R. Anthony Lee a.k.a."Flea": The Wolves Are Gone Now

The early musical life of John Fahey

Let’s begin with Chester Petranek. And let’s begin by correcting Fahey’s misspelling of his name as “Petranick”. Since my memory of these days is none too trustworthy, as will become glaringly obvious as we go along, I checked this by Googling on “Chester Petranek” and confirming that he was indeed the founding director of the Montgomery County (MD) Youth Orchestra, in which I played under him until 1955. Petranek was not, however, as Glenn Jones suggests, John’s high school guidance counselor. JF is closer to the truth when he says (Turtle notes VII) that Petranek was the director of a Takoma Park brass band; I can’t think of any band Fahey might have played in under Petranek (considering that he admits he played clarinet badly) except the Takoma Park Junior High band. He would not have been playing under Petranek in high school because he went to high school in Prince Georges County and Petranek didn’t teach in PG County, and John had probably dropped the clarinet like a live centipede

by that time anyway. However, John does credit Petranek with giving him, in that short time and under less than optimum circumstances, his first exposure to “Western hi-art” music. Whether this entirely explains Petranek’s later enshrinement as one of the major figures in Fahey’s mythology, one can never know. It may simply have been partly because “Chester Petranick” is a funny-sounding name (accent on the second syllable, by the way).

Although I must have played (French horn) in the same junior high school band with John for a year or two (I was two years ahead of him in school), I don’t remember him from there. I think I must have met him at the Episcopal Youth Fellowship of Trinity Episcopal Church, which was in a part of Takoma Park in Washington DC less than a mile across what was called the District Line. The meetings of the Youth Fellowship began with an Evening Prayer service, and presumably because of my modest repu-tation as a pianist, I had been asked to play organ for these services—little more than a few hymns, really. It must have been my playing for these services that attracted John’s attention, and somehow he ended up inviting me over to his house after the youth group meetings to listen to his records (this would have been about mid ’50s). With his usual stretching of reality, he claims (Turtle notes VII again) that he “hired a well-known church organicist, Mr Robert Anthony Flee. Mr Flee was to go around the Washington DC record shops and purchase what were, in his opinion, recordings of all the very good or better hi-art works, and teach Fahey something about them.” Well, aside from the probably deliberate misspelling of “organist” (perhaps a subtle reference to the fact that I was studying organic chemistry at University of Maryland after 1955), this departs from reality on the following points: (1) He didn’t hire me; it was an exchange between friends. (2) I was not a well-known church organist; I was an amateur beginning student totally unknown outside Trinity Episcopal. (3) I did not go around the Washington record shops to buy the records I thought he should hear; he already had his own collection at that time, which was at least as good as mine. In ironic fact, I probably learned at least as much about hi-art music from Fahey as he learned from me. It was he who introduced me to, among others, the Symphony #2 and the Finnish tone poems of Sibelius, Vaughan Williams’s Symphony #6, Roy Harris’s Symphony #3, Glière’s Symphony #3 “Ilya Murometz,” and probably Bernstein’s Symphony #2 “The Age of Anxiety” (which, written in 1949, would have been very new at that time). (As you can see, he was fond of symphonies.) In the notes to “Desperate Man Blues” (Legend of BJD), John refers to Sibelius’s 7th Symphony, and in Death Chants, the narrator “owes it” to Sibelius; I’m sure there must be other references which show his primary indebtedness to Sibelius, but I can’t find them. Vaughan Williams occurs as the composer of “King’s Weston” (“At the Name of Jesus,” Death Chants).

One composer I did introduce him to was Harry Partch, who is a minor figure in the myth, referred to mostly in terms of some of the instruments he invented to perform his music, e.g., cloud chamber bowls and surrogate kithera (Death Chants). When Glenn Jones compared the small audience for John’s first pressing of BJD to that for Partch on Gate 5, I was not surprised that he knew about Partch, but I was a little surprised that he knew about the Gate 5 label. My own connection with Partch is rather interesting. It seems that, as a young man in California, maybe in the ’20s, Partch had briefly and unsuccessfully wooed my Aunt Dorothy (which struck me as rather odd when I learned years later that he was gay). So I guess Aunt Dorothy told Partch some time in the ’50s about this nephew of hers who was interested in modern music, and lo and behold, at a time when I’d never heard of Partch, I received in the mail the Gate 5 issue of “Plectra and percussion dances.” I was immediately enthralled, and when I took it to John, he was immediately enthralled. This soon led to one of the many amusing incidents by which I’m sure we gave the Trinity youth group leader many gray hairs. It happened that Trinity had a phonograph system in the rector’s office which was used to play recordings of hymns on an electronic carillon—bad recordings of a bad sound played on a bad system—through loudspeakers installed in the belfry of the church, so that the hymns might be heard by the heathen masses. And it also happened that the first sound on the record was that of the cloud chamber bowls, which were made from glass carboys which had been used in the particle physics lab of some university, maybe U of C Berkeley, and which had a very bell-like sound—not quite carillons and not quite tubular chimes, but bell-like. So, as you might have guessed, the Demonic Duo, one evening after youth group, played Partch through the sound system, so that the heathen masses that night heard, not “Jesus loves me,” but “Plectra and percussion dances.” It was one of our better pranks, but we had already conspired to liven up the ordinarily dull Evening Prayer services when Fahey persuaded me to insert into the organ music passing references to some of the music we’d heard from his recordings, so I might subtly insinuate Harris’s 3rd Symphony or “Uncloudy day” into an improv while Fahey tried to hide behind the pew so people wouldn’t see him cracking up in hysterical laughter.

