All About John Fahey
This article appeared in the New York Times.
A 60's Original With a New
Life on the Fringe
January 19, 1997
By Ben Ratliff
CHICAGO -- Influential American artists are often cranks -- recalcitrant, inscrutable, possessors of a nearly untenable vision.
When John Fahey's recordings of syncopated, finger-style guitar compositions, redolent of old blues, rags and hymns, began appearing in the early 1960's, he was taken to be an acoustic blues revivalist or a coffeehouse folkie. An early LP cover even confirms the typing a bit, showing him in an honest-looking herringbone jacket and desert boots. But an arrogant look in his eyes seem to dare you to figure him out.
His old fans barely recognized the odd creature on stage one recent evening at the Empty Bottle, a rock club near downtown. At 57, Mr. Fahey is puffy, and his white beard and sunglasses hide his face. He finished a blues dirge by simply coming to a stop and shrugging. His new fans are used to being puzzled; this was a young, intellectual audience who knew that Soundgarden was playing in an arena across town but were too hip for that. It is Mr. Fahey's moment as he rides back into view as an avant-garde father figure, whom the guitarist Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth has acknowledged as a "secret influence." John Fahey's music is conceptually slippery, belonging to no genre.
Musicians within folk, neo-acoustic blues, New Age and now, strangely enough, post-everything avant-garde rock have claimed him as an inspiration. A couple of articles by the rock critic Byron Coley -- a 1994 Spin magazine profile and an entry on Mr. Fahey's work in the recent Spin Alternative Record Guide -- sparked new interest. Mr. Fahey began getting calls from record companies and musicians, and now he finds himself, to his amusement, the object of much attention.
His new album, "City of Refuge," (Tim/Kerr/ Mercury), to be released next month, opens with recordings of trains and works through fuzz-charged blues figures and quiet melodies that slowly expand as they repeat. Over the years, he has cut away some of his old sentimentality, and this record is as stubbornly idiocyncratic a statement in music as can be heard; he may be best understood in the same category of self-inventing American composers as Charles Ives and Brian Wilson.
Aside from "City of Refuge," he has completed two new recordings for Table of the Elements, a label specializing in hermetic, rock-based minimalism. Rhino Records has released "Return of the Repressed," a two-disk retrospective of his work. He recently made a short Northeast tour with Mr. Moore; while in Boston, he recorded with the rock band Cul de Sac. The house was packed at the Empty Bottle, and Mr. Fahey was making noise. Bending over an electric lap-steel guitar, he made chiming noises with a bottleneck slide. Later, he picked up his regular acoustic guitar to play his delicate, occasionally dissonant compositions. Jeff Hunt, the owner of Table of the Elements, and Jim O'Rourke, the guitarist and record producer -- two key figures in Mr. Fahey's re-entry to performing and recording through the channels of the rock scene -- looked admiringly at their rediscovery.
Mr. Fahey was once a rediscoverer himself. In 1963 and 1964, while a graduate student in folklore and mythology at the University of California at Los Angeles, he tracked down the missing blues singers Bukka White and Skip James, and in doing so played a major part in the acoustic blues revival of the time. James, when Mr. Fahey found him, had lost interest in music but saw an opportunity to get off the Mississippi plantation where he was a tenant farmer.
Mr. Fahey, on the other hand, never lost interest in music, but in the last 10 years he hasn't produced much. He divorced his third wife, Melody, and lost his house; he contracted chronic fatigue syndrome; he entered a new phase of alcoholism by drinking beer compulsively for the energy it gave him; he discovered that he had diabetes. For a time, he was homeless and lived in a men's shelter in Salem, Ore. Sober now, he lives in a motel in Salem, where he recorded "City of Refuge," on equipment in his room.
