AGAINST THE MACHINE
I had heard such sounds before, heard them as a little boy lying in bed in the wiregrass country of south Georgia, heard the sounds of animals crying far off in the woods, inheard the sounds the black woods hands made having what they called church … and heard the sounds I could not identify — the really frightening ones. I had not been so frightened since I was a boy lying slender and white and frail in the dark bed, finding a sound in the night, losing it, waiting for it again, a soft sighing sound that might have been the wind easing through the tops of the long-needle pines, or might have been cattle lowing a long way off, but always came back to sounding most like a simple human exhalation right outside the rusty screen of my bedroom window, the quietly released breath of a man standing quietly, just watching, waiting. I loved the woods, but for years I lay awake at night fearing that sound.
If a tree falls
in the woods but no
one hears it, does it really fall? Who cares, trees come a dime a dozen
in the woods. But if that tree is stripped, chopped, processed, fashioned
into a guitar and placed into John Fahey’s plump and knobby fingers, will
anyone hear the sounds he conjures from it? Does it even exist? Yes and
no, in no particular order.
I HAD HEARD SUCH SOUNDS BEFORE...
To borrow again from Stanley
Booth (maybe he should be writing this piece), like every true original,
John Fahey has a strong sense of tradition. The components of his muse
— his steel string guitar, his country blues, his love of classical melodicism
and dissonance, his fascination with railroads and other manifestations
of the industrial age — all have their origins in the early 20th century.
...A SIMPLE HUMAN EXHALATION...
Back in Los Angeles, Fahey
continued to cultivate his own playing. With the help of ED Denson, another
transplanted beltway native who oversaw the business end of Fahey’s Takoma
record label, he issued a series of recordings that defined his art and
earned his audience. Exhaustively titled albums such as Death Chants,
Breakdowns and Military Waltzes, Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites,
and The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party and Other Excursions bore
the heavy yoke of history, the isolation of timelessness, the exquisite
pain of a simple human exhalation. For some reason, the hippies loved
Reference Fahey’s 1968 album, The Voice of the Turtle, an album of ragas, “field recordings” and sundry guitar wizardry all bound by some impossibly dense and completely fabricated liner notes (the first sentence alone is 561 words long), penned by Fahey. Aping the academic, Folkways-style liner notes of the day, Fahey purports that sections of Turtle date back as far as the ’20s. And if you weren’t aware of his gift for gag, you probably would have believed him.
...LOSING IT, WAITING FOR IT AGAIN...
By the ’70s, Fahey’s work
and interests began to splinter. Takoma recruited a many-striped stable
of Fahey protégés, from strict disciples like Robbie Basho
and Peter Lang, to new acoustic/age-stars-in-waiting Leo Kottke and George
Winston, to authentic weirdo Joe Byrd. Byrd’s psychedelic masterpiece
with his band the United States of America prepared no one for his subsequent
Takoma release A Christmas Yet to Come, an album of traditional holiday
carols as rendered by primitive synthesizers. The Takoma roster of the
’70s reflected Fahey’s belief that popular music reached its eclectic
peak, “its zeitgeist,” during that decade. Fahey himself supplemented
his Takoma output with inspired, if not definitive, recordings on the
larger Vanguard and Reprise labels.
...THE SOUNDS I COULD NOT IDENTIFY, THE REALLY FRIGHTENING ONES...
1997. John Fahey, the notorious
cynic, the hardened bastard, talks with the wide-eyed mettle of a man
recently emerged from an extended tenure in a musical deprivation tank.
“I think this is a really exciting time for music,” he insists, “experimental
music particularly. People are a lot more open and curious than they ever
have been before.” And the new-fangled John Fahey is here to give the
people what they want. By the end of this year, Fahey will have added
five more albums to his already sizable canon, as well as a loosely autobiographical
book to be published by Drag City Press. He’s also re-entered the biz
by way of Revenant, his new record label, aimed at releasing “raw music”
from the likes of Cecil Taylor, Derek Bailey, Jim O’Rourke, Hasil Adkins
and the Stanley Brothers, to name just this year’s crop. The onslaught
begins with City of Refuge on Tim/Kerr Records, Fahey’s first release
in over five years, an album so good that in one fell swoop it erases
many of the transgressions of former colleague Winston and the host of
other players who claim Fahey as a formative influence. “I don’t understand
that connection [between my music and new age music] when people make
it, and I claim no responsibility for it.” Fahey says flatly, impatiently.
THE TRUE ADVENTURES OF JOHN FAHEY
In his book of the same name,
James Rooney explains the concept of Bossmen:
Copyright 1997 by No Depression/Matt Hanks. Reprinted here with permission. This article first appeared in the May-June 1997 issue of No Depression magazine. We thank them for allowing us to use the photo kindly provided by the art staff at Fantasy Records in Berkeley, CA.