Lot Of People Think Grunge Rock Started In Seattle,
Posted May 21, 2001
|That was by no means my only traumatic experience at the hands of Mr. Fahey. The interview I wanted to do came about as a result of the first. After years of ignoring and passing up opportunities to see him play live in the Seattle area (mostly from sheer laziness), I'd finally gotten up the gumption to see him do a show at a since-closed art-poet-goth club, opening for Nels Cline. I got there late, and walked in to find his set under way. There were about 20 people listening intently, and a lot of others playing pool and drinking, seemingly oblivious to Mr. Fahey's music. He was playing really well, and I was knocked out by a long piece that later turned up on 'City of Refuge'. But something seemed off, even though I'd never seen him before. I had, since 1970, cherished a notion of Mr. Fahey as a loquacious, charming, intellectual wit, and the man on stage never said a word or acknowledged the presence of his audience; he could easily have been a blind man unaware he was playing for anyone at all. After 30 minutes or so, a young man walked on stage and whispered in his ear. Mr. Fahey nodded, finished the tune he was playing, and walked off the stage. I was startled, but I was in a hurry, so I walked out the front door and almost collided with the man himself, standing on the sidewalk and staring up at the sky with his shades still on. We talked for a couple of minutes, mostly inanities, and I went from feeling startled to devastated. His speech was slow and slurred; he seemed humorless, drugged or brain damaged or something. While we were talking, a frat-boy type walked up and literally shouted at the side of Mr. Fahey's head, 'You're a fucking icon John', and he didn't even flinch. Well, as it happened, he was pissed as a result of finding out just before he went on that he wasn't getting paid, and he probably was drugged, but I didn't know any of that for a long time, and I was depressed for weeks afterward.|
|Fahey! I lived in Maine when I first heard of Mr. Fahey; I was a military dependent whose best friend had escaped the exile of an almost-Canada air base and moved to the Bay area. He loved the Grateful Dead, but I bought the first LP and did not share the feeling. He loved Fahey, too, and Fahey was something I could appreciate. I was already into Canned Heat, and when Fahey turned up on 'Living the Blues', it seemed to confirm something. I had discovered Skip James, the greatest of blues singers and guitarists, on a 'Blues at Newport' LP in the base library. Later, crossing the country on a nightmarish drive with my brother and drunken father, I heard on the radio of the death of Al Wilson. The threads of my interest in Fahey started coming together almost 30 years ago, but it was comparatively recently that a few last events provoked in me a desire to meet and talk to the man himself.|
|What makes one wish to meet the creator of art one admires? Well, I can only speak for myself, but, generally, I don't. I used to for the same reasons as anyone, I suppose. When one hears music that provokes emotion (whatever it may be), it is difficult not to suppose that the creator must share your view of life, or some such idiocy; difficult, that is, unless one has had the experience of spending some time with the object of your admiration. It is remarkable how quickly one can be disabused of such silliness by subjecting oneself to moronic, egotistical knuckleheads; as a youth I thought doctors, lawyers, and musicians must be geniuses. Whatever. I wanted to meet Mr. Fahey for reasons other than loving his music. Mr. Fahey had been a good friend of Al Wilson. Mr. Fahey had 'discovered' Skip James, and been instrumental in 'reviving' his career, and now his one-time friend Stephen Calt had published a book about Skip James which presented a scathing portrait of Mr. Fahey's role in that episode. Mr. Fahey had included a full page picture, with no explanation, of Walter Kaufmann, my favorite philosophical writer and Nietzsche translator, in an amusing book called 'The Best of John Fahey 1959-1977', which I had recently come across. Mr. Fahey had reportedly become a Christian in the 70's. Mr. Fahey had reportedly become a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, that most exquisitely demented of modern mainstream religions, in the 80's. Mr. Fahey had presented himself to me as someone shockingly unlike what I had expected in a chance encounter. When Mr. Jeff Smith proposed that I interview Mr. Fahey for this magazine, it sounded like a good idea to me.|
I walked into his room at the Oregon Capitol Inn, my first thought was that
he'd been burgled. The floor was a foot deep in debris: books, records,
CDs, food, papers, musical equipment. The bed was piled with junk, and the
headboard lined with prescription bottles. Mr. Fahey introduced me to Randy,
a guy in his mid-20's given to interrupting conversations with unintentionally
amusing non sequiturs like the title of this article. Apparently they had
met in a Union Gospel Mission at a time when Mr. Fahey was particularly
down on his luck. Randy was surly, stiff-necked, and lacking any sense of
humor. I was puzzled by his presence until much later when I realized that
he was there as 'security', as an ameliorative for Mr. Fahey's insecurity.
