'Fraudulent art', 'a swindle of the highest order' - Jandek touches down in Belfast

Jandek is a living, breathing example of what you can get away with in the name of art. Tonight, at the Black Box, happy, smiling punters reach deep into their wallets and hand over their £10 entry fee, completely unaware of the great rock 'n' roll swindle they are about to take part in. Roughly three hours later, they will fall into three camps: the bemused, the horrified, and the delusional.

But we’re getting carried away here. First up is Christina Carter, taking centre stage with just a guitar and an ocean of reverb for company. At first, her chiming guitar tones convey the image of a sunrise exploding over a desolate plateau, her wordless vocal evocative of a bleak wind. It’s cinematic and emotionally engaging. That is, until you start to notice that the guitar is slowly going out of tune, and the improvisational nature of the music is becoming increasingly aimless.

This is performing without a safety net, and any kind of improvisational music faces the risk of becoming derailed at any point. But it is apparent that in this particular improvisation, there is no-one behind the controls, the music wandering further and further into a confused mess.

Carter's second ‘piece’ is more of the same, with the tuning problems even more apparent, as she eventually settles on one dissonant and punishingly harsh guitar chord. The music isn't without its charm, but a distinct feeling of ‘amateur hour’ hangs over the entire performance, even though the performer should surely be above such an accusation by this point in her career.

After the starter, the main course. Jandek is a legend. Jandek is a myth. Jandek is a charlatan. A ‘famed’ outsider artist, he has released an awful lot of music over the years (his first records appearing in the late 1970s), generally operating in an idiosyncratic folk/blues style, which is as unsettling as it is beautiful.

Like a lot of the outsider artists, there is a depth to his work that is not often apparent on first listen, revealing itself over time for those who are prepared to put the effort in.

Despite having been releasing music for three decades, Jandek made his first live appearance on the stage in 2004, under a blanket of secrecy and mystery. For most in the audience tonight, therefore, this is a pilgrimage of pure curiosity.

From the first ‘note’, the tone for the entire performance is set, Jandek strumming a tuneless electric guitar which has been put through a myriad of effects until it sounds like something resembling a dentist’s drill turned on inside a wind tunnel.

To Jandek's side a female bassist begins playing one note at semi-regular intervals. This note bears no relation to what Jandek is playing, nor will it at any point through the remainder of the performance. Eventually one of the strings on the bass breaks, but it’s not the hindrance one might expect, as by this point the bass player has started using a guitar slide to produce tuneless noise.

All the while the drummer, puffing his cheeks out and staring madly with wild eyes, pounds the drum kit seemingly at random. He occasionally returns to a repetitive, almost military refrain, but largely stays away from any kind of time signature. Occasionally Jandek moves to the microphone and says, 'Last exit to Belfast' before turning his back on the audience and continuing to randomly move his fingers across the fretboard of his guitar to produce more atonal noise.

This goes on for well over an hour.

The key word in describing this performance is ‘random’. If (at any point) there appeared to be some kind of reasoning behind what Jandek & Co were doing, the randomness of it all would have been tolerable. However, there is not a hint of improvisation or structure, just three people making a noise, for no apparent reason.

As if to further undermine the complete lack of point to this 'music', everything that is on display seems somehow recycled from other people’s ideas. For a completely accurate sound-alike of Jandek’s guitar tone, look no further than Public Image Ltd’s album, Metal Box. But where Keith Levene redefined the sound of electric guitar, Jandek just strums away tunelessly.

The New York ‘No Wave’ bands used atonal, arrhythmic music to much greater effect, whilst John Coltrane’s chaotic explorations of free jazz served as an attempt for him to communicate with God. Jandek, on the other hand, just makes a racket and informs the audience about the 'Last exit to Belfast'.

Jandek's is completely fraudulent art, exactly the kind of thing that people are talking about when they say that they don’t like modern art. But more worrying than that is the capacity for people to absorb such art, and then convince themselves of the value of what they have experienced.

Despite the complete lack of rhythm in the performance, several people can be seen almost head-banging to the music, hearing some kind of rhythm of their own. Essentially, an artist of Jandek’s stature can convince people to be appreciative of their output, without even having to actually listen to what is being performed. Such pretention on both sides of the microphone will ensure that indulgent and insulting performances such as this will continue to be perpetuated.

Tonight is a swindle of the highest order, and every single one of us in the audience who does not register their disgust is responsible for allowing it to happen.

Steven Rainey


I thought I should write to you to express my disappointment at your review of the Jandek gig in the Black Box, Belfast. It is a thoroughly horrid and dispiriting piece of writing which I think falls beneath most standards of critical writing and I wonder who is actually being served by this and what is the purpose of it? You may be aware that David Stubbs has written a book called Fear of Music - Why People Get Rothko But Don't Get Stockhausen. I think your reviewer has this fear.

I don't want to go through the whole article in detail but a couple of things stand out. Firstly, if the art is fraudulent, the implication is that the artist deliberately tried to deceive the audience for personal gain. Presumably Mr Rainey has some evidence of this deception, though I would be surprised. If not then it is a completely fallacious line of criticism - it is also very personal and insulting. Insulting to the artist and to the audience your reviewer casually puts down throughout the review.

Mr Rainey will be disappointed to hear that some of his descriptions of what he heard, such as ' a dentist's drill in a wind tunnel', 'tuneless noise' 'atonal noise' or 'lack of rhythm' are precisely why people buy Jandek records and go to his gigs. It's part of a long tradition which includes Captain Beefheart, Hijokaidan, Incapacitants, Jean Dubuffet, Russolo and Varese.

Your reviewer puts himself against this thread of endeavour. He does note that, 'several people can be seen almost head-banging to the music, hearing some kind of rhythm of their own'. Well precisely - people putting their own minds to work on the music and enjoying the experience. Surely this is a positive, yet it is dismissed as a trick - apparently Jandek's stature can convince people to be appreciative of his output without them actually listening to what is being performed. Amazing!

I could go on but I won't - Mr Rainey went to a gig, didn't get it and didn't enjoy it. That's absolutely okay but it isn't a good enough reason to put down Jandek (who enjoyed performing in Northern Ireland) or to insult the audience (some of whom will certainly have enjoyed it). I think the reviewer comes over as ignorant of musical movements, narrow-minded and bigoted - maybe he isn't but it reflects badly on CultureNorthernIreland that this petty and mean-spirited review should be hosted on your website.

Willie Miller