Since “Uncloudy day” was obviously not part of his hi-art repertoire, this brings up my other lesson from Fahey. In addition to the music mentioned above, he also gave me my first introduction to blue-grass/hillbilly and blues; I think he was collecting the first category before the second, and I clearly remember the likes of Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs. Even this early he had developed his famous eclecticism, and would follow Sibelius’s Second symphony with the Stanley Brothers’ “White doves will mourn in sorrow” with no sense of disjunction. (Another example of our attempts to enliven the youth group meetings was when the leader asked if anyone had any ideas for group activities, and Fahey very seriously deadpanned, “I think we should go gathering flowers for the Master’s bouquet,” and I, having heard the Stanley Brothers record, immediately followed, just as dead-pan, “Beautiful flowers that never decay,” and then another member of our musical clique continued, “Gathered by angels and carried away,” and John finished, “Forever to bloom in the Master’s bouquet.” By this time, of course, the entire group was in stitches and the poor seminarian who was our leader was probably wondering if God had really called him for this kind of work.) It was also at this time that I remember him making his own early attempts at playing the guitar, still mostly imitating what he’d learned from the records, but already doing some of his earliest original work as well.

A word should be said about these activities taking place at his home after youth group. Both of us—he obviously, I less obviously—owe a great debt to his mother, Jane, who was an absolute saint and for me almost a surrogate mother (not a surrogate kithera), as I was not overly fond of my own sainted dam. I think she sometimes regarded her weird son and his weird friend with a certain perplexity, but she was an unfailing source of loving support and warmth and gracious hospitality, and I remember her very fondly. Oddly, I can remember the inside of their house, particularly John’s room, more clearly than I remember where it was located. The father was a mysterious, shadowy figure who was almost never there—fortunately, from what I gathered about him later from both Jane and John.

Wherever it was, I remember it had an enclosure in the back yard for Fahey’s turtles. As we all know, he was very fond of turtles; they were almost his totem animal more than his pets. Years later, when he had moved to an apartment where he couldn’t keep his own turtles, he made it his mission to rescue turtles he saw crossing the road, knowing they’d probably be hit if he didn’t help them. When he was driving through the South on his record-collecting trips, he would pull over to the side of the road in a screeching halt and run out into the middle of traffic to pick up a turtle. He would give long diatribes about turtles at his concerts. He knew perfectly well (I think) that “the voice of the turtle” in the Song of Solomon referred to the turtle-dove, but he chose to interpret it as a member of the Order Chelonia for his own purposes.

Ah yes, the record-collecting trips. In Transfiguration, the disgusting, degenerate, insipid young folklorist asks the somewhat equivocal shoeshine man if he has any old arms or legs he’d like to sell.

In his record-collecting trips, he would walk through the rural Southern black ghettos waving an old 78 and yelling, “Got any old phonograph records? Buyin’ up old records!” And occasionally, whether out of discouragement or just ordinary insanity, he really would yell, “Got any old arms or legs you’d like to sell? Buyin’ up old arms and legs!” This was in the early to mid ’60s, and it’s been suggested that one of the reasons he managed to survive unscathed from being a conspicuously white presence in the rural black South at a time when civil rights workers were being murdered for such audacity, was simply because the rednecks, if they noticed him at all, probably dismissed him as too crazy to bother with.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This all happened after I had come back from Army duty. In February 1957, during what might loosely be called a nervous breakdown, I’d joined the Army, and thus didn’t see anything of John until my discharge in April 1960, although I occasionally got a few of what passed for letters from him, which presaged his later liner notes in their rambling surrealism. Actually, the one exception to the above was one and a half months in late 1958 when I was in a nut ward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, only a few miles from Takoma Park, having been declared crazy by an Army shrink for telling my commanding officer that I refused to recognize his authority. I had off-base privileges at WRAMC and so was able to visit my old stomping grounds several times, and by this time Fahey had moved his church affiliation from Trinity to St Michael & All Angels, Adelphi, which figures prominently in the early records. As I later learned from Glenn’s superb history of this time in his notes for BJD, John had also by this time started his recording career with the first pressing of BJD, but I don’t remember John mentioning it at the time. Actually, and ironically, it is at about this time that my memory begins to fail me on a lot of points, and I’m greatly indebted to Jones for his history. Soon after I got my Army discharge, Fahey introduced me to St Michael’s, which had recently lost its organist, and John was instrumental in getting me hired as the new organist there. By this time he had already established his following of what I call his adoring fans, which included, among those mentioned in the liner notes and the official website, David and Robbie (“Grubbert”) Gardner and, most importantly, Nancy McLean. The McLean and Gardner homes became valuable gathering places and emotional refuges for both of us, and Nancy’s mother Janet became greatly significant in my own later career in church music, as Nancy was (in a different way) in John’s. As I only recently learned from Jones, Fahey’s career was already beginning to take off in the early ’60s, and I was blissfully unaware of it at the time; I was still thinking of John as an interesting friend who had a devoted following of teeny-boppers at St Mike’s. In fact, I was by this time becoming less and less a part of his musical life and development, and was outside the new circle of colleagues and professional contacts he was developing —Denson, Bussard, all the others—not, I think, by deliberate rejection, but simply because I didn’t fit in. I didn’t play their music or their instruments, I didn’t go to their concerts, and with the exception of “Will the circle be unbroken,” I was not useful to them.

