Of Rivers and Revision: John Fahey and Cul de Sac

by Glenn Jones, Spring/Summer 1998

What a year its a been, and what a curious and (occasionally) amusing series of reactions we've seen in response to the album John Fahey and Cul de Sac released last year. The album (The Epiphany of Glenn Jones) has received nearly as much attention for the "psychodramatic" aspects surrounding its creation as for the music it contains.

Many comments have tended toward the "Hey; they shouldda known better -- anyone could have predicted this would be a fucked up session" variety. True, much of the album's success (if, indeed, it can be considered successful) stems from the friction between the players involved. Trials and tribulations aside, I've begun to make peace with the album. Finally I can hear it for itself and not for the ordeal it was to create. In spite of (or because of?) Cul de Sac's and John Fahey's musical antagonism, the record is a true collaboration in every sense, and to my ears, it's also the most flattering recent portrait of Fahey's present-day abilities.

Music Criticism in the Last Days

Is it me, or has music criticism undergone a sea change in the last decade or so? Reviewers seldom dig into the substance of the music they write about anymore, or seem confident enough of their perceptions and opinions to express them bravely. As reviews began appearing of John Fahey's City of Refuge, Womblife and the album he made with us I began to feel like writers were peering uneasily over their shoulders in fear that the critical in-crowd might catch them up in some critical faux pas. In print, they hedged their bets, echoing the opinions of press kits, hype sheets and each other and, generally, lavishing praise regardless how much it might be deserved.

How many writers, I wondered, knew of John's earlier work? [When this was written, Fantasy had only just begun their impressive John Fahey / Takoma reissue project.] Most reviewers seemed content with but a superficial comprehension of John's accomplishments and possessed little understanding of the context or the times in which his records first appeared. Critical opinion seemed characterized by an acceptance of everything as equal and a desire not to say anything bad about anyone, lest someone say something bad about you.

So, one takes the hip upper hand I guess.

Recently I was asked for my opinion of the new Tortoise album. I said that, for the most part, I found the album dull. The answer I got back was, "Of course, that's the point." That's the point? Granted the album is laid-back, and the title (TNT) is probably meant ironically. But I'm supposed to believe that the band purposefully and with premeditation recorded an album intentionally meant to induce boredom? Why? Why make boring albums? Why listen to them? Laid-back doesn't mean dull. You can play with restraint, minimally, and still create something compelling. And, more to the point, there is nothing in the music to suggest to me that this was the band's intention. There are many who think it Tortoise's best effort, and not because it's dull. Quite the contrary, in fact.

But such a glib answer does two things: it calls into question one's hipness ("S/he, obviously, does not get it!") and at the same time it disobliges the person making the comment to offer any substantive evidence or reasoning to support such an off-the-cuff opinion.

In the art movements of the '60s and '70s a new language was developed to express feelings of alienation, disassociation, paranoia, incomprehension, indifference, oppression and meaninglessness -- popular themes in those days. In film, directors employed such techniques as muted colors, out-of-focus shots, intentionally under- or over-exposing the film, little camera movement, or extremely fast but apparently random camera movement, long takes focusing on non-activity or "nothing," mundane or nonexistent dialogue, jarring segues, sounds that were at odds with the picture. Of a film such as The Passenger, for instance, one could say "How depressing," and an appropriate response might be "That's the point."

From there we've come to a point when any comment with negative connotations will now, almost invariably, be greeted with a similar response. "It's ugly"?, "The sound quality is dire"?, "They've sold-out"?, "It's a retread of their last album"?, "It's retro"?, "It sounds like a rejected track from Grand Funk Railroad Live"?

Of course! Don't you get it? That's the point.

Which brings me back to Fahey and the critical reaction to his recent albums.

City of Refuge: The Emperor's New Clothes?

I agree with John that no artist should feel obliged to play music that is no longer relevant to his present day concerns and aesthetic, neither for the sake of fans, the music press, or the Holy Dollar. John is currently calling the recordings that filled the greater part of his lifetime (some 35 years or so) "cosmic sentimentalism." I admire anyone's willingness to take a cold hard look at the accomplishments of a lifetime and shrug them off, especially such accomplishments as John's, which I hold in high regard. (I was stunned by an interview I read some years ago in which musique concrete pioneer Pierre Henry's said that he considered himself a failure: he'd sought to create a music that would destroy "do-re-mi," but he'd failed and "do-re-mi" had won.)

