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Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist

Steve Lowenthal

(Chicago Review Press; US: Jun 2014)

“Consciousness,” wrote the American guitarist John Fahey, in his introduction to a book of sheet music, “is in a constant state of flux. The stable element, therefore, must be the commitment to sit there with your guitar for six hours and express yourself through your music.” Going against the most basic dictum of traditional guitar teaching, he said playing every day doesn’t matter much. Rather than worrying about technique, the first priority of a young guitarist should be learning to evoke emotions through specific chords and progressions.


Fahey personally felt floods of “images, memories, deja vu experiences, and emotions” every time he played. So he stole away a couple times a week, not telling anyone, and played for hours. “I can guarantee that you will come out of these sessions with something new—a composition, an arrangement, a fragment,” he said. “In order to conquer boredom and chaos, you cannot avoid coming up with something new.”


Fahey, who died from heart troubles in 2001, is a perennial favorite among folkies and noise-rockers, and discovering his vast catalogue has been a rite of passage for several generations of guitarists. An obsessive collector of pre-war blues records, he blended the fingerpicking of Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Blake with harmonies and dissonance he learned from Romantic composers like Bartok.


Critics are always harping on his influence; as with figures like Roy Acuff and Alex Chilton, the common refrain is that even if you’ve never heard his recordings, you’ve heard music that wouldn’t exist without him. There’s no question that he spawned a subgenre of folk music—“American Primitive”, the instrumental guitar style popularized by Leo Kottke—and he’s been acknowledged as a “secret influence” on the early Sonic Youth.


But the publication this summer of his first biography, Dance of Death, written by the journalist Steve Lowenthal, gives occasion to reconsider his place in American music. Lowenthal shows with new clarity that for as much as he’s been imitated, Fahey’s artistic vision was wildly unique. He was weird in unsettling ways, making him more akin to Captain Beefheart than Bob Dylan, and to shoehorn him into an official narrative about the development of folk music is to insult his memory. After all, he invented a new guitar dialect, and not as a commercial ploy but because he needed it for self-expression.


As his remarks from his instruction book suggest, guitar music gave Fahey a bridge to the subconscious, and his subconscious evidently was a scary realm. His compositions often expressed particular feelings of rage and anxiety. This calls to mind a remark from the Catholic peace activist Dorothy Day: “Don’t trivialize me by trying to make me a saint.”


At just 188 pages, Dance of Death contains little that most fans haven’t already heard, but until now it’s been hard to delineate the facts from fiction, because Fahey’s scattered autobiographical writings are full of nonsense and self-mythologizing. (Liner notes from his early albums said he had “made his first guitar from a baby’s coffin”, and that he died in 1964, after fighting in New Zealand against the “Finno-Armenian invasion”, with a “chthonic smile” on his face.)


Lowenthal, who has written for The Village Voice and Spin, uses interviews with Fahey’s friends and ex-wives to sift out the truth. As a result, anecdotes that sounded quirky in their disparate sources turn out to be much darker in their proper context.


Fahey grew up in the plush Washington, D.C. suburb of Takoma Park in the ‘40s and ’50s. Aside from playground bullying and a tense relationship with his strict, Irish Catholic father, his childhood was mostly peaceful.


At age 15, Fahey bought a Sears guitar and started learning country songs: Jimmy Rodgers, Bill Monroe. He never paid attention to the blues, as he had been taught to “hate and fear” African-Americans, but he claimed an experience in his later teens changed all that. When a friend played him Blind Willie Johnson’s “Praise God I’m Satisfied”, Fahey nearly vomited and couldn’t get the tune out of his head.


 


He told his friend to play it again. “When he played it the second time I started to cry, it was suddenly very beautiful,” Fahey said. His friend, Dick Spottswood, has attested that Fahey’s obsession with the blues took hold exactly then.


Over the next decade or so, Fahey and Spottswood made frequent trips to rural black ghettos in the Deep South, where they knocked on doors and asked to buy old blues 78s. It was the only way to hear this music; at least one Charley Patton record they recovered has turned out to be the only existing copy.


But Fahey was less interested in historical preservation than in finding inspiration. He was drawn to the blues singers’ rage, he said: “I was seeking out mean, sadistic, aggressive, hateful, and maybe even dangerous expressions and expressers of music most cruel.” When he found the blues legend Skip James in a rural Mississippi hospital, paid James’ medical bills, and brought him up north to record music, he was disappointed to find that “James’ connection to the subconscious was broken” and the vitality in his performances was gone.


Meanwhile, Fahey recorded his own debut at an Episcopal church in 1959, and he spent money he’d saved at his gas-station job to have 100 copies pressed. He called it “Blind Joe Death”. It’s full of short compositions indebted to traditional blues, but even some of these simple songs sound haunting. It shows his signature style already intact.


He performed at clubs in Washington, D.C., gaining a small following, and recorded more albums in the early ‘60s. As they go on, his compositions retain a folk veneer but incorporate more classical structures and more-sophisticated harmonies. On a 1966 record, he spliced together various takes from a 20-minute track, some of them in different tunings, to make unplayable transitions that sound disorienting and only half-linear.


Throughout the ’60s he also drank heavily and developed a serious pill addiction (though he eschewed psychedelic drugs, saying they were for the “weak-minded”.) It can be tempting to see him as a sad, sensitive soul, and to romanticize his dark side, but Fahey was more often an instigator than a victim. Around 1964, after a girlfriend at Berkeley broke up with him (he earned an MA in mythology and folklore from UCLA Berkeley), he told her he’d wait a year or two, until she least expected it, and kill her. At a birthday party the following year, he got into a drunken argument with the host, grabbed her hair, and slapped her, breaking some of the landlord’s china.


