Mike Butler: All Pain and No Gain

John Fahey’s UK Tour, 1999

A bowdlerised version of this piece appeared in the April 2001edition of Mojo, to mark John Fahey’s death. It originally appeared in issue 5 of the Abner Burnett Newsletter (December, 1999), and is revised here. As painful as it is, the tale of the showdown between ‘Blind Joe Death’ and ‘Bogus Blind Drunk Burnett’ is the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll disaster story. By Mike Butler.

I don’t understand what you are worrying about. I have been touring this year in Japan, Germany, Holland, and there hasn’t been any kind of trouble anywhere. I’m not a ‘no-show’. Three months ago I decided I like touring and hate staying home and am going to tour the rest of my life. I don’t drink anymore, don’t take non-prescription drugs. I’m trusting you to do a good job, why not trust me to do a good job? - John Fahey to Paul Kelly and Mike Butler, 24 July, 1999

Fahey is freaking out about his new love. The travel agent says that from what she has seen when they show up to confuse the travel logistics, the romance is much more heated on his side of the stove. If Hitomi abandons our artist, we may be conductors on the dark diesel blinds that ride mighty John Fahey into storied oblivion. He may deliver a series of performances so despondent that Worpt is remembered as the promotion company upon whose mount the Grim Reaper rode to extinguish all enthusiasm for all time for ‘Roots Americana’. If so, and he is depressing, I will outdo him measure for measure: macabre, lurid, sordid, self-absorbed negativity - Abner Burnett to Mike Butler and Paul Kelly, 31 August, 1999

Tours don’t happen by themselves. The players behind the scenes are as crucial to the success of a tour as the players on-stage. When the backroom boys become as susceptible to grandiose delusion as any strutting prima donna, the results can be catastrophic. Take the case of Worpt UK...

As a part-time music scribe and a part-time promoter (all these part-times add up to one full-time), I do my best to raise the profile of Abner Burnett, Texas attorney, herbal nurseryman and - here’s the rub - genius songsmith. To this end, I formed a small music promotion company called Worpt UK.

To extend the dramatic personae of our tale: Paul Kelly is a former psychiatric nurse. I knew him as a face, sometimes the only other face, at the improvised jazz gigs we attended in our hometown of Manchester. When Kelly proposed that Worpt UK sponsor a joint-tour by Derek Bailey and John Fahey, I saw possibilities in the scheme. John Fahey has been an enthusiasm since schooldays (about the right age to be impressed by someone with an alter-ego called Blind Joe Death). And Derek Bailey, of course, has carved an entirely new language for the guitar. The idea of the genre-smashing pairing appealed.

Paul Kelly’s integrity was soon thrown into question, however. In 1998 Helter Skelter published Like The Night, CP Lee’s account of Bob Dylan’s 1966 Free Trade Hall gig in Manchester. The book included photographs of the concert, credited to Paul Kelly. The authorship of these photographs was disputed, and became the subject of litigation. Notwithstanding, Kelly proved to be a capable organiser. He found venues, established contacts with promoters in the various regions, booked hotel accommodation and finalised the itinerary in double-quick time. All that was needed was an investor to back the venture.

Abner Burnett is a lawyer by day who occasionally represents widows when their husbands are killed in the oilfields. Drilling crews often drop heavy objects on each other or just blow each other up. Having recently settled a case and picked up his usual exorbitant fee, Burnett is eager to piss it away on a musical mystery tour called Guitar Excursions Into The Unknown - from Henry’s Take On The Tour, an unpublished account of the Fahey tour by Abner Burnett, writing as Henry McCarty.

The tour is called Guitar Excursions Into The Unknown after a track on Fahey’s 1966 LP, The Great San Bernadino Birthday Party And Other Excursions. A company is formed - Worpt UK Ltd - to oversee the operation. Burnett, Kelly and I become co-directors. The venture is immediately plunged - into the unknown.

Derek Bailey dropped out early. A civilised fellow with a lifetime’s experience of playing to empty rooms, Bailey may have had a presentiment of trouble to come. The drafting of a contract with Fahey’s Nashville-based tour agent proved to be a torturous process. The working methods of Do Easy Booking (proprietor, Mark Linn) belie the name.