However, I was still part of the original group of friends, and there were moments, during Fahey’s return visits from his activities in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Boston, when there was a sort of return to earlier times. Before he studied philosophy at Berkeley, he had studied it at American University in Washington DC, and I clearly remember the time when he came to my house to pick me up in his old Chevy and drove around for quite a while hysterically yelling, “Beeble greeble freeble snarf! Grable mable spagle warf! Bargle snargle warfle splork!” (another precursor of the later liner notes). It turned out he’d become unhinged from reading Sartre’s Being and nothingness, and for months afterwards at St Mike’s, he would suddenly, at totally inappropriate moments, yell with oracular emphasis, “BEING IS!!” and then break into maniacal laughter. One of his adoring fans, who was an acolyte in the church, painted “BEING IS” on the soles of his shoes, so it would be visible to the congregation while he was kneeling at the altar.

And there was the time I almost broke into the new circle by arranging a series of concerts myself—three, I think—although I can’t remember when they were. The first one of the series was at St Mike’s, down in the basement—an unimaginably horrible place acoustically and in every other way for a perfor-mance—and, being still pretty clueless about the success Fahey was already enjoying, I can remember being totally blown away at what a huge crowd it drew. (Some of the recordings located at St Michael’s may have been made at this concert.) This was also the first time I saw his soon-to-become-famous stage presence, which included most memorably his obsessive tuning of the guitar for about five minutes after each set. There were times when he seemed to spend more time tuning it than playing it, remind-ing me of the quote attributed to Stravinsky: “Harpists spend ninety percent of their lives tuning their harps and ten percent playing out of tune.”

A word might be said about the gas station behind “The Gas Station Tape” and “The Not Gas Station Tape.” Fahey did indeed work the night shift at Martin’s Esso in Langley Park, one of those amorphous suburbs in the sprawl that was sort of indistinguishable from Adelphi or Lewisdale. The station was on the central intersection of Langley Park (University Boulevard & New Hampshire Avenue), and people new to the area would stop and ask John how to get to Langley Park, and he would give them directions sending them in about a 10-mile-long circle which brought them right back to Martin’s Esso, where they would look in confusion at Fahey, who would smile cheerfully and wave to them as they drove by. Being a slow shift, the job allowed him a lot of time to sit out front and practice—reminiscent of Blind Eggplant Langlais, who used to sit outside his used hodolog outlet in Heliotrope late at night and practice extemporaneous passacaglias on his diamond marimba—and it’s credible that he could have made some tapes there. If Martin’s Esso, or a successor gas station, is still there, perhaps they should be asked to put up a memorial plaque recognizing the station’s role in Fahey’s early career.

In July 1968 I moved to Colorado and very soon totally lost touch with Fahey, primarily because he was one of the worst people I ever knew for writing letters. But this is about his early musical life, and once we get past 1968, it’s no longer very early. I not only lost touch with him personally, I also lost touch with his later musical career and recordings, which I gather went off into some directions that departed rather radically from his earlier history—vide Stravinsky, Pärt, the Beatles, et al. But my memory is of the young Fahey and his early, bittersweet, soul-stirring, grist-laden, chthonic, plangent, equivocal, dithyrambic, hodological, polymorphic, transsubstantial music.


Cordley said...

Thank you for filling in the gaps> I was running with Backward Sam in 58-59 and have tales of Spider Lady, Fang etc.I was wondering if John ever got to Ornette Coleman country? Ornette was represented by my ex in Europe for a time. I found their musical minds running parallel.

Dalton Rasmussen said...

R. Anthony Lee is alive and well in Boulder, Colorado and is still a semi-active church organist at the Episcopal church near the Boulder Theater. His work with the underground punk saboteurs Dancing Assholes is featured on a compilation titled Rocky Mountain Low which documents the late 70s underground (i.e. Punk) music scene of Colorado.

Nancy said...

Flea writes a wonderful recollection. Those were the days. Thank you!