Issue 866>> April 12, 2001

John Fahey, 1939-2001 | story by David Fricke
A folk-blues innovator of the 1960s who became a post-punk hero in the 1990s

JOHN FAHEY, a pioneering acoustic guitarist in the 1960s who became an underground-rock icon in the 1990s, died on February 22nd. Fahey was in ill health for many years - he battled alcoholism and the Epstein-Barr virus in the 1980s - and had sextuple-bypass heart surgery two days before his death. He was sixty-one.

   Fahey was a supple finger picker who fused his passion for vintage folk and blues with the advanced harmonies of modern composers such as Beta Bartok and Charles lves, A genuine blues scholar, Fahey wrote his UCLA master's thesis on the legendary Charley Patton and rediscovered Bukka White. But Fahey's albums, many of which he issued on his own Takoma label, explored the mystique as well as the manner of roots music, evoking a mythic America vividly reflected in apocryphal titles like The Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites (1964) and The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death (1967).

   "His music speaks of a boundless freedom," says guitarist Gary Lucas, formerly of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band. "When he took a basic theme, like 'Poor Boy,' you'd have to listen hard to hear the melody of the original [Bukka White] recording. He liberated these forms."

   Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, who toured with Fahey in 1996, claims Fahey's playing and composing "had a lot to do with him personally relating to the mind-set of these old blues musicians. Fahey was very much an alien socially."

   Born in Takoma Park, Maryland, on February 28th, 1939, Fahey grew up in a musically rich but troubled home. His parents both played piano, but in later years Fahey spoke openly of being sexually abused by his father.  As a teenager, Fahey found solace in the guitar and inspiration in the folk and blues 78s that he collected. In fact, his earliest releases, made for the tiny Fonotone label when he was nineteen, were pressed as 78s. He recorded in virtual obscurity (selling copies of his 1959 debut LP, Blind Joe Death, at the gas station where he worked) until 1962, when he moved to California and began playing live extensively for the first time.

   In concert, "depending on his mood and how much alcohol he had, he would tell outrageous stories and bait the audience," says Barry Hansen, the radio host known as Dr. Demento, who met Fahey at UCLA in 1964 and stayed a lifelong friend. According to Hansen, three tracks on 1968's The Voice of the Turtle were just ancient 78s that Fahey dubbed to disc and credited to his alias, Blind Joe Death. And Hansen recalls record-hunting trips with Fahey, who would throw unwanted 78s out the car window, usually at passing bridge abutments. "He was careful not to hit anybody."


Photo by permission of the Michael Ochs Archives

John Fahey in the mid-1960s: "There was a purity and majesty about his music that was bone-chilling," says guitarist Gary Lucas.

   Hansen also saw the guitarist at his most incisive and inspired, composing in hotel rooms at night and recording in the studio, "He would start with a traditional pattern," Hansen says of Fahey's writing process, "and see if he could work something contemporary into it, another chord instead of the usual changes." And at the session for 1969's The Yellow Princess, Hansen, who co-produced the album, says Fahey nailed the exquisite title piece, based on a melody by Saint-Saens, in one take.

   Fahey's career and playing suffered horribly in the 1980s. Destitute after a messy divorce and suffering from diabetes and chronic fatigue, he lived for a time in a welfare motel in Salem, Oregon, and all but lost his original virtuosity. Moore recalls Fahey's physical state on their tour together: "He was this huge guy in the back seat of my car, in complete ill repair. His pants would be falling down; we'd search for some rope to hold them up."

   But when he returned to active work in the 1990s primarily on electric guitar, Fahey did so with a brooding minimalism spiked with excursions into feedback and noise collage (he had experimented with the latter as far back as 1964) that attracted post-punk fans and collaborators like guitarist-producer Jim O'Rourke and the Boston band Cul de Sac.
With his manager,Dean Blackwood, Fahey also started a new label, Revenant, issuing seminal work by revolutionary figures such as Beefheart and the Appalachian singer Dock Boggs. Last year, Fahey published a collection of semiautobiographical tales, How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life.

   "He was able to rekindle his creative juices and feel better about himself," Hansen says of Fahey's last years, "It's too bad he couldn't revive his body in the same way."

   "Fahey was a handful," Moore says, laughing. "But to be validated by John Fahey was really special for people on our scene. For him to come into our lives with that openness and to be such an eccentric character - when he left the room, you'd have these huge question marks dancing around the room. It was fantastic." DAVID FRICKE

I want to thank David Fricke, Rolling Stone Magazine,
The Michael Ochs Archives
, and Wenner Media for their help and generosity to allow me to reprint this article.
It was a pleasure working with you, one and all.

May he rest in peace.

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