Earthly appetites: The brilliant and curious career of steel-string demigod John Fahey
What do you think about the Mormons?"
This abrupt religious inquiry came at me in the summer of 1999, in a warbling voice from one of my few then living musical idols, guitarist John Fahey. He was seated across from me in the corner of a red-walled room at a restaurant called Mars in Austin, Texas. I told him I despised their non-caffeination and conspiratorial placement across the street from my high school in Arizona. Fahey smiled from behind his woolly, dirty-white beard, before continuing on about Gandhi's status as a military hero in India, how flat In a Silent Way sounds, his tour of Japan, all the while imploring our waitress to bring another pitcher of iced tea his way.
Coming to prominence in the early '60s, at the dawn of folk's re-emergence and the rise of the hippie counterculture, John Fahey revolutionized steel-string guitar playing by wedding the fingerpicked blues of Mississippi John Hurt to the structuring principles of classical composers like Sibelius and Brahms to craft something wholly American. Or as a 1959 article (included in the recent Fonotone box set) noted: "[Fahey] never fully grasped the meaning of Heidegger's angst until he heard it expressed in its supreme articulation on a 78 rpm record by Blind Willie Johnson." Ignoring the segregation of high and low culture, Fahey found something endemic to both, creating a body of work that hangs in the halls of American genius somewhere between Coltrane and Whitman.
Fahey passed from this world some five years ago during a septuple bypass, so it's funny now that these nascent recordings he made as Blind Thomas for Fonotone, the 78 rpm label of collector Joe Bussard (think Steve Buscemi's Ghost World character times a thousand), have come back to light alongside Vanguard's release of I Am the Resurrection. A tribute album featuring indie luminaries (Sufjan Stevens, Devendra Banhart, M. Ward) pays reverent homage to the man. And why not? Fahey, aside from his astounding music, set an example with one of the earliest independent, artist-run record labels, Takoma. He released the debut albums of Leo Kottke and George Winston. Fahey also rediscovered Skip James, the malevolent Depression-era master, traversing a brutally segregated Mississippi to find him in a hospital bed; it strangely presaged Fahey's own rediscovery in a Salem, Oregon, men's center in 1994 by Spin's Byron Coley.
Soused and spiteful at shows, misunderstood by an audience wanting peace, love, and his old songs, Fahey loathed both his hippie followers and his imitators. Will Ackerman and the whole New Age neutering of Fahey's guitar style that cropped up in his wake were anathema to him; his true progeny were the tetchy alternative noisemakers, like Sonic Youth and Wilco. The tribute makes this clear, recasting his iconoclastic solo pieces with winsome arrangements from its participants. And yet reverence to the song was never his own agenda, as Fahey often disavowed his past discography outright.
Studying folklore at UCLA alongside Barry Hansen (a/k/a Dr. Demento), Fahey wrote his master's thesis on Delta demigod Charley Patton, only to immediately go against the grain of stodgy academia, record-collector scum, and object reverence. He never looked back. Doctoring loquacious, ludicrous liner notes for his self-released work that tempered his arrogant self-mythologizing with hilarious self-effacement, he mocked the academic bluster of scholars and revivalists. He renames his Fonotone patron "Joseph Buzzard," records as Blind Joe Death, or else espouses his work as "expert" Elijah P. Lovejoy. Noise guitarist and writer Alan Licht noted that Fahey "did as much to take folk out of the hands of squares as his music did," and he suffered lightly those that pined for the past.
Perhaps like I'm doing now, recalling when I spent a week with Fahey seven years ago in Austin. Most of the time, I was content to sit at the lunch table as he and fellow folklorist Dave Polachek bandied their theories about Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music box set, discussing the implications of Fahey's own Revenant label getting the rights to release the fourth volume of that hallowed compilation. "Americans hate foreigners!" Fahey proclaimed out loud in the Mexican restaurant. "That was what Smith was secretly telling us. Just look at how many people get offed in those first four songs." He would then dump another clutch of Sweet'N Low into his tea, left unstirred among the ice.
When not canvassing for classical records, we'd be back in his motel room. My awe quickly turned to mild mortification at Fahey's ability to ingest anything and everything: a block of cheddar cheese unwrapped and munched like a candy bar; cold, greasy okra from the previous night; a squished french fry on the bed, suddenly remembered and swallowed. Amid the detritus of crumpled yen and girls' addresses in Osaka, finger paintings rendered on photo album sheets, New Age CDs called Music for Brain Waves, we auditioned the early master tapes of volume four of the Harry Smith collection. Fahey mused about how it reflected the Depression despite the set's upbeat ending. He declared "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" the best Robert Johnson song, and said the Carter Family sounded like they were dead, a zombie chorus. He would sprawl across his bed, enrapt in the ancient sounds, his giant white belly puffed out. Slowly, a guttural moan would be loosed from his depths, a half-drone, half-growl that drowned out the tape.
Other times, he would play his mixes: collages of Nazi rallies, Balinese gamelan, and recent Chicago blues licks with their verses and choruses mischievously lopped off, rearranging their 12- bar logic. Whether it was blue plate specials, convenience store crap, or world music, all went into his maw. Such devouring and consumption was what Fahey did throughout his career. His repertoire mashed Hammerstein with Dvorak, Christian hymns as well as Hindi chants, Dock Boggs and Duke Ellington. Classic albums like Requia and Days Have Gone By feature the same sort of aural collages he was still spinning 30 years on, as if no time had elapsed. Dislocation isn't too odd of a sensation, as critic Nat Hentoff recognized: "[Fahey's] music keeps stirring up old memories and all kinds of new anticipations."
I saw four concerts of his that week, but I can't recall a single tune. What lingers is Fahey's desire to dig beneath the veneer of the blues, philosophy, industrial noise, classical music, past names and labels, so as to unearth the collective unconscious of the tragic human condition that courses underneath the music. Songs were gateways to more profound, sometimes more horrific, truths. As his rambling online exegesis reveals: "When I play, I very quickly put myself into a light hypnotic trance and compose while playing. . . . I would go so far as to say that I am playing emotions and expressing them in a coherent public language called music."
In his later years, Fahey eschewed the acoustic steel-string altogether; he didn't even own a guitar, pawning it to make his rent. Due to the effects of Epstein-Barr syndrome and diabetes, his immaculate style slowed. Gone were the ornate five-finger rolls of a one-man orchestra as instead he swamped his tone in delay and reverb, stirring up fuliginous, phantasmal lines that slowly accrued in the air. "There's something about guitars," he wrote in How Bluegrass Destroyed My Life, a 2000 collection of his tales, noting that the guitar "evokes past, mysterious, barely conscious sentiments both individual and universal." At these shows, everyone in the audience would be mesmerized, drawn in by that slow spiral of sound and transported elsewhere. It was like the tornado in The Wizard of Oz, with shards of recognized melodies suddenly separated and reconfigured in the space-time continuum, moving counterclockwise while unlocking the subconscious, spinning like swastikas do.
I think now of the very first time I saw John perform, under a starry sky a year before our meeting at Mars. His shades affixed in the twilight, he spun out a lugubrious though transcendental waterfall of sound. Staring up into the firmament, I was startled by a melodic line suddenly remembered amid Fahey's hypnotic whorl. It was "O Holy Night," a Christmas carol played on that hot July evening. Dislocated in time, it was all the more relevant, its unsung words echoing my own thought: "The stars are brightly shining."