Jon Monday: Travels with John Fahey

As I waited for Fahey to show up in the parking lot of the Takoma Records offices in Santa Monica, I reflected on the strange circumstances that brought me to that moment. In a way it could be called fate – or luck (not sure if good or bad) – or just that I chose to work for him. I respected his music (had for a long time, since 1966), but he was a very difficult person to be around.

God damm it! Why was he so late? We had agreed to meet at 9:00am, to get an early start, just after the morning L.A. rush hour traffic.

Come to think of it, this was the second time I worked for him – actually, technically, I worked for Takoma Records, which was owned by John and his first wife Jan. The first time was in January 1970, just after I finally got kicked out of the army, after spending two years AWOL and a year in jail during the Vietnam era. A friend of mine worked in an office in the same building as Takoma, and she heard that they had an opening. I met with Jan and John and was hired as their only employee – part-time. That suited me just fine, and it paid pretty well (considering): fifty bucks a week. The rent for our one-room apartment in Venice was only $75 a month, so there was enough cash left over for food.

What the fuck!!! It was nearly noon – we had to be in Chicago in two days for a gig. Where the hell was he?

So anyway, back to my first job at Takoma. I would come in, pack up the orders, count the inventory, and then sit around listening to tapes that people sent to Fahey, hoping to get on the label. I think if they knew how small the operation was, they wouldn’t have bothered. I felt a little guilty, as there just wasn’t enough work to do for my 4 hours a day, 3 days a week job. After a couple of months I quit.

This is unbelievable! I called his house, but no one answered. It was starting to look like the trip would be impossible. Was there an accident? Was he dead? Should I just go home?

For nearly a year I worked in a film processing lab – thinking it would be an artistic place, where I developed prints for famous photographers. But it turned out to be a union factory job, processing film from all the drug stores in the L.A. area. But, it had medical benefits, which turned out to be a very good thing when my wife needed to have a Caesarian for the birth of our daughter. After quitting that job, I went back to Takoma, which had grown a little since I first worked there. It seems that one of those odd tapes that had come in, turned out to be a very good guitarist named Leo Kottke – and that album Takoma put out was starting to sell pretty good. I bluffed my way into the promotion man position – to promote the label to music reviewers and radio stations. Fahey agreed, but also wanted me to come on this tour to promote him and the label, while we traveled around the East Coast.

Fuck it - I’m going to count to 10 and then just go home and unpack. This is no way to treat people – and a crappy way to start a trip.

Just then, Fahey pulls up in a brand new 1971 Plymouth Duster. On an impulse he decided to buy it for the trip. He walked into a dealership, paid cash, and drove it off the showroom floor. Not that he had a lot of money (nobody knew how much, but it couldn’t have been much). It was almost 2:00pm and I was starting to worry about the evening rush hour traffic on the other side of L.A. I loaded my bags into the car, we both said goodbye to our wives, and we headed East on Interstate 10. Once we got on the freeway, I bitched at him about the time, “How we gonna make it? We’ve gotta get ya on stage, in Chicago, in 48 hours!” I was already going 80 and zig-zagging through the L.A. traffic.

Fahey never got rattled, and I rarely saw him angry. It was always a game; more often than not, a game of brinkmanship. He lit a cigarette and slumped in the passenger seat. “Don’t worry, we’ll make it”, he said in his high-pitched drawl – not exactly a Southern drawl, but I guess the blend of North and South that he picked up in his home town of Takoma Park, Maryland. “If you drive straight through, we’ll have plenty of time”. After less than an hour, he fell asleep, with his head propped up by a pillow on the window of the passenger side door. At some point he woke up long enough to tell me not to worry about tickets, Takoma would pay for them.

“Jesus”, I thought to myself, “this is going to be a rough trip”. I got past Riverside, Claremont, and Banning – and was really starting to open it up. Once out in the desert, around Joshua Tree, we hit 100. I was doing the math in my head. Maybe Fahey was right, it wasn’t so tight, if he would take a turn driving once in a while and we only stopped for gas and a couple of meals. Just after midnight, as we crossed the Arizona border Fahey sat up with a start and exclaimed, “I can’t take it anymore. We gotta stop a get a room”

“This is fucking unbelievable”, I muttered under my breath. “We just don’t have the time!”

“Aww, come on, just for a couple of hours. It’s too un-com-for-t’ble.” Sometimes he whined like a little kid. It was clear he was intent on stopping. I figured I could get a nap, get some food to go, and then push on well before dawn. I pulled into a cheap motel, got the room, dragged the bags in, and settled in for what I thought would be just a couple of hours of rest.

Fahey got into bed, opened up a huge bottle of chloral hydrate (aka Mickey Finns, which his shrink had prescribed, to help him sleep) and took a handful. I’m not talking about 3 or 4, but 10 or more, swallowed them with no water, turned off the light, and went to sleep.

Did I mention that Fahey snores? I tossed and turned for an hour or so and finally fell asleep. I woke up around 6:00am and felt a little panicked that we were really pushing the bounds of the physical limitations of how fast the new car could go, against the deadline of 8:00pm the next day, when Fahey had to be on stage in Chicago.

