reprints | The WIRE Article
The original American Primitive, John Fahey's raw mixes of blues, folk and musique concrete embody the spirit of American alternative music. But during the 60s and 70s, the authenticity of Fahey's blues cost him pain and near madness. With the debt now paid in full, he's making his best music yet, and building links with a new generation of musical refuseniks. Story: Edwin Pouncey. Photography: Dean Belcher 
  This article first appeared in the August 1998 issue #174, of the British music magazine
The Wire. We thank them for allowing us to reprint it here.
     The grizzly bear of a man slumped on the bed in the corner of the chaotic motel room reaches for another handful of hot buttered popcorn, just fresh out of the microwave, and waves me towards a chair. The air is rank with the sickly sweet stench of burnt butter, corn oil and household garbage, most of it sitting in brown paper shopping bags propped against the door. The room itself looks as though it's been hit by a twister — books and magazines, sleeveless LPs and unboxed CDs are scattered across the twin bed and floor, amid greasy paper plates, discarded instant meal bowls and several plastic jars of honey. Within grabbing distance are a spindleless record turntable, a beatbox, a row of prescribed medicine bottles, an asthma inhaler, an amplifier and an electric guitar. I have travelled some 6000 air miles from London to Woodburn. Oregon, up on the North West tip of the United States, to meet the bear in the chaos of his lair. Right now, he is trying to figure out why. 
     "I don't think that what I've done in music is particularly important," he sighs, sucking on a buttery thumb. "A lot of what I did is embarrassing to me now, because it was pretentious and stupid." 

     If John Fahey is his own harshest critic, he is not necessarily the best judge of the impact his solo guitar albums had on people like myself who grew up with them. Fahey's bittersweet songs of death, strummed or picked on his steel-stringed acoustic, were the ideal accompaniment for anyone who hadn't entirety bought into the 60s California dream. His adventurous juxtapositions of found sounds, snatched from old, static-ridden 78s, and his own playing opened up the 60s to the wounds left by earlier struggles, which no amount of hippy peace and love chanting could heal. Similarly, Fahey's uncanny period recreations of the blues and other American traditions weren't so much a sop to authenticity snobs, as a satirical joke at their expense, even as their accuracy attested to Fahey's feeling for the musics. Furiously individual in his approach to both art and commerce, he was putting out albums on his own Takoma label way before independent companies were commonplace. 
     Some 30 years on, however, none of this counts for much to the man downing another mouthful of popcorn. Of course, the royalty cheques from the CD reissues of his old records come in handy, but their enduring popularity causes him to bristle with frustration. "When I meet people I tell them, 'Don't buy that shit, buy the new stuff," he growls. "I'm not particularly happy that all those horrible records I made are being reissued. The things I wrote are kind of beautiful, but they also have these chord patterns and stuff that draw you down. I consider those songs kitsch, because they are a mixture of emotions They contain no clear statements about anything, and now ' I find them disgusting." 

      He might grudgingly admit to a few old favourites — "I did feel that "Desperate Man Blues" was one of the better ones," he mutters — but he passionately asserts that his best music is ahead of him. On the evidence of his 90s releases so far, City Of Refuge, Womblife and The Epiphany Of Glenn Jones, I willingly concede the point. 

Raw visionary 

      Amid the detritus of John Fahey's unsettled motel room life, his 90s proclamations might appear a little premature — until you consider the evidence. For a man who never belonged anywhere, least of all to the decade he is most commonly associated with, he has rarely chimed so harmoniously with the times as now. The adventures in guitar sonics, the soiled ambiences of his approach to musique concrete and the love of machine noise that constitute his music today have logically evolved out of his belief in roots music as a living, breathing thing rather than a museum piece. Industrial guitar grind dominates City Of Refuge, bathysphere-like booms echo through Womblife. White gamelan sounds reverberate through The Epiphany Of Glenn Jones. Such experimentation might have isolated him from his peers through most of the last 30 years, but in the 90s he has discovered an affinity with the ever expanding global underground  
community. "I didn't know there was an alternative movement going," Fahey admits, "so I just kept trying to create similar things to the old. I was aware that there had been an experimental movement in the 60s with John Cage and his followers, but t thought they had all gone. Then some friends introduced me to Sonic Youth. Until then I didn't know what was going on." 
     As defined by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, this "alternative movement" was out of a desire for music resistant to "commodification", be it noise, lo-fi, 20th century experimental music and improv, or global and rediscovered American roots musics like bluegrass, folk and blues. 
     John Fahey's work feeds the new underground spirit on a number of counts, while Revenant — the label Fahey co-owns with his manager, the Nashville-based attorney Dean Blackwood — alerts new audiences to a hidden history of American music, retrieved from the tiny regional labels scattered across its rural hinterlands. 
     The surprising success of the six CD box set reissue of rogue archivist Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music (for which Fahey supplied award-winning sleevenotes) attests to a desire for music that emerges from and addresses real experiences rather than a marketing man's business plan. The Revenant archive releases, meanwhile, vividly recast the past not as nostalgia but as American Primitive or Raw Music. "It was Dean's idea to do that," Fahey modestly states, "but I provided most of the information, together with this collector called Gayle Dean Wardlow. Now that the American Primitive thing is catching on we'll do more. People love the title" 
     The range of his enthusiasms combined with the breadth of his own music make Fahey a vital link connecting today's underground with a century of raw and experimental musics. For his part, he is only too pleased to be working within his newly adopted alternative music 'community'. His instant conversion has already produced one of its finest works in The Epiphany Of Glenn Jones, which teamed John with the Massachusetts post-rockers Cul De Sac, led by Glenn Jones. The title refers obliquely to the project's unpromising start as a "retro lounge music" session — quickly aborted — which Jones's sleevenote describes as being akin to taking part In some "hellish sensory deprivation experiment". Was working with Fahey really that bad? 
     The guitarist chuckles mischievously: "Glenn told me after the Epiphany that he had got on a power trip. It had happened to him before, only he hadn't realised it. He did things like not letting me meet the other members of the band until the recording sessions, all kinds of tricks, so that he could remain ultimate dictator of Cul De Sac and the project. But that's an old battle, Glenn's a friend of mine and it came out OK." 


American psycho 

     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 repressed memories." 
     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 regeneration. 

American Primitive 

     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. 

Fixin' to die 

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 label. 
     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 life—It 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. 

Marx attacks!  

     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 suicide."
Skip search 

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, goodnight now.' 
     "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 something." 

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 hippy idyll. 

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." 

Punch drunk 

     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. 

Salem's lot 

     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 1938. 

Today, 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 but me." 
     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. 

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