When Fahey was venting his disgust for
his 60s recordings earlier on, he went at them with a ferocity out of all
proportion to the quality of music. His negative attitude hinted that something
deeper was going down than a mature reappraisal of his youthful endeavours.
Eventually, his hostility relents, and the negativity lets up long enough
to reveal the pain at its source.
"Mainly it's a parental situation," Fahey
explains, washing down more popcorn with gulps of sweet iced tea. "I was
writing these things as an escape, as a possible way to make money. The
sentiments expressed come out of a fucked up situation. I was creating
for myself an Imaginary, beautiful world and pretending that I lived there,
but I didn't feel beautiful. I was mad but I wasn't aware of it. I was
also very sad, afraid and lonely. By presenting this so-called beautiful
facade I looked good to myself and my audience.
"This went on for years," he continues. "I
always tried to put a peaceful element into the music, but it was false
because I was not at peace. I didn't know what I was doing and felt pretty
phony. I didn't understand any of this until I had psychoanalysis."
Entering psychoanalysis in the mid-80s helped
him exorcise the past. "Before psychoanalysis," Fahey recalls, "I used
to accidentally get so high or prescription drugs and booze that, sometimes,
wouldn't show up for a show. Or I'd be there and not know it. For a while
I thought I was going insane. People would tell me I did these crazy things,
but I didn't' attribute it to the Quaaludes I was taking so that the memories
of my father abusing me as a child wouldn't come back."
In taking Fahey back to the source of his
traumas psychoanalysis invested the innocent symbols he had carried over
from his childhood with sinister new meanings. Out of a boy's fascination
with turtles and tortoises, he had elaborated a personal mythology based
on the reptiles, using them as a repeat motif anchoring his art and discography
in his childhood.
Under analysis he recalled how he burst out
screaming when he first saw a turtle. "When I was about four or five
years old I saw what thought was a penis walking across the front lawn,"
he shudders. "It was just a box turtle, but it kind of upset me..."
Analysis related the encounter to the memory
of being sexually molested by his father. "The obsession comes from the
psychic meaning of turtles, reptiles and amphibians. In dreams they symbolise
genitalia. That's why I went to a psychoanalyst because I had all these
The unifying visual motif of his personal
mythology and extensive discography turned out to be the corrupting agent
of their potential destruction all alone Remarkably, coming to terms with
the full horror of such a revelation marked the beginning of Fahey's 90s
John Fahey was born on 28 February 1939
and spent most of his childhood Takoma Park, Maryland, a small town on
the outskirts of Washington DC. His early musical training was at once
formal and frustrating. His parents occasionally took him to see 50s bluegrass
stars like The Stanley Brothers, whose early recordings Fahey would later
reissue on Revenant. But though he grew up with Country & Western and
bluegrass, his first instrument was clarinet abandoned It at 14 when he
bought his first guitar, a $17 Sears And Roebuck special, with money earned
from his newspaper round. After teaching himself to pick his way through
the Eddy Arnold songbook, the young, lonely and slightly crazy guitar player
decided it was time to start writing his own material. The year was 1954,
and Elvis Presley was just beginning to make waves in America. If the young
Fahey readily embraced the rockabilly that resulted from rock 'n' roll's
impact on Country, back then he was turned off by the black gospel edge
in Presley's music.
"Where I was brought up was very prejudiced
towards Negroes," Fahey explains. "I was taught to hate and fear them.
I didn't like black music very much, I wouldn't even listen to it."
Two years later, Fahey heard the record that
turned his music and life around: Blind Willie Johnson's "Praise God I'm
Satisfied". "[Blues connoisseur] Dick Spottswood and I were sat in a store
where they were selling up old 78s," he remembers. "They weren't catalogued
or anything, they were just lying around. We were going through them and
I was not picking up any records by Negroes for myself because all I wanted
was bluegrass. I found several black records and gave them to Spottswood.
Then we went over to this other collector's house and he put on the Blind
Willie Johnson. I started to feel nauseated so I made him take it off,
but it kept going through my head so I had to hear it again. When he played
it the second time I started to cry, it was suddenly very beautiful. It
was some kind of hysterical conversion experience where in fact I had liked
that kind of music all the time, but didn't want to. So, I allowed myself
to like it."