We'll have no further truck with him. We talked about a lot of music business
stuff. He had just finished recording a cd with Cul de Sac and he had a
lot to say about what a horrible band they were and what an unpleasant experience
the recording sessions had been. He declaimed at length about what an asshole
Ray Farrell is. He spoke with regret about the badness of the recent recordings
of *** *'******, because he likes *** *'****** very much and wished he liked
his newer music more. He reminisced amusedly about his recent tour with
Thurston Moore, and the anger Thurston Moore displayed when Mr. Fahey advised
him to stop trying so hard with his guitar playing, because it just wasn't
working. He said, in response to my query, that Thurston Moore was not mentally
retarded. We talked about a lot of other stuff that is old news now, like
Antonioni soundtracks and recordings with the Red Crayola. He suggested
that we hire a prostitute to give us blowjobs, and then agreed that it wasn't
that great an idea."
|Then I brought up Skip James. I described how pleased I'd been to hear Skip James themes in 'City of Refuge', and he said he didn't think anyone would recognize them, and maybe he should send some money to whoever owns the copyrights. I said that wasn't really what I was getting at, but how did he feel about Stephen Calt's portrayal of him as avariciously motivated in his dealings with Skip James? He seemed startled that that was how I had read what I thought was explicitly stated, and denied that it was ever the case. He said anyone who thought they could get rich off a blues singer would have to have been crazy. He said that Calt still resented him because Calt had run off with Fahey's wife while Fahey was in the hospital. He described Skip James as a horrible, arrogant, rude person whose painful death was due him. I tried talking with him about Calt's discussion of 'folk' musics, but Mr. Fahey muttered about middle-class college students pretending to be hillbillies and Negro sharecroppers (ever wonder why he wore those suits and ties in the 60s?).|
|I dragged out a CD I'd brought with me, I'd come across it at work in the 'music' 'library', 'Christmas Guitar with John Lahey'. It was technically accomplished, musically correct, artistically awful renditions of Fahey-identified Christmas songs that did not at all ape his style; it was good for a few laughs. I wanted to talk to him about his creative process, to contrast him specifically with Stefan Grossman, his much less interesting and involving contemporary I suggested that what I saw as Grossman's mechanistic, cut-and-paste approach to incorporating themes from old bluesmen into curiously bloodless tunes was in dramatic opposition to his own organic, subconscious approach; his response was a fart noise at each mention of Stefan's name. He plugged in an electric guitar and gave me a heavily reverbed demonstration of some Skip James chords, and then played 'Juana', the overwhelmingly beautiful tune I'd heard him play in Olympia a few months before.|
|He said he was tired and wanted to sleep, and I got off the bed so he could lie down. We continued talking; Mr. Fahey has eyes that are both penetrating and strangely weak in their gaze, and he stared intently at me as he told me of the frustration of being pursued for more than 30 years by people who thought he was a guru of some sort, people who thought their emotional response to his music meant that he had something to tell them, people who wanted something from him that he didn't have and didn't want to give them. He didn't understand what people were talking about when they tried to tell him how his old music made them feel and what they thought it meant. He hated his old music, he wanted to do something different and he wanted people to be interested in it. He said his reputation as a misanthrope was all wrong, he just couldn't stand being around stupid people, he needed to be around intelligent, stimulating people. I listened to him and I felt disoriented and at a complete emotional loss. I wasn't sure if he was telling me these things because he thought as a 'music writer' I could make them known to the wider world (he seemed to have a grandiose notion of what I might be: he'd seen a copy of the magazine, I had explained to him the size of the print run, but even after that he'd been surprised when I'd had to tell him that I had a full-time job and wasn't on an expense account) I wondered if he just needed to vent his frustrations to a neutral observer. I found after spending the day with him that I liked him very much. He was intelligent and witty; he was a good talker. For all I knew, he liked me too and was saying these things as an overture to friendship. I have been accused of being a cold, emotionless pod or a robot, or even of being of English ancestry, but I didn't know what he 'meant' (it's always possible that he meant just what he was saying) and I didn't know 'how' to respond. " I'm very lonely", he said. "Hunh", I said.|