During the down years, he supported himself by scouring second-hand stores and flea markets for used classical records, which he sells to collectors. Mr. Fahey still draws a few of his old fans to his concerts, and they occasionally request his old music. "I don't talk to them," he explains in a coffee shop near his Chicago hotel two days after the concert. "If they keep it up, I tell them: 'Look, if you want to live in the past, go live in the past. But don't try and take us with you.' "
These days he listens to clattering industrial-rock bands like Einstürzende Neubauten and uses some of their sounds -- along with train and factory noises -- in his own recorded collages. "Do you have a car?" he asks, taking off his sunglasses and changing the subject. "We might hit a couple used-record stores," he says, suddenly looking devious. "Just before I left Salem, I found a mint first pressing of Sibelius's Fifth Symphony. They have a re-pressing over there" -- he gestures to a record store across the street -- "for $22. I got $65 for it, and the guy I sell it to will probably get $175. But he has overhead. I just like to have some place to go every day."
John Fahey, the son of a United States Public Health Service employee who divorced his mother, grew up desperately unhappy and glued to the radio in Takoma Park, Md. In 1954, he heard Bill Monroe's version of Jimmie Rodgers's "Blue Yodel No. 7." That experience changed him, as did his first exposure to Blind Willie Johnson's "Praise God I'm Satisfied," which, he has said, made him weep. He soon became a record collector and dedicated himself to playing guitar. Using money he earned pumping gas, he made his first recording in 1959 and had 95 copies of it pressed; one side of the plain white sleeve read "John Fahey" and the other, "Blind Joe Death," an invented blues singer about whom Mr. Fahey devised an entire mythology. That started his career at Takoma Records, his own label, which he ran until the mid-1970's, when he sold it to Chrysalis.
His old albums, like "Requia" and "Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes" are dense with eccentricity; for a piece called "The Singing Bridge of Memphis, Tenn.," he stood under a bridge, recording the sounds of cars passing overhead. The records featured liner notes with track-by-track musicological analyses and surreal stories about the meaning of the music. They were signed with names like Chester Petranick (the name of a music teacher from Mr. Fahey's childhood) and Elijah P. Lovejoy; it was all Mr. Fahey. He did spawn a line of finger-style acoustic guitar composers, one of whom, Leo Kottke, has been much more successful than Mr. Fahey. But he did not join the acoustic blues revival by copying the old styles as other young white musicians did in the early 60's. (Mr. Fahey hears grief and despair in his own music as opposed to what he perceives as humor and anger in the blues.) He wasn't a hippie; he calls Jerry Garcia a "psychic vampire" and never took LSD, he says. But hippies were his audience in the 60's and 70's, and he denied them the groovy time they wanted.
"He was the only artist I ever worked with whose sales went down after he made public appearances," remembers the blues historian and producer Samuel Charters, who worked with Fahey on two records in the mid-60's. "Most people assumed he was a 'head.' What they didn't understand was that John was a drunk. So there would always be this stunned moment when they would look at John sitting up on stage with a quart of Coca-Cola and a bottle of whisky."
The composition on "City of Refuge" is called "On the Death and Disembowelment of the New Age." Yet to that movement, too, he was an enormous influence, being an inspiration to the guitarist Robbie Basho and the pianist George Winston. "He was really the first serious composer within acoustic folk music," says Mr. Winston, whose first album, "Ballads and Blues," was recorded for Takoma in 1972. But none of this explains the excitement Mr. Fahey has been generating in the outer realms of alternative rock. "I don't understand it," says the experimental guitarist Loren Mazzacane, one of Mr. Fahey's new collaborators. Bill Belmont of Fantasy Records, who has acquired rights to Mr. Fahey's old label, Takoma, and already reissued two of his early records on CD ( "The Legend of Blind Joe Death" and "Voice of the Turtle"), adds, "I can't quite figure it out." Neither can Mr. Fahey. "Everybody's talking about this new record -- like, people in the industry," he says. "This has never happened to me before. I listen to it, and I think, well, that is really a great record. But then I have trouble picturing who's going to listen to it, who's going to buy it."
Many thanks to Charles Bennett for turning me on to this article.