As the scales of fear and prejudice fell away
on hearing Blind Willie Johnson sing, Fahey immersed himself in black music
with the zeal of a new convert. That the territory was still largely uncharted
in the mid-50s didn't so much deter him as sharpen his sense of mission;
he immediately set off for the South on a quest for old 78rpm recordings
of blues and traditional Country material. Even an activity as innocuous
as record buying wasn't so straightforward back then. Aside from the potential
problems posed by a lone white youth scouring black neighbourhoods in the
50s, record shops as such were virtually nonexistent. The real finds could
only be discovered by going door to door and asking people if they had
anything they wanted to sell. Fahey soon learned to pick out the houses
most likely to be holding the stuff he was after.
"In the South they were used to having salesmen
come by all the time," he explains. "A lot of the older people arc lonely
and look forward to having somebody call, and that's the kind of house
you would canvas: well kept, neat, lots of flowers in the garden. I'd knock
on the door and say, 'Hello there' Do you have any old records you'd like
to sell?' They could see that I was just some harmless kid looking for
old records and they wanted to get rid of them. Nobody valued them, they
needed money. If they had any I would be invited in to look through the
Victrola. I'd offer them a price, I'd try to be fair."
Ironically, he landed his biggest catch closer
to home, during a fishing trip with his father. "I found a copy of Charley
Patton's "High Water Everywhere Parts One And Two"," he beams, like it
only happened yesterday. "It looked as though somebody had sanded it, you
could hardly find a groove. I couldn't hear all of the guitar, I could
hear a guy singing, maybe, and I heard that 'BOMPH! BOMPH! I thought: what
the hell is that? It sounded to me like the guy was playing a stretched
inner tube or something. So I called up Spottswood and asked him if he'd
heard of Charley Patton. He said, 'Yeah, I have a few'. So I went straight
over to his place with my tape recorder, recorded all the Charley Patton
records he had and became a real Patton freak."
Not a man to take his enthusiasms lightly,
Fahey unearthed all the information he could about Patton, hoping to discover
in the details of the life the source of the anger and the pain in the
music, perhaps shedding some light on his own, as yet still dormant, demons
in the process.
"The reason I liked Charley Patton and those
other Delta singers so much was because they were angry," he asserts. "Their
music is ominous. Patton had a rheumatic heart and he knew that he was
going to die young, which he did. In Son House you hear a lot of fear In
Skip James you hear a lot of sorrow, but also a lot of anger. When I first
heard these guys I couldn't identify the emotions because I didn't acknowledge
that I had them myself. I didn't learn the names of these emotions until
I was under psychoanalysis. I played some of the records to the doctor
and he said, 'These guys are as angry as hell'."
More than just infatuation, Fahey made Charley
Patton the subject of his thesis for his masters degree in mythology and
folklore, which he then used as the basis of a full-blown academic treatise
on the bluesman and his music.
A bad move in 1956 precipitated John Fahey's next big step In music:
he transferred from the University of Maryland to study philosophy at the
American University in Washington DC. "It was a mistake," he laughs. "What
I really wanted to know about was psychology, I thought I'd find what I
was looking for in philosophy. . . WRONG!"
Believing Kant was strictly for the birds,
he engrossed himself instead in the simultaneous study of musical theory
and the playing techniques of his beloved blues heroes, slowly absorbing
them into his own developing style. Soon he was astonishing his fellow
blues lovers with his ability to create the sound and feel of the original
bluesmen. Indeed, his blues were so convincing that, after a drinking session
one night his friends suggested he should make a record and pass it off
as the work of an authentic 'lost' blues artist. The prankster in Fahey
couldn't resist the idea of perpetrating a hoax at the expense of the growing
ranks of po-faced folk and blues purists the advance guard of America's
coming folk boom. In 1958 he recorded a series of songs and instrumentals
under the name of Blind Thomas for Joe Bussard (aka Buzzard)'s Fonotone
To further the joke, Bussard initially pressed
up the Blind Thomas recordings as 78s and solemnly catalogued them unannounced
under "authentic Negro folk music" In his mail order listings, hoping to
bait blues aficionados with the kudos of discovering a great lost bluesman.