But regardless how loudly Fahey himself trumpets his new accomplishments, the quality of his recent output still needs to be examined in light of what he's done before and/or by the achievements of others working in a similar vein. People who have lavished praise on City of Refuge at the expense of Fahey's back catalogue, or think it's great simply because they imagine it will piss off his old fans (and somehow that's good) are thinking flabbily.

Little of City of Refuge can be considered groundbreaking, whether in light of the works of '80s and '90s sampling artists; the overwhelming (and largely undifferentiated) bulk of industrial music created in the wake of Throbbing Gristle and SPK in the late '70s; the musical anarchism of the '60s art-rock; the Fluxus and futurist composers; the works of electronic and musique concrete composers in the '40s, '50s and '60s, the dada and noise composers of '20s -- or by Fahey's own previous high-water mark.

City of Refuge hasn't shocked old fans so much as it's bored or disappointed many of them. It pales in comparison with most of John's back catalogue, and I believe that if City of Refuge were John Fahey's first record, instead of his 40th, it would have gone largely unnoticed.

Not that City of Refuge is such an awful album in and of itself. It's merely one of Fahey's least convincing. But I'm perplexed that virtually no one has called Fahey on it and few have considered it in light of his earlier work. (The only reviewer I'm aware of who knocked the album is the abhorrent Robert Christgau -- but at least he seems to have some sense of Fahey's history.)

And I'm aware of only one writer who noted that Fahey's attempt to carve up "the new age" like an overstuffed Thanksgiving turkey ("The Death and Disembowelment of the New Age") is a big yawn; the movement and its music have been passé for years. Instead of the savage indictment it pretends to be, Fahey is merely flogging a dead horse.

Fahey's response to observations that City of Refuge seems such a new direction for him has been consistent and pat: "No one would let me make this kind of record before, but it's what I've really always wanted to do."

Really? Fahey started Takoma records as an imprint for the release of his own music. He paid for the recordings, their mastering and production. There was no "President of Takoma" around to tell Fahey what he could and couldn't record -- he recorded whatever he felt like. So where was the pressure?

Neither can Fahey's non-Takoma label recordings be considered commercial compromises. They are some of the most offbeat records of an offbeat career, even by the idiosyncratic standards of John's Takoma recordings. For Vanguard John recorded two albums: Requia (named for the album's five-part, side-long tape collage, one of the most "out" compositions of John's career) and The Yellow Princess (a marvellous album), which featured Fahey's first recordings with a rock band (members of Spirit), as well as a sound collage of field recordings of "a singing bridge" in Memphis, Tennessee combined with Fahey's opened-tuned harmonics and the quill playing of Big Boy Cleveland lifted from an old 78.

John's two albums for Reprise found him accompanied by a group of Dixieland musicians. The results, many feel, are not entirely less than successful. In fact Fahey is barely audible on some songs.

However, if you guessed that trotting in the trombones and clarinets was a constraint imposed on Fahey by Reprise, guess again; these are among John's favorite of his own albums, and ones he has defended vociferously. It's worth remembering that Reprise signed Fahey in the hope that his music might appeal to fans of Leo Kottke, whose records were doing well for Capitol at the time. Why then should Reprise have forced Fahey to record albums so different from Kottke's or -- for that matter -- so far removed from John's own earlier work?

Listen to the man's records! How can anyone conclude that John was coerced into making them, that the "real" John Fahey was suppressed somewhere, struggling to get out? Do the records sound (or look) like the work of someone painted into a comer, frustrated, forced to concede his aesthetic principles to the gods of commerce? Who was twisting John's arm? If no one, then why hasn't anyone challenged John's assertions? Do the reasons for John's aggrandizement of his current recordings at the expense of his earlier work stem from something else?

Live and on record, Fahey still makes compelling music, especially, when he plays within his limitations (his aesthetic sense serves him well, and he's still capable of deep expression). But I've also seen shows that are painful to watch (such as portions of the one captured on the Live at the Freight and Salvage video) where Fahey seems to be falling apart before one's eyes -- he's unable to remember pieces, misses notes and seems confused and out of it. Though he's improved from where he was at his lowest ebb -- in 1993 or so -- he's hardly near the height of his former powers.