We are on the edge, which is where all courageous rock & roll lunatics should hang. Everybody get tense. If you’re feeling at ease, find and take some poorly manufactured speed, something with that strychnine veneer - Abner Burnett to Mike Butler and Paul Kelly, 25 August, 1999.

The hunt for passport details turns up some surprises. For instance, Fahey’s middle name is Aloysious, evidence of his Irish American roots. And Fahey’s mysterious ‘assistant’ - whose airfare Worpt is contractually obligated to provide - is eventually identified as Hitomi, a girlfriend acquired during a recent tour of Japan. The course of this Autumn/Spring romance, it seemed, was not running smoothly.

The Tour Journal

Monday, September 6, 1999
‘I got past the saddest music in the world, and I decided to do the angriest music in the world.’ This explanation is announced by Fahey from a hotel-room in Salem, Oregon. I’m conducting a phone interview for pre-tour publicity. Standard questions receive standard replies. Then Fahey’s fluting voice cracks and breaks. ‘I’m sorry to tell you, but my Japanese girlfriend broke up with me.’ Uncertain how to respond, I mumble some ineffectual words of consolation. ‘How will it affect your playing?’ I ask (the inner Promoter beating off the inner Samaritan). ‘It should be excellent,’ replies Fahey. ‘I play better when I’m mad, and I’m as mad as hell.’

He seriously asks me call up his girlfriend in Tokyo. ‘I don’t want her to think she’s going to get away with this,’ he says. ‘And tell all your friends to phone.’ Alarm bells start to ring. Curiously, these alarm bells failed to sound when I read the Fahey quote about Jerry Garcia (in Mojo 39): ‘The more people like that who die the better.’ Certain forms of eccentricity are less acceptable at close quarters, I suppose.

Tuesday, September 14, 1999
The travel agent in Oregon makes a blunder with the ticket. Fahey arrives at Glasgow Airport 24 hours before his due time. I accept reverse charges on a series of increasingly desperate phone-calls. The guitarist is friendless, tired, hungry and penniless. His wallet has been stolen. ‘You gotta rescue me, man,’ he whines in a pitiful falsetto. He is calling from The Post House Hotel at Glasgow Airport. On the third attempt to contact the Hotel, I manage to bypass the automated switchboard and talk to a live human being. I arrange for Fahey, a diabetic, to be given food and care. Kelly, already on the road in a hired van, picks up the unfortunate artiste some three hours after his arrival.

Wednesday, September 15, 1999
I travel to Edinburgh - the first concert of the tour is taking place tomorrow at The Queen’s Hall - and go to meet John Fahey at the Ibis Hotel. I recognise his distinctive form through the glass front. Kelly is with him, and there is also a little fellow in synthetic threads in nervous attendance. I enter.

The stranger vanishes before I clear the door. Gathering myself, I offer the Father of American Primitive Guitar my hand. The Father of American Primitive Guitar leaves my hand dangling. ‘Sit down!’ he barks. Kelly smirks, and remembers an engagement elsewhere. (A telling exchange follows. JF, anxiously: ‘I thought you were going to stay, man. I’m not sure of the figures.’ PK: ‘You can take care of it, John.’) Exit Paul Kelly. I take the offered chair with rising apprehension. Oh horror! Fahey removes his wrap-around sunglasses! He turns baleful, yellow eyes on me and delivers an ultimatum.

He has, he explains, no faith in Worpt UK or our ability to manage the tour. If the money for the first four gigs is not immediately forthcoming, the tour is off. He glances at some hastily scribbled notes, and mentions a figure of £4,400.

Such behaviour is not only unprofessional, but inhumane. In the recent past,. Worpt’s Man in America had conferred with travel agents about the feasibility of a round-trip for Fahey and girlfriend - from the USA to Japan, to Scotland, and back to the USA. Fahey’s pleading phone calls became so insistent that Susan, Abner’s partner, refused to take them any more.

‘Let me put it like this,’ wrote Abner (in a private email to me). ‘If you look up “professional” in the dictionary, Fahey is not even mentioned in the footnotes. Whereas if you look up “flaky as shit” it might have his picture.’

In the ample flesh, Fahey doesn’t look flaky at all. Grey whiskers adorn a scowling death’s head. His unchanging uniform of t-shirt and shorts is permanently soggy with juice stains and body fluids. ‘You better check in now,’ he says, by way of dismissal, having lightened me of £250 (all my ready money, and all the money available until the next day when the bank opens). I retreat to an impersonal hotel room and lie on the bed. I find that my impression of John Fahey has altered somewhat. A great artist with a great soul has been replaced by a horrible old man.

