I have no clue where the name “Corwood” comes from. What about the name “Jandek”? I’m reminded of Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel The Dispossessed, which portrays a society whose citizens are assigned a name at birth consisting of two random computer-generated syllables; for example, the main character’s name is Shevek. There is a company in England called Jandek Kits (6 Fellows Avenue, Kingswinford, West Midlands, DY6 9ET United Kingdom) that produces some kind of amateur radio equipment; can’t say if there’s a connection. When I was in Budapest some years ago I saw a big sign on a building reading “AJANDEK” — perhaps it’s a Hungarian name? (I have since been informed that “ajandek” means “gift” in Hungarian...) A net search turned up a Heinz Jandek who is a computer programmer at the University of Cologne in Germany, a Rostislav Jandek who lives in the Czech Republic, an Irving Jandek in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and a Hartmut Jandek who got third place in a sailing competition in Spain in 1996 (way to go, Hartmut! we’re all proud of you), so apparently it’s not an unknown surname. None of this tells us much.
So who is Jandek? No one knows for sure. He doesn’t perform live or give interviews; he has never made any public statement of any kind. The Katy Vine story above is the only documented encounter anyone’s had with the man in person. She must have done some detective work to track him down, but I suspect it was probably not all that hard. Jandek hides himself, but he hasn’t gone to extreme lengths to cover his tracks. After all, his picture is on his album covers. Corwood Industries is a business, and some kinds of information about registered businesses are a matter of public record. But please don’t go after him; when Katy Vine tracked him down, he didn’t refuse to talk, but he mostly steered the conversation away from music, and when it was over, he “stress[ed] that even though he had had a nice time, he didn’t want to be contacted in person by a fan or a journalist or anybody about Jandek ever again.”
Even if you hung around the Houston post office until he comes in to get his mail, theoretically you might not catch Jandek himself, but only a Corwood Industries delegate or functionary. If you write Corwood Industries a check, it comes back signed on the back by “Sterling R. Smith”. If you peer into Jandek’s post office box, if you are lucky there may be a piece of apparently non-music-related mail on top addressed to Sterling Smith. Several people report having spoken on the phone with a man named Sterling Smith who handles things like orders from distributors, but who categorically denies that he is Jandek and refuses to answer any questions about him. However, when Irwin Chusid spoke to Smith in 1980 (see Songs in the Key of Z, page 60), Smith didn’t disclaim being Jandek, but talked about the records as “my music”. Katy Vine reports that the man she talked to was the man pictured on the album covers, but he wouldn’t directly admit to having made the music, but the overwhelming impression from various details in the article is that in fact he had. And one record store owner who spoke with Mr. Smith reports that his voice was the voice on the records. So it seems reasonable to assume that Sterling Smith is Jandek, and that the strategy of pretending that Sterling Smith is from Corwood Industries, but is not actually Jandek, is a strategy that was only adopted after the early 80’s.
Epistemological disclaimer: here, I’m going to try to connect the dots, to make the inferences and possible generalizations that the records and other available information appear to suggest. For example, I personally believe that Jandek is Sterling Smith is the man depicted on the album covers is the man singing is the man playing the guitar. I will assume that the records’ release order more or less corresponds with their recording order, that first-person song lyrics are at least semi-autobiographical, and other such reasonable-seeming but undeniably questionable assumptions. But as you read bear in mind what I won’t explicitly mention again: the possibility that some of the available signs may be misleading or intentionally deceptive. Personally, my sense of Jandek is that he might hide or misguide, but wouldn’t intentionally fabricate or deceive.
If you write to Jandek care of Corwood, you may get a few handwritten words in reply, particularly if you ask a factual question about ordering or request permission for something. Most other questions and communications are simply ignored. Irwin Chusid exchanged a number of letters and phone calls with Sterling Smith in the early 80’s, but I don’t know any other such extensive contact with the man more recently, with Chusid or anyone else.
Direct requests for interviews by Richie Unterberger in 1986 and Chusid in 1998 were refused. In the early 80’s, Smith seems to have been fairly forthcoming with Chusid on some matters, but not on others: “He rambled in a halting monotone, his speech punctuated by aposiopesis (the sudden breaking off in mid-sentence as if the speaker is unwilling or unable to continue). I asked questions; he gave oblique answers. He wouldn’t explain what he did for a living.”
So, other than general impressions gleaned from the album covers, very little is known about Sterling Smith’s life.
Presumably he was at least 20 when he made Ready for the House, which would make him at least in his late forties now. In 1999, Katy Vine wrote that he appeared to be “late-thirties”. According to the copyright records at the Library of Congress, Sterling Smith was born in 1945, making him sixty now. The photos from Glasgow show a man who could certainly be that old, though he looks younger. I have no trouble accepting the birth year in the copyright records.
Chusid reports that Sterling Smith said on the phone that he had “no friends”, but if that was true in 1980, it certainly seems to have changed in only a few years, judging from all his collaborators, and from the evident involvement with other people in his lyrics. In Vine’s article he is seen at a bar with his pals from the office.
He may have a connection to Ohio, perhaps even grew up there. “Nancy” is from Ohio (see “Collaborators” below), and there are some Ohio references on Jandek albums (see “Themes”, below).
He is a traveler. Nine-Thirty (1985) has songs about a trip through the American southeast. “Rain in Madison” is presumably about a trip to Madison, Wisconsin, and the lyrics refer to sitting in a car. A letter quoted by Chusid refers to Smith’s “experience in living in lower Manhattan”. Five album covers since 2002 are snapshots taken in Europe. Katy Vine says her interviewee “had visited big and small cities all over the U.S., Mexico, and Europe.”
It seems from the Katy Vine article that he is now a professional or office worker of some kind, wearing “beautiful cufflinks” and living in “one of the city’s nicer neighborhoods”, but his career is “of increasing disinterest”. Consult her article for further tidbits.
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