What a Quart of Whiskey Might Assuage, but Never Alleviate

Nick Tabor

Guitar music gave John Fahey a bridge to the subconscious, and his subconscious evidently was a scary realm.

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

Publisher: Chicago Review Press
Length: 240 pages
Author: Steve Lowenthal
Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-06

“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

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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