The Tour Journal

Thursday, September 16, 1999
Abner is providing support for the first four dates of the tour. He has other places to be - in fact, he’s marrying Susan in a week’s time - but he has a professional and financial interest in the success of the tour. When Abner steps off the plane at Glasgow Airport and meets Kelly for the first time, the Texan is approximately $10,000 ‘in the grease’.

Kelly had fallen prey to the delusion of self-importance. He had somehow gotten hold of the businessman’s earring, a cellular phone. It clashed however with his work shirt and baggy green corduroys. Burnett had a cell phone also, but hadn’t thought to haul it out for the occasion - from Henry’s Take On The Tour.

John Aloysious is no more friendly when Abner and I visit his hotel room in the afternoon. The old misanthrope is sitting up in bed eating ice cream and pizza (not a judicious meal for a diabetic). Also present are a couple collectively known as The House of Dubois, Scots-based promoters who have taken a special interest in the Fahey tour. I recognise the little fellow from the foyer. He introduces himself as Bob Mills. In fact, we’ve spoken a few times over the telephone. Once I asked, what is in this for you? Mills, hurt by the suspicion, replied that he was happy to work for the love of music alone. He and his business partner, Chris (a dimunition of Christine), cower under Fahey’s scan.

Abner goes over the terms so painstakingly negotiated with Mark Linn. Fahey pauses between scoops of ice cream. ‘I don’t have a contract with you. I’m talking about what that fucker over there promised me’. He gestures towards me with a spoon. Abner and I walk out. Chris runs after us with a compromise: John will take £1,400 as an advance (the figure represents all the money in the Worpt coffers). He insists on cash payment.

Ratfarts are probably seldom heard or properly identified by smell. They waft around the back doors and hallway exits. They mix in the kitchen with the better odours of well-planned dinners. It may have been that each player in the game had been pure hearted and intent upon a successful tour up to the point of confrontation in Fahey’s room. Maybe the bad smell was only ratfarts. More probably though, it was a rank stew of fear that would do anything, worship gone sweaty and stale, ‘ornery pride that denied its own odour and the bad breath of one pissed off jet-lagged Texas lawyer - from Henry’s Take On The Tour.

Upon our return from the bank Abner twice tries to give Fahey his money. At the first encounter the guitarist runs in the opposite direction. ‘I can’t take it now,’ he moans. ‘I’m going to vomit.’

The transaction is deferred until after Fahey’s appearance on Brian Morton’s radio show. He cuts an imposing figure in the hotel foyer, as he hitches up his shorts, dangles a bare leg over the chair-arm, and fingers an unplugged, solid-body guitar by way of rehearsal. The producer has requested short pieces. Fahey announces his displeasure as his bony fingers dig into the frets. He hammers out a single note and counts to five, and repeats again and again. He mutters menacingly, ‘They’re imposing a compositional form on me, and I don’t like that. You’ll be sorry. You’ll be sorry.’

A couple of hours later, with the radio broadcast accomplished, Fahey adopts the same posture as we all gather in the foyer to sort out rides to the Queen’s Hall, where fans are already thronging for their first glimpse of the enigmatic one. Fahey, however, is in no hurry. He counts and recounts his advance fee, arranging piles of Scottish pound-notes on his guitar case. Kelly, in his best Albert Grossman manner, is talking to the producer of Later on his mobile. I hear the phrase ‘force of nature’. Fahey nods in approval and, emboldened, he snarls at Abner, ‘I don’t have a contract with anyone.’ Abner seethes in impotent rage, which is possibly the desired effect.

Half an hour later Abner Burnett carries his first drink of the evening onto the stage of the Queen’s Hall; a double shot of Bell’s with ice. Bugs are already all over the project. Stray dogs languish by the fly-covered carcass panting and staring idiotically - from Henry’s Take On The Tour.

If Abner’s performance is lacklustre, Fahey’s set is lamentable. Turgid single-line licks are repeated obsessively. Juana, a pretty tune, is stretched beyond its natural length. Samba De Orfeu is attempted, fumbled and abandoned. He seems caught between a perverse desire to inflict punishment, and an innate showman’s desire to please. But he no longer has the resources to please, so reverts to his first intention.