Although Fahey now considers Blind Thomas to be of historical interest
only, his command of the idiom inevitably meant the record was scarcely
a disposable novelty item. His gravely singing and his experimenting with
acoustic blues amounted to a trial run for his greatest mythological character,
Blind Joe Death.
Blind Joe's death wish
If John Fahey felt philosophy in Washington
DC was a washout, he fondly remembers vacationing as a grease monkey on
the night shift at a gas station back In Langley Park, Maryland in 1959.
"I still dream about the gas station," he
sighs, "I became very important for the first time in my lifeIt was the
only place in the county that was open all night."
The rural night brings out all the freaks
and loners. A good many of them inevitably gravitated towards the 24 hour
gas station. Cosying up to the local patrol cops for protection, Fahey
watched them all come and go, mentally noting the weird scenes, sounds
and atmospheres of the rural American night. Scraping together a $300 budget,
he recorded his first album of original compositions for solo acoustic
guitar and pressed up an edition of 100 copies at RCA Custom Recorders.
Two got smashed in transit and the rest were sent to blues scholars, given
to friends, or sold out of the back of his car. Forever the prankster,
at once out to test the gullibility of collectors and the potency of folk
myth, invented or otherwise, Fahey also dumped some copies in the used
record bins of local thrift stores, next to Dean Martin, Liberace and Burl
lves records, on the off chance someone might mistake it for a lost gem.
One side was billed as John Fahey, the other was credited to an obscure
bluesman, called Blind Joe Death, who Fahey had 'discovered' on one of
his field trips. He even added fake scholarly sleevenotes, with fellow
hoaxer Ed Denson, to a later edition. The first release on the guitarist's
own Takoma label, Fahey took special delight when one celebrity folk scholar
was taken in by it. He might have been fooled, but maybe he was onto
something. Beneath the joke, Fahey had a more serious purpose for inventing
Blind Joe Death.
"The whole point was to use the word 'death',"
he intones darkly. "I was fascinated by death and I wanted to die. I probably
could have told you that at the time, but I wasn't being that honest. Blind
Joe Death was my death instinct. He was also all the Negroes in the slums
who were suffering. He was the incarnation, not only of my death wish,
but of all the aggressive instincts in me.
"Initially he was everything that had to do
with life and death that a person in our society is not supposed to feel.
You're not meant to feel miserable in American society, you're supposed
to keep the smile up. With Blind Joe Death I was secretly throwing hatred
and death back in the faces of those people who told me I was bad and sinful
because I had these feelings."
It took Fahey three years to sell out his
debut's first pressing. With grim irony, Blind Joe Death hung around to
haunt its creator for a good while longer.
Regardless of his negative feelings.
John Fahey stuck with his philosophy course, finally graduating from Washington
in 1963 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. He went on to continue his studies
at the University of California in Berkeley, where he was astonished to
discover his recently released second album proper, Death Chants, Breakdowns
And Military Waltzes, had already found an appreciative audience. Needless
to say, the feeling wasn't mutual. Soon to become a hotbed of student radicalism,
the political beliefs espoused at Berkeley jarred violently with Fahey's
idea of individualism.
"I was accusing the lefties of being Nazis,"
he booms. "Most of the kids around Berkeley at that time were being drawn
into these stupid temporary political movements by organisations that didn't
even last a year. I suppose it was fashionable lo be Marxist back then,
but they didn't even know what Marxism was. Much less what life was really
like in the Soviet Union."
If Fahey stood by one Marxist dictum, it would
be Groucho's refusal to belong to any party that would have him. John Fahey
is not a natural joiner, it would seem. In 1963 ihe folk music boom was
just about to peak. Bob Dylan had released a heavily blues inflected debut
album, and his "Blowing In The Wind" had been taken up by the civil rights
movement. And there was Fahey, enrolled at radical Berkeley, with the beginnings
of one audience in his pocket, and a potentially much larger crowd politically
well disposed towards blues music "rooted in the suffering of the people",
ripe for the taking. A more cynical, opportunistic artist than Fahey would
have run on a protest singer ticket and cleaned up. Fahey would be the
last person to claim purity of heart and motive, but he's always been congenitally
incapable of swallowing bullshit, no matter how naively well intentioned.