Critic Harvey Pekar notes that Fahey's style today is simpler and looser, and compares John to jazz players who have had to modify their playing as their technical abilities fell prey to age, failing health, illness, alcoholism or drug abuse. Though Fahey hasn't admitted as much, I think it must be apparent to anyone paying attention that his chops aren't what they were and that his dissolution as a player has coincided with his battles with Epstein-Barr and Parkinson's. Could his justification for City of Refuge be a way of covering up for his declining abilities?

Whatever his reasoning, when Fahey says he doesn't play his old pieces as some kind of snub to his "former" audience (who he characterizes as not hip enough to "get" what he's doing now) I'm bothered by what I see as pretence. Fans of Fahey's "old" music can hardly be considered conservative, no matter how much Fahey denigrates them now. His music was never for fans of the commercialised, white bread folk music of such acts as Peter, Paul & Mary or the Kingston Trio. Fahey's music was always a challenge to the purists, for its cobbled-together mix of styles, for its lack of polish and surface prettiness, for its ungenteel hard-headedness, for its thorny depth, and its equal embrace of joy and oblivion. Generally, fans of folk or new age music found it pretty tough slogging.

Among acquaintances of my generation, Fahey's greatest appeal was to fans of rock 'n' roll, for whom his experimentation didn't seem particularly outré when viewed next to contemporaneous recordings by such popular rock artists as Hendrix, the Grateful Dead or Pink Floyd. In that respect, Fahey's appeal has not changed -- his audience is still comprised of people with contemporary and progressive tastes. (And lest you cringe at the thought that Pink Floyd or the Grateful Dead were ever considered progressive, bear in mind that both bands, over time, have decidedly lost the vigor and edge of their youth.)

His '60s and '70s albums are ambitious affairs. They often considered such framing devices as overall sound field and thematic unity. Into his recordings Fahey poured elements taken from sound effects records, old 78s, albums of world music, "audio verite." He utilized such studio production techniques as exaggerated echo and extreme, jarring tape splicing. Fahey's writing for guitar can itself be considered "collage"-like in its collision of blues modes, hillbilly melody, classical dissonance, etc.

Though Fahey's supposed recent innovations as composer, guitar player, and experimenter have their roots in recordings he's made throughout his career, on City of Refuge John hasn't so much reinvented the methods of a lifetime as he's watered them down with noise-for-noise-sake scribble masked as some kind of statement. (Anyone looking for older Fahey pieces with ties to some of the work on Epiphany of Glenn Jones need look no farther than "The Singing Bridge of Memphis, Tennessee" on The Yellow Princess, or any of the several parts of "A Raga Called Pat.")

Cul de Sac and John Fahey

Various comments have been made by the press (much of it pure supposition) and by John (much of it complete fabrication) about what went on behind the scenes of The Epiphany of Glenn Jones. For what it's worth, here is what "really" happened – or at least here is an admittedly biased attempt to report it.

The tapes of the sessions prior to Fahey's "taking over the project" were not erased, nor did John ever "demand" that they should be (such a scenario sounds cool and dramatic, I know, but it didn't happen). Five songs were recorded by Cul de Sac (and Fahey) before John dug in his heels in the early stages of the sessions: two are on the final album ("Our Puppet Selves," "New Red Pony") and two more (minus John's contributions) will appear on the next Cul de Sac album. [Actually, only one of them made it onto the album: "K."] Cul de Sac ultimately rejected the final track -- but it was not erased.

Where John gets the idea the album is a hot-seller is beyond me. The album, generally, has been received enthusiastically and even made several critic's list of favorite albums of 1997. Reviews, unfortunately, don't sell records. Though we've never gotten an actual accounting of sales from them, my sense is that Thirsty Ear hasn't exactly been blown away by the sales of Epiphany.

Also, again according to Thirsty Ear's Peter Gordon, the European labels he approached to license the album (Blast First, Mute, Rykodisc UK, etc.,) were scared of it ("too dark," "too difficult"), which pretty much killed its chances overseas.