|He sent me a box of papers to aid in my writing this article. It weighed about 10 pounds, and was a remarkable disassemblage of hundreds of random manuscript pages, letters to and from many people, official documents, drawings, comic books, tapes, and artificial sweetener packets. It looked like he'd cleaned his room into the box. About two weeks after I received it, I came home one day to a message on my answering machine from Dean Blackwood; he said he understood that I was in possession of the only copy of an article Mr. Fahey had written, 'The Origin and History of Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine'. He needed it for inclusion in a book that was to be published imminently. I spent hours poring through the box's contents, finally putting together what seemed to be the desired manuscript. My task was complicated by the fact that about halfway through the narrative, the story split into two directions, and was continued on two separate sequences of unnumbered pages. I mailed it off to Mr. Blackwood and that was the last I ever heard about it.|
|The Cul de Sac LP finally came out, and Mr. Fahey was pretty pleased with it. I suggested that the electric 'rock' guitar parts were too dreadful for words, and he agreed, but he was in general so happy with it that he said he'd make another record with them if the opportunity presented itself. Not long after that conversation, I saw an ad in a Seattle music paper for a Fahey/Cul de Sac show at a midsize venue. The next time we spoke I mentioned it, and he was obviously surprised; he'd only been told there was to be one show, in Portland, and the more he talked about it, the angrier he got. I went to the show, and he never showed up, which annoyed me no end , not so much at not seeing Mr. Fahey play, but at having to sit through a very regrettable Cul de Sac set with no payoff. He said later that he had actually walked into the place, but then turned around and left, because it was 'too gay'.|
|I decided, despite having been assured by Mr. Fahey that our interview was 'the best he'd ever done' and that I had 'asked all the right questions', that I needed to follow up on at least one subject. I had never really delved into what I thought were some probably unanswerable, but nevertheless interesting, questions. Most of Mr. Fahey's music has for me and seemingly most listeners a huge emotional impact. He started playing his music at a young age, and has continued for a very long time, with a remarkable consistency of artistic approach. I was interested in asking him what it meant for him. What was he trying to do? Was there any difference for him between performing and recording and composition? Was there any such thing as 'pure primitive forms' of folk music? How does what he is doing compare with that? What happens when a self-conscious academic/intellectual gets involved in 'art'? What did he want to do with music as a performer? What did he want from music as a listener? How did he think that what he did as an artist could be compared to Jimmy Giuffre? Or Derek Bailey, my other favorite guitar player? It was all kind of vague, but I hoped by talking through it we could figure out what I was asking, and what, if any, the answers were.|
|I went down to see him in Woodburn, where he'd moved the same weekend as the Cul de Sac no-show. I walked into a room filled with the same litter as before, overlaid with a heavy miasma of paint fumes. He was heavily involved with painting, small abstract pictures, some of which I liked very much. He seemed oblivious to the fumes, but I wasn't, and I suggested we go out to breakfast before I passed out. There I saw, for the first and I hope last time, someone (Mr. Fahey, that is) butter and salt their eggs AND their bacon. Whenever I go out to a meal with Mr. Fahey, the table is such a disaster that I feel obliged to leave an exceptionally large tip. We started in on the used record store routine (not my idea) and while we were in the third store, I realized that, in all the stores we'd been in, I had never once seen him actually buy anything. I was walking behind him when I asked, "How long has it been since you found something worth buying?" He sagged visibly, and said "A long time." I felt terrible, but he recovered quickly and the chase was back on. Being in record stores brought up the subject of Revenant. Mr. Fahey pretty much disavowed most of the recordings released on the label, dismissing it as 'Dean's thing', from which he hoped to make some money but was otherwise not that interested in. He said he simply couldn't understand the Cecil Taylor and Derek Bailey releases. He thought the gospel and Jenks Carman CDs were 'ok'. He said he hated the Rick Bishop record, and thought the Bassholes were 'all right punk rock for adults'. We agreed that the Dock Boggs was wildly overrated, and that it was incomprehensible that the far superior Roscoe Holcomb didn't enjoy the same acclaim. Then it was time to go to lunch. It's always time to eat with Mr. Fahey!|