The customised Fender Strat that Abner has been instructed to carry across the Atlantic is ignored. Instead, Fahey opts for a cheap model, hired for the radio session. Tuning is a hit-and-miss affair. The line between incessant re-tuning and desultory improvisation becomes increasingly blurred.

‘God-damn,’ says Abner from his seat in the back-row. ‘They’re walking out.’ It’s true. A trickle, and then a stampede, proceed to walk out, obviously wondering why they ever walked in. ‘Absolute mince,’ says one departing patron, summing up the general feeling. I later spent a day replying to letters of complaint. ‘The most puerile guitar playing I have ever heard,’ wrote Mr H Walker. ‘My seven year old grandson can put play better and put more feeling into music...’ Or, from Mrs J Wilson, summing up the general feeling: ‘Either Mr Fahey was drunk or he could not be bothered to play coherently.’

The bad playing, like the bad drugs and the bad food, can only be explained as an expression of profound self-loathing. The crowd is reduced to a core of die-hards, when, quite abruptly, the recital comes to an end. Fahey realises that he’s one minute over the one-and-a-quarter-hour performance time stipulated in his contract.

‘I’ll quit while I’m ahead,’ he remarks, which is asking for it. ‘Ahead of what?’ comes the reply from an audience member not yet completely benumbed by stupefaction. The artiste, unsure of the exit, manages to wrap himself around the stage-curtain as he departs. The echo of Eric Morecambe is poignant.

Abner has long since retired to the bar. A voice calls. ‘You’re not Derek Bailey.’ (The advance publicity has Derek Bailey as the co-star; yes, another clanger.) ‘You’re in trouble.’ ‘Buy me a drink and tell me about it,’ says Abner. It transpires that the stranger used to road manage for Tim Hardin, and knows a train wreck when he sees one. Abner joins the party, determined to forget his troubles. I join the table in time to learn that John Kennedy was shot by a retired football coach from Midland, Abner’s hometown.

Then I’m called away. The sound crew need paying, and I take a taxi to recover the company cheque book from the hotel-room. More expense! The tour has been all pain and no gain.

On return, I find the sound crew packing up in the deserted hall. Deserted, that is, except for a recumbent figure lying on the floor of the stage. Guitar titan John Fahey is snatching a moment of peace away from the mad hubbub. He is belly up as I enter. I duly pay Alex the soundman, conscious that the bulk on stage is stirring.

Fahey settles on one side, and props his head against his elbow. He stares dead ahead with a baselisk gaze. I can’t avoid his stare as I make my way out, trapped by rows of aisles on either side. His sunglasses offer no protection against the scouring intensity of his gaze. I grope for words, but nothing comes out. What can I say? That he was marvellous? That it was the best gig I’d ever seen? I calculate the distance to the door: freedom lies just beyond. I finally blurt out ‘Hello John,’ and make a dash for it.

Kelly, meanwhile, is stalking the bar looking for a dipsomaniac to kick. A strict abstinence man with the intolerance of a recovered alcoholic, Kelly is exasperated by the widespread belief that John Fahey is drunk. I emerge from the auditorium in time to see the former psychiatric nurse interposing his walrus-like frame between Abner and his new friends. ‘He’s not a real drunk, he just postures as a drunk,’ sneers Kelly. He fixes the singer at point-blank range, eyeball-to-eyeball, and spews forth a torrent of abuse.

Now I’ve been subject to this treatment more than once in recent days. I coped by blanking out the rant and saying to myself (because the threat of violence is implicit): ‘If this bastard lays a finger on me, I’ll prosecute’. Red-blooded Texans can’t be expected to show the same restraint. Abner tugs at Kelly’s collar. Tim Hardin’s road manager separates the two men. Kelly’s spluttering hysteria abruptly subsides. He has what he wants.

The Tour Journal

midnight, the morning of Friday,
September 17, 1999

The momentous gig is over. I accompany Abner, now known as ‘Bogus Blind Drunk’, to an afterhours bar called Whistlebinkies. Live music is provided by country-rockers of local repute. They play Pancho and Lefty at least three times during the night. Abner, the finest living interpreter of Pancho and Lefty, later claims that he sang the song on-stage with the band. I have no such recollection, and suspect Abner of planting a false memory.