The most outrageous assertion John makes is that Thirsty Ear is eager to do a follow-up album. Ha! The label has no interest in going down that road again, believe me. Even if someone else was crazy enough to spring for a sequel, there are still logistical and financial considerations to take into account (such as getting the players, who live on opposite coasts, into the same studio). Those problems aside, there is still the bigger issue of aesthetic differences. Fahey's most recent suggestion was that we join forces on an album of all spoken word pieces, a la the last two tracks on Epiphany [Later he suggested we reunite to make an album about the then approaching millennium.]

Fahey's "retro-lounge" accusation shtick is disingenuous. He claims he never knew there was such a movement afoot till his manager told him about it during the sessions, after which, supposedly, he decided that this must be the kind of music we were playing, and that he could have nothing to do with such a crass attempt at commercialization. However, when I visited Fahey in Portland, Oregon, a year before these sessions we went thrift store shopping together and talked at some length about the retro lounge "movement." Fahey was delighted by it. Now possible for him to get good money for the Les Baxter and Martin Denny albums he was fishing out of thrift stores, which, previously, no one wanted. All of this Fahey pretended to remember nothing of at the sessions a year later.

A number of puzzled people have asked us what we thought Fahey was really getting at. Though we're certainly familiar with the recordings of Esquivel, Les Baxter, Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman and others, theirs is not an aesthetic Cul de Sac aspires to, which should be obvious from our recordings. So what does John Fahey mean? I suspect that Fahey's "retro-lounge / jungle music / hip-hop / trip-hop" accusations were more of convenience than revelation. John was certainly aware of our music before he ever agreed to be involved in the project -- he had all our albums. Attacking the music, I think, was the easiest "out" for John; a way to free himself from having to learn it. And while I have no problem with John saying, "Look, I'm not sympathetic with what you guys are doing; I can't relate to it," I do object to his predicating his refusal to learn our material on flimsy and calculated assertions.

An irony that escaped the notice of everyone was that after accusing Cul de Sac of being in some kind of lounge bag, Fahey brought into the project "Gamelan Collage," his contributions to which center around such trademark Martin Denny-isms as exotic percussion and birdsong -- though, thankfully, used to far deeper and more beautiful effect. (This is one my favorite pieces on the record, incidentally.)

Having been so closely involved with Fahey throughout the project and having had to bear much of the brunt of his claims, I have discovered that John is exaggerates or invents things in order to appear in the best possible light. He seems willing to change his tune depending on how "hip" he thinks his music should appear at the moment, or who he's trying to impress.

One of the things Fahey tried to interest me in before the sessions was a long -- and to my ears a not particularly distinguished -- tape collage he'd made, much like the last track on City of Refuge. His title for it made me cringe: "Shine On, You Crazy Diamond." Hip? Yeah, right.



Q: Why was the record made in distant Rhode Island?

The reason we were in depressed -- and depressing -- Warren, Rhode Island, for the making of the album instead of in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is where we'd booked time, was because Peter Gordon, head of Thirsty Ear, never sent Fort Apache studios in Cambridge a check to reserve the studio and they finally got disgusted and booked it out to someone else. He'd told us repeatedly it was all taken care of and we'd believed him..

Fahey had already flown into town. Rehearsals had begun. The band had made the necessary arrangements to get out of its regular jobs. Our producer, who lives just a few miles from the Vermont / Canada border, had cleared his calendar for the event and was ready to begin the long drive south. Suddenly we were stranded and without a place to make the record. I called Peter and lambasted him. He hemmed, hawed, blamed the studio (!), but essentially did nothing, saying that being the resourceful and smart people we were, he would leave it to us to find another place to record. Thanks, Peter!

I recounted this series of hair-raising events in the initial version of the notes I wrote. They, along with all the other madness involved, contributed significantly to the stress and insanity that surrounded the making of Epiphany. Naturally Peter had the comments about his own behavior excised from the notes. Please feel free to include them here with my compliments.

Through the generosity and efforts of our friend JJ, we eventually ended up in unlikely Warren, RI, at the studio where New Kids on the Block had recorded several platinum-selling albums, which adorned the studio's walls. JJ also brought several instruments to the studio for John to fool with, including the electric lapsteel guitar he used (formerly owned by Shot Jackson, a famous Nashville session steel player of the old school), and the banjo ukulele that John plunks on "More Nothing."