|He wanted to go eat at a particular diner where a waitress he was 'involved with' worked. I was enlisted to help him pull off a ridiculous stunt involving balancing a glass vase on his head while gesturing for the check. He had high hopes that the young lady would be deeply charmed. She wasn't. I was deeply embarrassed. I started in on my discussion of his art. (We got sidetracked into an argument over whether there is any emotional component at all to Derek Bailey's guitar playing. (I think there is.)) It sort of didn't go anywhere at all, but here is what I gathered. He plays music because that is all he can do he is too neurotic and dysfunctional to hold down a 'real' job. (Getting paid $5000 for a day's work on the soundtrack for 'The Horse Whisperer' does, however, have its upside.) He plays music to make money. He would like very much to make a lot of money, but he doesn't want it badly enough to spend the rest of his life playing the music the aging idiot hippie component of his audience wants to hear. He doesn't really hate his old music, he hates the artistic straitjacket represented by it and the expectations of a close-minded, nostalgic audience. Who wouldn't get bored playing the same songs for 30 or 40 years? The younger, 'alternative' audience that has gotten interested in his music, thanks largely to Sonic Youth (which subject brings up its own questions about close-minded idiotic willingness to be told what to do (youth against fascism!)), is more interested in hearing his new stuff.|
|Well, I couldn't argue with any of that. It was a lot simpler than I expected. We drove to a pharmacy for a pain medicine prescription refill he'd just had some major dental work done, and was scarfing percs like no one I'd ever seen. The Mosaic Jimmy Giuffre box set had come out recently, and I'd taped the whole thing for him. He was working on an arrangement of one of the tunes, and said that he'd talked to Dean about releasing some older Giuffre stuff on Revenant. I played him some Digital Hardcore tracks, and he surprised me with his lack of enthusiasm for Shizuo, but he liked ATR a lot. We went back to his room, and listened to some Charlie Monroe and looked at some more of his paintings. I was half-aware of him rooting through his bedcovers looking for something, and realized when I saw him eating a block of foil-wrapped supermarket blue cheese that he'd found it.|
A postscript from Melissa to the reader:
This interview was to have been a contribution to the to the liner notes for the upcoming Fonotones reissue on Revenant, a project due to be released this year. Glenn arrived bright and early, ready to begin the conversation but rather than complying with Glenn's wishes, as he had originally said he would, John suddenly was surly and uncooperative about it, although his attitude changed abruptly as soon as Glenn said he understood completely and that as far as he was concerned that was the end of it.
We went out to a rather stiff breakfast, positions on the matter were reiterated, ruffled feathers were smoothed, bacon was eaten. John felt better and suggested, as you might guess, that Glenn might like to go Goodwilling, so off we went. Then lunch, followed by a little more Goodwilling. In the afternoon John and I locked horns in The Great Springfield Chinese Food Incident but I won't get into that right now. Then it seems to me we had some snacks. And, oh, I almost forgot, dinner. All in all, another exciting outing with John Fahey, a man in constant motion if he's not lying in bed or eating.
In fact, a pretty good time was had by all in spite of the funny morning.
When John died, Glenn was the first of a cadre of John's friends who arrived at my house in preparation to attend John's funeral and subsequent memorial service. He was perfectly delightful to be around and helped me out on a couple of occasions when it all got to be too much and my brain temporarily quit working. He told me his mother raised him right or he hopes so anyway. Seems to me she did.
But this story is does not address that. It is about John and what John did all the time - rankle people, while those same people could not help but idolize and adore him, he was so wonderful a character. I expect people will continue to try to figure out John Fahey for a long, long time to come. --Melissa
Hold your breath: Take it from me, John actually liked Boston, the oh-so-whatever rock group. He did. He did not love them, he liked them. Aw come on, don't we all?