Ironically, the 'authenticity' the left lauded in folk/blues singers as
the true voice of the common man was the very thing that drove an artist
like John Fahey to reject its embrace. He'd simply seen too much on his
record-hunting field trips in the South to accept the protestors' black
and white view of the world.
Though he was infuriated not to mention
frozen out by the 'volk music' preachings of the 50s civil rights music
movement, whose membership included Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Paul Robeson
and seasoned folkie/activist Pete Seeger, he was more sickened by the measures
taken by the state to bring it down. "I never felt that Pete Seeger should
be persecuted by the US government for his political beliefs," Fahey asserts.
"If anything I dislike and fear the House of UnAmerican Activities Committee
more than I do Seeger. I may dislike his music, and I thought he behaved
in a silly manner politically, but I was never out to hurt him or anybody
else on the left or the right."
Fahey decided to quit Berkeley for Los Angeles
in 1964, to study folklore at UCLA and write his thesis on Charley Patton.
In LA, he roomed with the late Al 'Blind Owl' Wilson, a blues expert who
advised Fahey on his Patton project. "Al Wilson taught me enough about
music theory to write my masters thesis on Charley Patton," Fahey enthuses.
"He was a good teacher." Wilson later joined Canned Heat, after Fahey had
introduced him to their guitarist Henry Vestine, another blues enthusiast.
Within a few years, folk and blues artists
followed Dylan's lead and turned electric. Under the influence of hallucinogenics
and heavy amplification, many such roots-rock hybrids helped shape the
coming psychedelia. Contrary to the last, Fahey felt no more affinity with
the hippy Zeitgeist than he did with the protest singers and civil rights
marchers. Yet despite himself, that decade's Takoma releases, notably The
Dance Of Death And Other Plantation Favorites, The Transfiguration Of Blind
Joe Death and, especially, The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party And
Other Excursions, are tinged with an endearing hippy mystique, if only
because of David Omar White's beautifully rendered, mystical cover drawings
for The Transfiguration Of Blind Joe Death.
"The idea was to record the saddest, most morbid and angry
music in the world, using a guitar. Music to encourage people to commit
All the time we've been talking, Fahey's faithful beatbox has been softly
playing the music he's been piecing together for a kaleidoscopic new composition,
with the working title "The Skip James Project".
"I think this Skip James project is the most
interesting thing I've ever done," he states categorically. "The idea was
to record the saddest, most morbid and angry music in the world, using
a guitar. There's noise in some pieces and it's going to be long. Music
to encourage people to commit suicide."
The working title is a reference to Fahey's
infamous encounter with this "strangest, most complex and bizarre of all
blues artists" when he visited Skip James in Tunica County Hospital, Mississippi
in 1964. Whatever his feelings about James's music, Fahey denies the project
is a tribute to the bluesman bearing his name.
"No. Fuck him, he wasn't worth it," Fahey growls
vehemently. "He was condescending and a real jerk. Henry Vestine, Bill
Barth and I visited him in hospital and the first time we met him he said,
'So you guys have heard some of my records, the ones that were made in
1931?' We told him we had and he said, 'Gee, it sure took you a long time
to get here, you can't be very bright. Well, it was nice of you fellows
to risk your lives, spend all those years and all that money looking for
me. I can understand why you did that, because I really am a genius. Well,
"Before we met I was in awe of him," he says.
"It was a shattering experience. I was very young and naive. The main reason
I tried to find him was to learn his guitar tuning." However, Fahey is
not a man to let personal animosity interfere with his artistic judgment.
Takoma later released an album of Skip James compositions, triggering his
revival, which lasted until his death from cancer in 1969. Fahey triggering
his revival, which lasted until his death from cancer in 1969.
Fahey was more warmly received by another
of his heroes, Booker (aka Bukka)White, who he rediscovered in 1963 with
Takoma partner ED Denson. Keen to contact White, though not knowing how,
Fahey took a gamble and wrote a postcard to the composer of "Aberdeen Mississippi
Blues", addressing it to Bukka White Old Blues Singer, c/o General Delivery,
Aberdeen, Mississippi. Miraculously the card was forwarded to White in
Memphis, his home since the 1930s. Once they made contact, Fahey and Denson
coaxed White out of retirement to record Mississippi Blues Vol 1 forTakoma.