He relates how a sheriff in a Texas backwater town had recently been exposed as a paedophile. The lawman was dragged out of his sheriff’s office weeping and howling, ‘Jesus Christ! I’m a Christian!’ Thereafter, the strains of faux honky-tonk are periodically accompanied by Abner’s authentic shitkicking cry of ‘Jesus Christ! I’m a Christian!’

‘Every silly son of a bitch who contributed to this debacle is going to get shovelled into the furnace for a long time,’ he says, warming to his theme. ‘Myself included.’ After several more whiskies and beer chasers (and an interval when a neighbour reads our palms), his thoughts turn to a more benign religion. ‘I’m a Buddhist. A little mound of particles which disperses into oblivion where more little mounds are being made.’ He says this with the serenity of complete exhaustion.

It is 3am, and we repair to the Ibis, where Abner has heard encouraging reports of the residents’ all-night bar. By now, Abner is taking a philosophical view of the situation. 'Going up in smoke is my stock-in-trade,’ he says, and collapses onto the floor, leaving his whiskey and beer chaser unfinished. A long-suffering hotel employee helps me carry him to our room.

On the one hand I’ve never seen a man so determined to relive the day he refused to eat his supper. On the other hand here’s a man who knows he’s dead no matter what, but keeps waiting around trying to get heard - from Henry’s Take On The Tour.

‘When a situation looks really, really ugly,’ I had earlier asked Tim Hardin’s road manager, ‘what do you do?’ (After all, I can’t imagine life on the road with notorious stoner Tim Hardin was all Misty Roses.) ‘Get out of it at once,’ he replied without hesitation.

If only things were so simple. But I feel compelled to see this thing through, if only to protect Abner’s investment. I rack my brains, but can’t see any way out of the trap. However, at this very moment, and under the same roof, a disaffected director of Worpt UK is scheming to permanently sideline his partners. (Clue: he wears baggy green corduroys and is a former psychiatric nurse.)

Back in the hotel-room, Abner gets his second wind. He whirls in a demented dervish, hurls half-empty bottles of beer and mineral water at the walls, and yells, ‘God-damn! I’m on tour with two assholes!’ This outburst seems to be a preliminary to a spot of good old hotel-room trashing. For the first time, I understand what this time-honoured ritual is all about. Yet I try to limit the destruction. ‘Don’t do it,’ I plead, as Abner passes over a box of John Fahey merchandise, and aims to propel a box of his own CDs through the window. ‘It’s Calavera. It’s your comeback CD. It’s a fucking masterpiece.’ This only seems to goad him further.

Then, all life drained in an instant, Abner drops on top of the nearest bed and snatches a foretaste of the oblivion to come. His loud snores keep me awake. After an indeterminate period, when sleep finally seems within reach, I jolt into full alertness. There’s a movement in the dark. I switch on the bedside light to behold Abner, fully-dressed and swaying, relieving himself against the wall. ‘I can’t deal with this right now,’ I think, and turn off the light again. In the morning, as Abner sleeps it off, I examine the relevant corner. There is no stain and no discernible smell of urine. Please God, it was all a bad dream.

The Tour Journal

Friday, September 17, 1999
Paul Kelly is loudly declaiming in the foyer of the Ibis (this at midday). His audience comprises hangers-on, casual passers-by and an American Primitive guitarist, but his remarks are addressed to Texas lawyer Abner Burnett. ‘I am not prepared to do business with a violent, drunken...’ (a pause as Kelly searches in his mind for the worst possible insult) ‘... bar-room singer!’ Abner looks perplexed as Kelly resumes his tirade. Deaf to every entreaty, he refuses to let Abner ride in the van. This despite the fact that Abner actually paid for the van hire with his credit card.

The scene becomes a muddle of overlapping altercations. I ask Bob Mills a second time about the money owed from ticket sales. For a man happy to work for love of music alone, he seems strangely reluctant to part with the green stuff. ‘Phone the police,’ roars Abner, who intends to report the van as stolen. At this, Bob loses his nerve, and produces a roll of sweaty bank-notes.

(It transpires that all proceeds from the Edinburgh concert go to the House of Dubois. This despite the fact that Worpt paid for the hall hire, sound-crew, artists’ fees etc. Bob Mills apparently signed the contract. The management of the Queens Hall consult their legal team and agree to pay the local promoter.)

