news got to me a couple of days ago: John
Fahey had been taken off of life support and was expected to die.
I didn't even know he was ill. Just days before, Henry Kaiser and I had
been talking about him - Henry telling me about John's recent all-electric,
reverb-laden musical direction. Neither of us had any idea that his life
hung in the balance at that very moment. It was just another in the never-ending
parade of John Fahey stories. John was just that way: truly eccentric,
a bit crazy, unpredictable, and, above all, a true American original.
I guess he was truly mythic. A maverick of the highest order, and a man
whose storied personality could never overwhelm the magnificence of his
musical pioneering. How I mourn his passing today...
I first heard John Fahey's music in 1969 or '70. My best friend Alan's
big brother Bob - a poet hippie much revered by us 13-year-old fledglings
- had John's album Days Have Gone By (still a personal favorite).
The music was so mysterious, so enigmatic (that train song!), and stories
of the man's drinking and high-mindedness abounded, making him seem daunting
and -yes- fabulous. And to think he was local, living in Venice, we heard.
I started trying to pick up more of this music - on his OWN LABEL no less.
It was soon after that his amazing (and my personal favorite) album America
came out. With an incredible package of bizarre autobiographical/mythical
artworks by Patrick Finnerty ("Fahey Finnerty Desert Monuments 1-10",
etc.), it was so mysterious and marvelous that I became somewhat of a
Fahey acolyte. The extended piece, "Mark 1:15" (tragically edited
on the CD version to make room for tons of incredible unreleased stuff),
with its idiomatic dissonaces, hypnotic repititions, and brooding yet
sublime mood, is still an epiphany for me every time I hear it. Anyway,
albums like Guitar, Fare Forward Voyagers(Fahey in his brief
stint of Swami Satchidananda and sobriety), Blind Joe Death, The
Dance Of Death (And Other Plantation Favorites), to name but a
few of my faves, enjoy the admiration and respect of not just me but people
I've known and/or admired such as: G.E. Stinson, Rod Poole, Elliott Sharp,
George Winston, William Ackerman, Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore, Jim O'Rourke,
the aforementioned Mr. Kaiser, sensitive fruitarian hippie wanderers,
and, of course the vast generations of solo steel-string fingerstylists
who would not exist without him.
I finally met John through my friend George Winston - yes, that George
Winston. George was then a perfect example of the kind of Fahey followers
I often met: He was an acoustic guitar player (he and I played duets together
back then - he on open-tuned slide), lived in a house with no heat, and
was a driver for Larry Flynt who would hang out with me at the record
sore where I worked and look for odd recordings of solo instruments. He
had a solo piano record out on Takoma called Piano Solos
which had been cut-out, I later learned, so obviously he knew John. He
and I went to see John at McCabe's Guitar Shop, and he was really sick
with flu but was drinking a pitcher of beer. He was feverish in the extreme,
apologizing often for lapses in concentration. As it turned out, John
felt unable to drive, so George drove John's car to his little pad in
Palms and I followed in George's car. We
crept in the dark into his bedroom (George obviously knew the way), trying
not to wake up John's wife, and literally put him to bed. Quite an introduction!
But after this John always treated me as a friend. To me he remained an
enigma of the highest order.
When John moved to Oregon and got sober, we became better acquainted.
We even did some gigs on a mini-tour with my Trio and a band I really
liked called Her Number Thirteen who were very neo-Sonic Youth.
Sounds odd, but John had become quite taken with the independent rock
and avant-garde jazz and new music scenes. It was at this time that I
saw what would become a familiar sight: John beligerently repeating this
one waltz theme over and over until most of the audience had left. He
seemed totally oblivious to this fact, and seemed to not care one bit.
My good friend Mike Hogan (of little brother records fame, who had "organized"
the "tour") would just smile and shake his head. (He would smile
and shake his head many times later as he tried to pin John down and release
what became a now scarce double 7".) It was at a gig on this "tour"
at Sam Bond's Garage in Eugene that John asked me in that innimitable
voice of his, "So, Nels. Why is it that you do these engagements
which pay you virtually no money?!" What could I say?? He wanted
to hook me up with his lawyer/manager, but I'm lame and never followed
up... Then John gave me his new triple 78rpm 10" !! And I've still
never been able to play it! What a guy!