"He was an angel," beams Fahey. "He was helpful
and friendly, a very gregarious person. He was also very intelligent and
imaginative, which would show up in the lyrics to his songs. He liked to
play story games, where everything in the world might show up. I wish I
had taped them, they were really surreal and better than anything on the
Takoma record I put out. He couldn't really play that well any more."
Takoma recorded another lost' bluesman, Robert
Pete Williams, who would have a deep influence on Don Van Vliet's Captain
Beefheart persona, and who Fahey describes as "the strangest person I ever
met. He was like some alien from another world who was part alligator or
The Family affair
John Fahey might not look fondly on
the decade now, but by the end of the 60s, he and his Takoma label were
both doing all right. His own releases were prolific and profitable, among
them, the mock semi-autobiographical Voice Of The Turtle. In 1969 he released
an elegantly arranged album of Christmas songs, The New Possibility, which
sold more than 100,000 copies.
Takoma had also established a label identity
with its distinguished roster of guitarists, capped by the release of up-and-coming
guitarist Leo Kottke's classic debut, Six And 12 String Guitar. Fahey smiles,
"Everybody in the office said, 'That's no good, it won't sell. He just
plays like you do'. I said, 'No he doesn't" But I just saw a big dollar
sign on the wall." The roster was completed by Peter Lang and the eccentric
Robbie Basho, whose two volume release was called The Falconer's Arm.
"He was crazy," Fahey laughs, "very hard to
get along with. I didn't put out his records, ED Denson did. I never really
liked them until Al Wilson pointed out that there were some really good
songs. He was right, there is some great stuff on those records. I never
hung out with Robbie personally much. Nobody did. You couldn't."
Compared with one act that turned up in 1969
looking for a deal, however, Robbie Basho was a model of sanity.
"These beautiful, young, scantily clad women
showed up at the Takoma office with a one inch demo tape that they wanted
us to play," Fahey remembers. "They said, 'We are The Family and we live
In this ranch, why don't you come out and see us some time? The Family
have made this record, would you like to hear it?' I said, 'Sure, but we
don't have a one inch tape recorder. We only have a quarter inch.' They
said, 'Oh, that's too bad.' Before they left those girls fucked everybody
in the office, except me. And everybody in the office caught gonorrhoea
except me. Later on we realised who they were." A few months after this
encounter, the members of The Family, acting on instructions from their
leader, Charles Manson, entered 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, Los
Angeles and butchered the occupants, thus putting paid to the Californian
Concreting folk's garden
Takoma was not the only label that John Fahey recorded for. By 1967
he was so prolific he could afford to sign away two records to Vanguard
without jeopardising his interests in Takoma. In some ways, Vanguard was
a more commercial relation of Takoma. Basically a folk/roots label, their
roster included Joan Baez and Buffy Saint Marie. When they signed Country
Joe And The Fish, they thought they'd got a jugband, not the agit rock
psychedelic pranksters they mutated Into overnight. Vanguard producer and
archivist Samuel Charters shared Fahey's love of the blues (in fact, he
was one of the blues experts who was sent a copy of Blind Joe Death). Somewhat
perversely, Fahey gave the folk/roots label a musique concrete album, called
Requia And Other Compositions For Guitar Solo. Reactions were mixed, mostly
hostile. Many were baffled by its lengthy centrepiece, "Requiem For Molly
Parts 1-4", which embedded a collage of snippets from old blues 78s, Adolf
Hitler speeches and sound effects in Fahey's somewhat aimless acoustic
guitar pattern. "That was my first attempt at musique concrete," apologises
Fahey, "but it's not very good and I don't really like that one. It was
a good learning experience though."
Fahey was inspired to make musique concrete
before he'd heard any examples by an article on the music in Saturday Review.
The collage method, meanwhile, was devised after hearing the word through
a dope haze while he helped sculptor Alexander Calder assemble, factory
style, a set of commercial art objects. (Fahey had met Calder via the blues
fan and Yazoo Records founder Nick Perls, whose father owned an art gallery
where Calder had studio space.) "Somewhere along the line I heard the word
'collage' and it stuck with me," he offers hopefully. "I knew there were
people like Cage around at that time, but I just thought he played piano,"
he pauses. "I might not have heard any Cage, but that didn't matter to
me. I wanted to do it."