‘Ring the police,’ Abner reiterates. But a simple phone call becomes a complex operation with a WorldCom Global Phone Card (the only thing the public phones in the hotel operate on, and I don’t want to loan Kelly’s mobile). Eventually, the voice of the law comes down the line to sweetly explain that an authorised person can’t be prevented from driving a hired vehicle. The voice expands on the difference between a civil offence and a criminal offence.

Oh God, I haven’t mentioned the missing DAT Recorder yet. To go back a moment: Abner had been asked to provide a DAT Recorder - along with the guitar that Fahey never used - in order to capture the concerts for posterity. He duly purchased the machine and put it to use. Shortly after the gig, Alex the Soundman returned the DAT Recorder to Abner at his seat in the bar. I recall some banter about using the tape for blackmail.

The DAT Recorder was left in the changing-room, along with guitars, CD merchandise, a camera, and other odds and ends waiting to be loaded in the wagon. Every item had been accounted for, with the exception of Abner’s DAT Recorder. Now, in the hotel foyer, each faction divide their possessions jealously. The amplifier - another item hired on Abner’s credit card, incidentally - goes Kelly’s way. He offers to carry the CDs to Manchester, but I decline. ‘Have you got the DAT Recorder?’ Kelly asks, with a smirk. (The serial number, if you should come by it, is SOI-0577723-H.)

Abner hires a car to take us to the next date, which happens to be my hometown of Manchester. There’s a moment of epiphany as the sun sets over the borderlands to the sound of Beethoven’s String Quartet No.13 on the car hi-fi. Abner explains the finer points of music. He plays me, for the first time, some new cuts from his bar-room band, Kay Kay And The Rays. Much later, we arrive at my flat and play back my voice-mail messages.

The tour is off, says a terse message from Kelly. Fahey has flown back to the States. We are to notify the tour venues and cancel existing hotel bookings. Furthermore, he, Kelly, has resigned as director from Worpt UK. Calls to his home for clarification are in vain. At one point, Kelly mimics the automated reply of an answer-machine to avoid conversation

The Tour Journal

Saturday, September 18, 1999
Masquerading as a homeless musician, Burnett busks outside the Royal Northern College of Music to a trickle of patrons expecting to attend a John Fahey concert. An elderly woman gyrates with abandon and proclaims her love for Abner. Of middle-European origin, she tries one dance-step after another and finally settles for something she calls ‘the Elvis Presley’. She is mad, of course, but in a refreshingly benign way.

Sunday, September 19, 1999
With unexpected time on our hands, Abner and I visit Blackpool. The trip amounts to a pilgrimage for Abner: Blackpool has been a source of fascination since he chanced to see the movie Funny Bones. His first sight of Blackpool Tower draws an excited reaction. ‘God-damn! This is it!’ he says, slapping his thigh with one hand while steering the car with the other. We go location-scouting for sites featured in the movie, giving priority to the bar-room scenes. We are rewarded with an anecdote about Oliver Reed from a barman in a basement bar just along from the Tower.

We stumble into a theme pub modelled along the lines of a ranch in the deep American south. Confederate flags and horse-saddles provide the decor. Abner, the only American in the place, is told to remove his jester’s cap (a new purchase from a sea-front arcade): baseball caps are the preferred headgear. A banner with the legend ‘The South Will Rise Again’ takes pride of place.

His euphoria has evaporated. Abner sinks into decline. He came to maturity in a state where secondary schools are routinely named after Confederate war-heroes, he tells me. ‘Don’t these idiots realise thay’re glorifying a culture that sanctioned slavery?’ He extemporises a hillbilly ballad to the country tune playing on the jukebox.

Your dainty hand and six fingers
So creamy smooth in the moonlight
Your eyes seem set pretty close together
I think you might be my baby tonight

Tell me your name
Do you mind that mine’s the same?
True love can conquer DNA

Your skin so beautiful and translucent
I think you might be my baby tonight

Back home, and the tune is forgotten at a hastily-convened sing-around in a converted public loo called The Temple of Convenience. Friends, players, singers and a bull terrier gather to lend moral support. The whiff of disaster is dispersed by conviviality, warmth of feeling and good singing (thank you Helen Pendry, Marcus Hickman, Clive Mellor, Mark Greer, Kirsty McGee, Scott Alexander, Kaisa and Juha Halinen, Sheila Seal, Alan Parry and Oscar).