The last time I heard John was when I opened for him solo at the reconsitituted
Ash Grove on the Santa Monica pier. I was playing solo electric guitar
(which apparently had caused a hysterical bunch of old ladies to flee
in horror into the lobby where they demanded, "When is he going to
STOP?!?!?!"). John was in the dressing room munching tortilla chips
and salsa and reclining on the couch with his massive belly jutting upwards,
and displayed discernable pleasure at my performance despite the omnipresent
shades. "Well, Nels, what am I supposed to play now?! You just played
everything I was going to play!", he joked, in THAT VOICE. "I
guess I'm going to really have to play some MUSIC tonight!" Then
he played (on a shitty Washburn borrowed from ex-McCabe's booker John
Chelew - John no longer traveled with a guitar) the set with THAT WALTZ,
and most of the audience was gone... I remember seeing old friends of
Eric von Essen's there that I hadn't seen in years (was Eric still alive
then?...), Brett Werb and Bearded Fellow (who never did have a beard).
They were part of those who hung in till the bitter end. I never did tell
John that I was never paid for that gig - he would have been pissed! But
even at that point I think that I was a little afraid of the mad genius
who had been so kind to me, and I didn't want to bother him.
John Fahey's later music was echo-laden, electric. He played slide. His
Revenant label, given over to reissues of esoteric masterpieces, was purportedly
started with inheritance money. When I heard of his windfall I asked him
if this meant he would move out of the residence hotel he lived in. "Are
you kidding?! They clean my room every week, pick up my mail when I'm
out of town. It's great!" I guess that room later caught fire and
he moved to another one not all that long ago. Was he the drunk that people
saw piss against a mountain in front of an entire audience of folk festival
goers? He was once. Was he the man who wrote an impenetrably abstruse
column in Guitar Player that was half in German? Yes, he was. Was he a
legend, an enigma, a man whose contribution will grow and be felt as long
as we have ears to hear? Emphatically, yes. His solo music, his D.I.Y.
independence, his musical scholarship, were all, dare I say it, ahead
of their time. I will, as I have since I was 15 years old, take pleasure
in playing my paltry rendition of "On the Sunny Side of the Ocean".
Perhaps that's where he lives now. I miss him already.
Los Angeles, CA
February 25, 2001
INNOVATOR JOHN FAHEY DIES AT 61
Guitarist John Fahey, whose eccentric acoustic stylings influenced a generation
of musicians, has
died at Salem Hospital in Salem, OR after undergoing a sextuple bypass
operation 48 hours previously.
John Fahey was born on February 28, 1939 in Takoma Park, MD. His father
played popular songs on the piano and Irish harp, and his mother was also
a pianist. John spent his youth raising wood turtles and fishing in the
Susquehawa River and upper Chesapeake Bay. On Sundays the family went
to the New River Ranch in nearby Rising Sun, MD where they heard the top
country and hillbilly groups of the day, like Bill Monroe and The Stanley
a fishing trip in 1952 John met a black singer and guitarist named Frank
Hovington, whose fingerpicking style so intrigued John that he bought
his first guitar soon thereafter, a Sears Roebuck model that cost him
$17.00, and startedteaching himself to play.
After getting a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion from American University,
Fahey moved to Berkeley, CA in 1963, where he established his own label,
Takoma Records, and began his long recording career. The following year
he moved to Los Angeles, got an M.A. in Folklore and Mythology from UCLA,
and was instrumental in the rediscovery of blues artists Skip James and
Bukka White. He expanded the Takoma label to includefellow guitarists
Leo Kottke and Peter Lang, among many others, and New Age pioneer George
Winston was another whose early career was nourished by the quirky innovator.
In recent years the Takoma catalog has been purchased by Fantasy
Records of Berkeley, CA, and Fahey's Takoma LPs are now being systematicallyreissued
on CD. Fantasy Records executive Bill Belmont called Fahey
"a true American musical genius."
Although Fahey preferred to be known as an American primitivist, he was
widely acknowledged as the "godfather of the New Age guitar movement,"
and his recordings (over thirty albums for a wide variety of labels) showcased
his ongoing musical explorations. Several were sonic explorations in the
alternative music vein, and all had exotic titles (a 19-minute excursion
was called On the Death and Disembowelment of the New Age,while
another was called Old Girlfriends and Other Disasters.
At the same time, he never lost his early love for traditional and roots
music forms, and during the early 1990s he formed another record label,
to reissue classic recordings of early blues and old time music. At the
time of his death he was working on a new album, Summertime and
Other Sultry Songs.
For further information contact: Mary Katherine
Aldin or Mitch Greenhill via email at email@example.com
or by phone at (310) 451-0767.
Click image for info. on the John Fahey book
How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life