His next collage work was more successful.
On The Yellow Princess, he joined forces with an old friend, Barry 'Dr
Demento' Hansen, whose oddball production ideas mirrored Fahey's plans
for the music. Together, they constructed "The Singing Bridge Of Memphis,
Tennessee", from a random collection of noises and found sounds. "I didn't
know how to mix things on tape recorders and make edits," Fahey explains.
"Barry was more knowledgeable and intelligent than me."
30 years on from his first concrete experiments,
HipHop, sampling and Industrial noise have re-educated the ear to accept
collage as an accurate reflection of reality's jumpcuts. Today, Fahey considers
the sound collage as integral to his music making. He grates guitar noise
against found sounds to ring intriguing timbral changes on the I Jim O'Rourke
produced Womblife album. And on "Fanfare", the opening track on his ! 1996
'comeback' release, City Of Refuge, a factory blast of metal machine music
ushers in Fahey's brave, new vision for the 90s.
"I just learned how to do it better," Fahey
reiterates. "Yet every time I do record some musique concrete I get lambasted
by the press, but it was a statement I had to make. I wouldn't be averse
to doing an entire musique concrete CD, but I doubt if it would sell."
The first track on City Of Refuge was titled "On The Death And ; Disembowelment
Of The New Age". The title was a reference to the Windham Hill I label,
who began producing a series of albums in the 80s inspired by Fahey's solo
guitar pieces, and repackaged them for airbrushed Southern Californian
lifestyles, a notion that was anathema to Fahey. "That record is an invitation
and a challenge to other people to check out what's really going on," he
continues. "I have a feeling that I a lot of things have changed. The New
Age has definitely gone."
If the listening habits of many longtime fans
were shaped and permafixed in the 60s, Fahey has always responded to the
challenging new sounds generated in the margins. Presently, Japanese noise
satisfies his creative desires, and it also fulfils a therapeutic need.
"I like noise. I like Merzbow," he explodes enthusiastically. "I use Merzbow
in my tape collages. I like the violent. It's abstract violent. When I
come home exhausted and I want to lay down and forget about my obligations
to other people, I'll turn on noise and enjoy it. Noise has nothing to
do with people, and I don't want to think about people while I'm resting.
Then I'll fall asleep, and when I wake up, I'll be ready to go and deal
with people again."
The late 60s dragged its feet towards
the 70s, like it was reluctant to grow up. John Fahey was busy as ever.
In 1969 he married Jan Lenbow, his first wife. She was far more excited
than her new husband when Italian arthouse director Michelangelo Antonioni
flew him to Rome to compose the soundtrack for his anti-American hippy
movie Zabriskie Point and she was more upset than Fahey when it ended
with the American composer and the anti-American film maker aiming to punch
each other out.
As the 70s finally kicked in, Fahey's schedule
gathered pace. In 1971 Takoma released America, an expensively packaged
album originally planned as a double. "I thought the material on the second
disc wasn't quite up to snuff," Fahey comments, "but listening to it now,
it doesn't sound too bad." The CD reissue restores the album to its full
length, and it comes with Patrick Finnerty's beautifully rendered cover
booklet that scratches at Fahey's obsession with turtles and tortoises.
Meanwhile, in 1973 the music industry went
into recession, causing it to retreat and retrench around a knot of big-selling
artists. As a consequence, less money spilled over into the margins, making
life harder, too, for hardy independents like Takoma. The new, vibrant
rock culture of the 60s was already showing signs of fatigue. Not that
Fahey ever felt he was part of it, but he too seemed affected by an all
pervasive lowering of morale. His 70s were characterised by indecision
and loss of direction; his personal life also took a nosedive. But it was
not all gloom. Well, not quite. Reprise offered him the chance to make
a record with movie kook Goldie Hawn, who had once lived in the same neighbourhood
as Fahey. He turned it down but got his own Reprise deal for two albums,
Rivers And Religion and After The Ball, both of them Southern fried by
an orchestra of Dixieland musicians, and both panned on release. "I don't
understand why they got bad reviews," despairs Fahey. "It's like every
time I wanted to do something other than play guitar I got castigated."
