fiction imprint Six Gallery Press, saw Songs in the Key of Z at a Barnes & Noble, with a photo from Jandek's Six and Six. "I was into obscure singer-songwriters like Scott Walker, and the staff at Paul's CDs recommended that album to me. At first, I didn't understand the nontraditional structure of the music, but when I read the lyrics [...] I got hooked and bought every Jandek CD Paul's had."
Jandek (whom most fans now know is named Sterling Smith) finally broke the veil in 2004, performing live at the Instal festival in Scotland, and he has since given regular concerts, including rare appearances in his hometown. After catching his hero in 2008, at Columbus' Wexner Center, Elias tracked down the Corwood number and extended an invitation to Pittsburgh.
"It was an answering machine with a woman's voice," Elias remembers. "He called me really late at night and kept referring to Corwood Industries as 'us.' He quizzed me to make sure I was a fan and not out to make money. We discussed WRCT, Paul's and the Jandek tribute nights, which he was aware of."
But Jandek had some stipulations. "He didn't want to do nightclubs," Elias says. "When I proposed the patio at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, he said, 'We looked online, and we like that venue,' referring to his show as 'ambient' and requiring me to find a player for each instrument."
As promoters have done elsewhere, Elias assembled a backup band composed of scene luminaries: guitarist Dean Cercone, upright bassist Spat Cannon (a.k.a. DJ Hates You) and drummer (and occasional CP contributor) Andrew McKeon. Rickard joined the sound crew with members of local band We Are The Dead. Elias also rented two Korg synths ("one weighted, one unweighted") for Jandek himself.
According to Rickard, don't expect tunes from Jandek's recent studio albums, like The Myth of Blue Icicles. Much like free-jazz sessions, every performance is different. "All his shows are improvised, and the word of mouth is that he writes the lyrics that day or the night before," Rickard says. "So don't bother calling out specific songs."
Rickard adds that one refreshing element is how much mystique Jandek has retained in the age of ubiquitous music bloggers and cell-phone paparazzi. A tradition has emerged of calling him "The Representative from Corwood" (or just "The Rep") as opposed to either Jandek or Sterling, now rail-thin at age 64.
"People have kept his confidence. He's sort of a folk-music Thomas Pynchon or J.D. Salinger, in that he has a social life but nobody talks," Rickard says. "He seems freer to travel around, but in dealings outside his immediate circle, he only admits to being The Rep, like a gestalt entity."
Jandek. 8 p.m. Thu., Aug. 5. Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 6300 Fifth Ave., Shadyside. $15-17. 412-735-8705