Monday, September 20, 1999
If consolation can be had from the whole wretched business, it’s that the breach of contract is so transparent. Abner, with a true lawyer’s instinct, had inserted a clause in the contract to say that all disputes are to come under the jurisdiction of Ector County, Texas. Abner chuckles, happily anticipating what a jury in Texas will make of oddball John Aloysious.

It comes as a shock to discover that, contrary to the message, Kelly and Fahey are still at large and touring the country together, honouring some dates and cancelling others. The turncoat Worpt director and his artiste are causing chaos wherever they go. A radio session for Andy Kershaw is cancelled at short notice. The DJ offers a pointed remark about ‘enigmatic guitarists’ on his radio show.

Over a meal at a Chinatown restaurant, I brood on Kelly’s duplicity and my unwitting role in the debacle. ‘It couldn’t be worse,’ says Abner, inconsolably. ‘It’s worse than being in jail.’ He casts around for comparable misfortunes.

‘It’s worse than standing at a crap table where you can’t get any more credit because you’ve just pissed away 3000 dollars.’ He deftly picks up some grains of rice with his chopsticks. ‘It’s worse than your best friend playing mattress slam dunk with your girlfriend.’ A refill of shushi. ‘It’s worse than gettng the shit kicked out of you after you’ve picked a fight.’ An unworthy thought about the relaxed standards of the Ector County Bar Council flits across my mind.

We’re trying to get through this with enough of our asses left over to be able to grab with both hands. I know that each of you has worked hard to get this rolling. I believe we can pull it off. Woe to whomever wrongfully takes advantage of the situation. I don’t exactly understand the nature of it, but time’s revenge seems always to flow justly over the carcasses of the unrighteous - Abner Burnett to Mike Butler and Paul Kelly, 27 August, 1999.

Where are they now?

Derek Bailey, died December 25, 2005.

Abner Burnett is a director and attorney with the South Texas Civil Rights Project, based in San Juan, Texas. A new album, It Ought To Be Enough, is scheduled for release on Waterlily.

Mike Butler is a freelance music writer and a regular contributor to Metro.

John Fahey, died February 22, 2001, after undergoing a sextuple bypass operation at Salem Hospital. His swansong - Hitomi, on LivHouse Records - was released in 2000.

Paul Kelly currently lives in Newcastle, England, and helps organise On The Outside, an annual festival of improvised music in the city. He is proprietor of Music Stuff, a booking and tour management service for improvised music and musicians.

Bob Mills went to ground after repaying some money from Fahey’s Edinburgh concert to Worpt. Current whereabouts unknown.


amy butler fabric said...

Long but very interesting post. Thanks for sharing it.

Tony Smith said...

Hi Mike, just read again your fabulous memoir of these events, I remember reading it at the time and wanting to immediately ring you with congratulations on a fabulous film script this would make, but resisting on the basis of your obvious emotional pain and financial loss. I feel enough time has passed to make this appreciation of a amazing story, written with a masterly storytellers gift. Wishing you and Abner success in future musical promotions.

Tony ex APS Records in Crewe.(A Michael Hurley aficionado) did you attend the Oldham street gig a couple of years back?

Mike Butler said...

Tony, Sorry for the belated response. I've only just seen. (I was checking to see if my own blog site was up and running after a long lay-off. It isn't.) A more reliable way to reach my attention is through my email – A film script, eh? Gosh! Who would play the principals? Robert Mitchum – Abner; John Malkovich – Fahey; the young George Cole – myself; Peter Vaughan – Paul Kelly, Unrealistic casting (most of them are dead), but I don't keep up with the present lot, I'm afraid. I did see Michael Hurley on Oldham Street. He was his customary genius self, and even betrayed a few signs of recognising me, beneath the cool facade, when I went over and reintroduced myself. It was just a gleam of the eye; nothing demonstrative, you understand. I've since published two books in a projected series of ten – Sounding the Century – social history seen through the lens of prolific folk producer Bill Leader. Are you still actively involved in record retail? Let me know through email. There's a Message in a Bottle quality about the current mode of communication.