The 70s ended with Fahey divorced and married
for the second time. The strain of running Takoma, coupled with its apparent
loss of direction, forced him to sell it to Chrysalis Records. In 1981,
he and his wife retreated to the small town of Salem, Oregon. The name
was a bad omen. In Salem, he ended up being dragged through hell and back.
The way to Salem is littered with roadkill.
The smorgasbord of squashed squirrels, possums, crows and skunks lining
the route to his old neighbourhood flashes a grim warning of the fate awaiting
anyone who fails to sustain the pace. Inexplicably, Fahey found himself
slowing to a painful crawl. He had contracted Epstein Barr virus, which
left him chronically fatigued and effectively took him out of circulation
from the mid-to late 80s. To add to his problems, Fahey began to drink
heavily, at the time unaware that he was also suffering from diabetes.
Designating them his lost years, Fahey
was sick, confused, lonely and broke. His second marriage ended in divorce.
He had to move out of his house and into Salem's Union Gospel Mission.
When I unthinkingly ask him if he learned anything from the experience,
he stares at me in feigned disbelief. "No. Absolutely nothing," he growls.
"I learned how nice it is to be healthy. Are you of the opinion that trials
teach people things? Maybe they do, but not trial by Epstein Barr virus."
Despite these tremendous setbacks, Fahey still
managed to make some albums, recording a last, triumphant LP for Takoma
called Railroad 7, plus several additions to his Christmas Guitar series.
Return of the coelacanth
In 1994 Rhino Records released the double
CD retrospective, Return Of The Repressed, compiled and annotated by Fahey's
old friend and onetime producer, Barry Hansen. Its release helped locate
a new audience for Fahey's music, while serving as a reminder of the guitar
skills upon which his reputation rests, and of his knowledge, command and
love of various American idioms, not to mention the scope, depth and sheer
audacity of his guitar and concrete compositions. Yet Fahey still feels
uncomfortable with a compilation that only represents his old music. He
jokingly suggests a more appropriate title, Return Of The Coelacanth, after
the prehistoric fish long thought to be extinct, until one was caught In
John Fahey is well on the road to recovery. He presently spends his time
playing guitar, hunting down rare classical records in thrift stores, which
he sells on to a dealer in Portland, and writing prose. A volume of Fahey
writings will be published later this year by the Chicago label Drag City.
And recently he has started painting again,a talent he abandoned when he
took up the guitar. Like his current music, Fahey's paintings are brimming
with abstract expression and rediscovered creative energy. Slashes of splashed
and spraypainted colour are flung together to form the patterns and shapes
that evoke a work's title, such as Gum Turtle or Petals Of Nightmare, Roses
Of Death. Fahey's artwork comes from the primitive school that gave birth
to Don Van Vliet's desert canvases and William Burroughs' shotgun landscapes.
Naturally, they complement his new recordings for TIm/Kerr, Table Of The
Elements, Thirsty Ear and Revenant, which he insists is not about to repeat
the mistakes that lost him Takoma. "The new company is different, precisely
because Dean [Blackwood] knows a lot about music, has good taste and is
honest," he affirms. "What we put out on Revenant has a different complexion
to what was released on Takoma, where nobody knew anything about music
Back at Fahey's
motel room, he is eager to make his girlfriend a cassette of his The Dance
Of Death And Other Plantation Favourites album, which I had found in a
used record store during our trip to Salem. As the music takes hold, he
lays back on his bed, lapses into an hypnotic, almost beatific state, and
dreamily fingers the neck of an invisible acoustic guitar. "I play the
best when my unconscious is altered," he sighs contentedly. "My unconscious
knows every note on the fretboard and every chord. I'll start playing things
that I don't know how to play, so I've got more into improvisation. Sometimes
I make so-called mistakes, but it's a lot more fun than playing this standard
three minute song over and over again."
John Fahey's first solo electric guitar CD, Georgia Stomps, Atlanta
Struts And Other Contemporary Dance Favorites, is out on Table Of The Elements,
while the Revenant label is about to reissue Fahey's early Blind Thomas/Fonotone
recordings. The Takoma and Vanguard back catalogues are reissued in the
UK by Ace. For information about Fahey's paintings, including price list
write to Edwin Pouncey, c/o The Wire. Thanks to Dean Blackwood, Nigel Cross
and Byron Coley for their help in preparing this feature.