Q: What album were you going to make before Fahey trashed it?

The songs we'd planned to include that actually made it onto the album were "Our Puppet Selves" (a Cul de Sac number which Fahey really liked -- he barely plays on it though; the day he was do his part, he decided to stay at his hotel to flirt with the woman who cleaned his room -- listen for a snatch of Fahey on lapsteel at the very end of the piece, which we cut-and-pasted from an earlier rehearsal); "New Red Pony" (Fahey tried to talk us out of recording it, but eventually relented; then was enthusiastic about the version we did); and "Gamelan Collage."

Songs we rehearsed but which were axed by John in his "I refuse to be associated with this" meeting with me a few days into the project, were "K" (which appeared on the next Cul de Sac album, Crashes to Light, Minutes to its Fall"); Fahey had written a nice longish introduction to the piece, but had trouble executing it properly when it came time to record, which may have contributed to his reason for nixing this song; and "Immortality Lessons," another CdS number which we've never rerecorded.

Things we worked up in CdS' Cambridge rehearsal space but never took up again once we got to Warren were "Venerable Dark Cloud," a composed collaboration between John and I; another unnamed song, simple, but which John later decided sounded too much like "House of the Rising Sun"; a piece for slide guitar (John) and fingerpicked guitar (me), which John decided he didn't like after listening to the tape of the rehearsals.

Everything else on the album was composed or assembled in the studio.

John had considered covering Ace Cannon's "Tuff" from the beginning, but I was unimpressed with it when he played it for me fingerstyle and he dropped it. In the studio he got the idea of playing it lapsteel style instead -- REALLY slow -- and that worked beautifully. In fact the version on the CD is the first take of the very first time he tried it this way. He also wanted to record the Del Vikings' "Come Go with Me," and even though we never got a complete take, you can hear John segue into it at the end of "Maggie Campbell Blues."

He took stabs at pieces from his old repertoire, such as "House Carpenter" and the like, but nothing quite came together.

In keeping with some of John's oldies notion, I'd wanted to attempt an arrangement of the Tornadoes' "Telstar," one of the first songs I recall hearing on the radio as a child. (I was in the branches of a huge willow tree in Bellevue, Nebraska, at the time, when some older kids brought a transistor radio into the vacant lot where the tree was. I was mesmerized by the song, and it remains my favorite instrumental to this day.) Our attempts to do something with it didn't come off though.

John had recorded another spoken word piece, "Beginnings," which was considered for the album right up until post time. It was the first thing he recorded after scrapping the album we'd started to make. Because there wasn't room on the CD for the complete piece and so Jon Williams, the producer, made an edited version. Fahey rejected it. (By the way, Fahey said several times that Jon Williams was the best producer he ever worked with. Whatever reservations he had about the rest of us, he loved Jon, and expressed a desire to work with him again. Fahey thought the recording of his acoustic guitar was the best on any of his albums. Not sure I'd agree, but what a nice testimony to Jon Williams' expertise. I've never worked with anyone who knows mics and microphone placement better than Jon.)

John had learned part of a Robbie Basho piece – something I found quite shocking. I forget which one. The problem was that John had figured out only the first part of the piece, and despite my urgings and pleadings to try to come up with something, there just wasn't enough to do much of anything with. Given my love for Basho's music, I'd have dearly loved for that to come together for the album. But alas. . . .

According to Joe Piecuch (one of John's west coast friends; Joe saw John shortly after he returned from these sessions) one of the reasons Fahey gave for being so pissed at us was because he had wanted to record Boston's (the band) "More Than a Feeling," and I wouldn't let him! If John ever made such a suggestion to me I don't remember it. Maybe I thought he was joking? For the love of God, Montressor, that's an absolutely gawdawful, unstomachable song! I like to think that if Fahey had mooted it as a possibility to anyone in the band or to our producer, we'd have had him committed! But I simply don't recall its ever having come up.

I still haven't been able to bring myself to listen to the many rehearsal tapes we made with John in our space prior to recording the album, or to the album's out-takes. I'm sure there are things I've forgotten (or repressed!), that will come joltingly back into focus when I do.