He really was a strange guy. I guess since childhood he had a thing for turtles; maybe it was more of a thing for tortoises. He acted like one. His long neck would crane around, looking at a room, without moving his body. He had a pronounced overbite that gave the impression of a 100 year old Galapagos tortoise beak. He ate salads with no dressing at all. And he moved slow – sometimes excruciatingly slow.

“Fahey! You awake?” No response. “FAHEY!” Nothing. It was like he was unconscious, not just asleep. I figured I could get some stuff done, before he woke up. I got gas, checked the tires, ate breakfast and went back to the room.

“FAHEY!!!” as I shook him, this provoked a faint stirring. “We gotta get going!” He slowly got up, got dressed, and we finally got underway. He slept in the car till mid-afternoon.

I invented a system that seemed to minimize the number of tickets I got. In the flat plains, I pegged the speedometer, which only went to 110. We went absolutely as fast as the car would go, I estimated it about 125 – maybe 130. When I’d see an overpass, I’d slow down to 80 or 90, to see if a cop was on the other side, waiting for speeders. All in all, I only got three tickets – and each for doing less than 90, which I considered a moral victory. I negotiated a refinement of the deal with Fahey: not only would the company have to pay for the tickets, but it would have to pay for the increase in my insurance as long as the tickets were on my driving record. He agreed.

Since Fahey slept nearly the whole time, I was able to make up some time. Fighting through the Chicago rush hour traffic, we drove straight to the club and arrived at 7:00pm, an hour before show time. I got Fahey and his guitars into the dressing room and collapsed in a chair in the corner. The manager of the club came in and tried to make nice, polite conversation – Fahey ignored him, and finally told him to leave. Fahey got out his huge Ray Whitley Recording King guitar (it was built by Gibson in 1939 and endorsed by Whitley, who co-wrote Back in the Saddle Again with Gene Autry). He cut off the old strings and methodically began putting new strings on and tuning them. It sounded fantastic and was the biggest, deepest, richest sounds I’ve ever heard out of an acoustic guitar.

An old acquaintance of Fahey’s came into the dressing room, and Fahey seemed mildly pleased. They talked while Fahey smoked a cigarette and lightly practiced. At 8:00pm the club manager came in and said it was show time. Fahey said, “In a while.” He continued smoking and talking, as if quite unaware that the audience was getting restless. He also seemed not to notice when some of the audience started banging their glasses on the tables at about 8:30, demanding a show. But, it wasn’t much of a protest, and it quickly died down.

Around 9:00 Fahey stood up, headed out of the dressing room, I picked up his two guitars (the Ray Whitley Recording King and a Koa wood Hawaiian slack-key lap guitar that he played with a bottleneck) and started out for the stage. But, Fahey went in another direction looking for a bathroom. I decided to put his guitars on the stage, to try and keep the audience calm – it didn’t do much good. At about 9:15 Fahey took the stage, sat down, in an exaggerated motion pushed the vocal mic way out of the way (he had no intention of talking to the crowd), took out and lit a cigarette. The audience gave a light, polite applause. He smoked in silence, looking out at the mixture of hippies, college students, and old beatniks, and was utterly unhurried. He took long, measured drags, held his breath as if smoking pot, looked around, exhaled, looked at the cigarette, and then took another slow drag. He smoked it to the very end, and put it out on the stage. At last he picked up the guitar and started tuning. After several minutes of tuning, the D string broke.

Unflapped, Fahey reached down into the guitar case, got out another D string, put it on the guitar, and started tuning. After several more minutes the same string broke again. I was dying. Aside from being exhausted, the tension of what was going on nearly made me pass out. Fahey brought the vocal mic near, and dryly stated that maybe there wouldn’t be a show tonight: mechanical difficulties. I went up on stage and suggested that Fahey play on the Hawaiian lap guitar, and I’d fix the Ray Whitley. He agreed.

Finally, at about 9:45 Fahey started playing. As always, the music demanded your attention. It was hypnotic, with both an insanely mechanical right-hand, keeping intricate mathematical rhythm, while the left hand produced a dark, haunting melody that captivated the audience. They were entranced, and at the end of that first piece, gave a wild applause. It was as if all the waiting, all the tension, only heightened the effect of the music. I fixed the Ray Whitley Special, and Fahey gave a long and fantastic performance that lasted till sometime after one in the morning. Fahey got a standing ovation as he left the stage, but gave no encore.

Back in the dressing room, he sat holding forth for the few people who came backstage to talk with him. A very young couple came in, obviously on a date, probably freshmen in college. Fahey grabbed the girl and sat her on his lap and started groping her breasts. The girl laughed like she was being tickled. The guy was embarrassed and didn’t know what to do. Actually, everyone in the room was embarrassed, except Fahey and the girl. After not seeing her again for many years, she later became the second Mrs. Fahey.

© 2004 Jon Monday

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