He told an interviewer in 1970 that he had real affection for turtles, so it upset him that drivers were always squashing them on the highways—“and that’s why I want to kill everybody.” A friend said he suffered a “psychotic break” during this period; often he didn’t know where he was, and he believed he was possessed by demons. He eventually checked into a psychiatric ward and asked friends for their prayers.


Evidence of his racist tendencies also surfaces periodically. He liked baiting audiences, “using the n-word and all sorts of nasty language,” according to his friend Barry Hansen (better known as the radio DJ, Dr. Demento). Hansen said Fahey wasn’t a “hard-core” bigot and was just playing the role of a redneck, trying to antagonize snobbish white liberals—but he admits Fahey did sympathize with “old southern attitudes”.


His friend Dick Spottswood said that during their record-hunting expeditions, Fahey complained when they came up on neighborhoods of affluent blacks—“white niggers”, as he called them—because he knew they wouldn’t have any blues albums. He once claimed, in a fit of anger, that he had “bought” Skip James, and he had a strange penchant for Nazi insignia. (He used to fill his letters to Leo Kottke with German words and swastikas, and one of his prized possessions was a genuine Nazi flag.)


His biographical material from the late ‘70s and ’80s is sparse, coinciding with a slump in his recording career. His compositions became pleasant but predictable; after the 1973 Fare Forward Voyagers, it seems his genius had coagulated into The Fahey Sound. By the early ‘90s, he had faded into obscurity, and a Spin journalist found him living in a fleabag motel in Salem, Oregon, with pizza boxes, books, and records piled across the floor. He didn’t even own a guitar; he made money from royalties and by finding rare classical records he could sell at a profit.


When he ran out of cash, he stayed at a homeless shelter. He’d become obese and slovenly; he wore cutoff jean shorts and held them up with a rope. Employees at local record shops told the journalist Fahey was always putting holds on albums he couldn’t pay for, and once a clerk found him sobbing on a curbside after some of the records had been re-shelved.


However, the Spin article, (”The Persecutions & Resurrections of Blind Joe Death”, by Byron Coley,1998) helped spur a sort of comeback. Fahey recorded several new albums in the ‘90s—mostly ethereal, noisy pieces on electric guitar—and he toured the US and Europe, acquiring some new followers, alienating some old ones. (He remembered telling an aging hippie woman to “go to hell” when she yelled out requests for his songs from the ‘60s.) He died in 2001, just after his 62nd birthday, due to complications from a sextuple bypass surgery.


The unfortunate paradox of Dance of Death is that it sharpens our picture of Fahey as a tortured soul, without giving much insight into the source of his pain. He joked that he couldn’t be a real folk musician because he came from the suburbs. The only major tragedies of his life—his wives deserting him, his music plateauing—resulted from his anger, his misery, and his substance abuse.


So his psychological pain came first. During psychoanalysis sessions later in life, he claimed he’d recovered memories of his father sexually abusing him as a child, but most acquaintances who knew his father still don’t take this claim seriously. As the biography winds on, it only heightens the mystery of why Fahey was so troubled.


But the book does inform us about how to listen to his music, or at least shows us how Fahey himself conceived of the music: that is, not as merely soothing, but as concrete as a memoir and as mysterious as religion. “All I have ever done with music,” he wrote in the ‘90s, “was to depict various emotions in an organized and coherent musical language, especially hate, fear, repulsion, grief, depression or feeling nothingness.” (Remark on “depicting various emotions”, from the liner notes of the 1996 album, The Legend of Blind Joe Death, quoted on JohnFahey.com.)


In a 1980 interview that Lowenthal unearthed, Fahey describes this last emotion in greater detail. “The Void is a term you find in existentialist writers and it’s particularly well-described by some Catholic mystics in books on contemplation,” he said. “It’s how you feel when the bottom drops out. It’s worse than the blues. Some of the music I’ve written is a description of this state.” (“Finger Style Adventurer”, interview by Mark Humphrey, Frets, August 1980.)


As for Fahey’s mystical side, he did spend time in Hare Krishna meetings and practiced transcendental meditation, and later on he learned how to put himself in a “light trance” by plucking his guitar strings. But it seems this only formalized something that had come to him naturally, at least since his teens, when the Blind Willie Johnson song made him physically ill.


Fellow guitarist Max Ochs has described watching Fahey perform in Washington, D.C. when Fahey was just 21. His devotees would sit in a circle on the floor, and Fahey would play his newest pieces with an “expressionless mask, a deep looking inward,” sometimes sounding as though he were composing as he played. “My impression,” Ochs concluded, “was that there was an old, old sorrow in John Fahey that a quart of whiskey might assuage but never alleviate.”


In consideration of all this, maybe it’s misguided to wish for a fuller narrative account of Fahey’s troubled state. Whatever went on inside his head, he expressed it with a guitar. Decades on, many listeners have heard that mournfulness in the recordings, and it’s reassuring to know we’re not imagining it. Had it been easy to verbalize, the songs would be extraneous.


 


Nick Tabor is a researcher at New York Magazine. He previously reported for newspapers, covering crime and jails in Kentucky and state politics in Maryland, and attended the nonfiction writing program at Goucher College.


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