June 4, 2014
Bob Dylan sang, "If my thought-dreams could be seen, they'd probably put my head in a guillotine."
Well, you should see John Fahey's thought-dreams. "All I have ever done with music," Fahey wrote in 1996, "was to depict various emotions in an organized and coherent musical language, especially hate, fear, repulsion, grief, depression, or feeling nothingness."
Fahey, who died in 2001, never sang his thought-dreams. It was guitar fingerpicking that brought him fame. A new biography, Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist (Chicago Review Press), is a balanced look at both: Fahey's music and his mind. Author Steve Lowenthal, who runs a record label devoted to instrumental guitar (as did Fahey), explains his subject's technical mastery, innovation, and experimentation, and he sketches a well-informed family tree connecting Fahey to early 20th century bluesmen and to noisy contemporaries like The Red Krayola, Jim O'Rourke, and the No-Neck Blues Band.
More remarkable is Lowenthal's psychological portrait of Fahey, which reveals just how tortured this "tortured genius" was. The book starts with a painterly description of post-World War II Takoma Park. Fahey's childhood in this wooded Washington, D.C., suburb dominated his psyche for his whole life, inviting both romanticization and rebellion. A sensitive child, Fahey would always look back fondly on his doting mother, two neighborhood boys who took him under his wing, and the turtles he found in nearby ponds. He bristled at his father's strict Catholic discipline and the social hierarchies he encountered as he got older. There was no room for emotions, Fahey felt, "no atmosphere for honesty."
A sharp mind, young Fahey grew sensitive not only to kindness and cruelty but to hypocrisy. He looked for opportunities to revolt. He imitated the greasers-slick hair, cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve-but ultimately rebelled against those rebels too. He then clung to individual friendships with other outsiders, especially those who shared his love of music. On the FM dial Fahey found revolution in the dissonance of 20th century composers like Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Then his favorite station revolted, changing to a country and western format. Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel No. 7" blew his mind, and he got himself a Sears, Roebuck & Co. guitar, paid for by the revolutionary act of . . . starting a paper route.
Back and forth Fahey went, rebelling against Catholicism by joining the Episcopal Youth Fellowship, where he re-rebelled by befriending a young organist and fellow oddball whose aunt had dated ur-outsider composer Harry Partch. (Fahey and his friend once snuck a Partch LP onto the church P.A. system to freak out the parishioners.)
As Fahey was learning, in Lowenthal's words, how to "mess with the squares for kicks," he had another conversion experience: Blind Willie Johnson's 1929 song "Praise God I'm Satisfied." Despite growing up around-and absorbing-racial prejudice, Fahey heard his own suburban loneliness and disappointment in the blues. He would become obsessed: writing a master's thesis on Charley Patton, driving door to door in the South to buy 78 rpm blues records from black families, and tracking down bluesman Skip James in a Tunica, Miss., hospital. Through all of this, Lowenthal writes, "the realities of poverty and institutionalized racism were far from his mind."
Fahey launched his career in 1959 with a record in a plain white sleeve that said "John Fahey" on one side and "Blind Joe Death" on the other. Elaborate liner notes from a 1964 pressing mocked the tone of academic folkies and created colossal myths around both Fahey and his alter ego. "The darker side of Blind Joe Death," Lowenthal writes, "is the embodiment of all the hate and negativity rippling under the surface of the faux suburban dream. While Fahey, as a child, was powerless, Blind Joe Death projects from a position of power, lashing out against those who repressed and abused him." Fahey himself said the album was "secretly throwing hatred and death back in the faces" of a culture that rejected emotions, feelings, and the admission of misery.
The album takes traditional blues fingerpicking and pushes at the edges with dissonance and distorted rhythms. That sound would remain throughout his career, although increasingly buried under tape manipulations, sound collages, and the occasional turn toward genres like traditional New Orleans jazz.
Fahey's career took him many places, but as in childhood, he couldn't find his own place. In the early 1960s, Fahey moved to Berkeley-and hated it. As the folk scene swept the country, Fahey called Pete Seeger's music lousy and exploitative of black people.
Fahey would later turn to Transcendental Meditation and devote an album to his guru, including a brochure for "Yogaville West" in the sleeve. Ultimately, Fahey's revolution, sparked by hypocrisy, was to flaunt his own hypocrisy through such entertaining contradictions. (He also instructed those who read a guitar tablature book of his own music to just play by ear.)
Increasingly, the music could not contain Fahey's anger. He threatened to kill an ex-girlfriend, Lowenthal writes, and slapped another girlfriend in public. He provoked hippie audiences with the N-word. He wrote an article for a Canadian newspaper in which "he fantasized about killing his audience then committing suicide on stage."
Fifteen years into his career, Lowenthal writes, "Fahey remained at odds with a universe that didn't consider him a priority." Fahey cussed out Joni Mitchell's manager, walked backstage during a David Grisman set muttering, "hate hate hate hate," and claimed to have punched out director Michelangelo Antonioni over film score directions (Lowenthal says that last one was "a product of his wild imagination," and that Fahey simply failed to produce the music Antonioni wanted and went home). Yet, despite not caring for riches, Fahey kept getting by. Like Gil Evans and many other musicians before him, his innovative talent drew supporters that allowed him to survive in spite of having ambition in inverse proportion to his talent.
Lowenthal keeps a steady pace in Dance of Death, which shows restraint considering Fahey's many outbursts. With so many relationships and musical performances left in tatters, surely it was tempting to circle them, build up the suspense, punch up the explosion, and linger on the debris. Lowenthal doesn't linger. His comprehensive walk through Fahey's life goes just far enough "behind the music," chronicling many conflicts and sharing reflections of people close to him at the time.
Dance of Death is a short read, but its value is in its straight documentarian approach. A collection of Fahey's own writing, How Bluegrass Destroyed My Life, is 100 pages longer than Lowenthal's 188 pages, and Fahey's interviews and extensive liner notes left behind even more to examine. But all of Fahey's autobiographical efforts contain too much fantasy, reckless armchair psychology, prankster myth-making, and other thought-dreaming to construct a true portrait. (A 2012 documentary, In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey, covered some of the same ground as Lowenthal's book but was less circumspect. The documentary glides right through an interview in which Fahey calls his father a pedophile. Dance of Death says Fahey's claim resulted from therapy to recover repressed memories using "a now largely discredited psychological theory," and Lowenthal allows those closest to Fahey to cast some doubt.)
Towards the end of his life, Fahey did find some solace, and both the documentary and the book give a lot of attention to his resurrection. In the early 1990s, a Spin magazine reporter found Fahey living in a series of messy Oregon motel rooms piled up with records he had been out scavenging. He was poor and his health had deteriorated.
The profile connected Fahey to a new generation of musical outcasts who were already under his influence. He picked up an electric guitar and made noise with them. "The only people who understand me," Fahey said at the time, "are punks and alternatives and industrial and no wave and anti-folk, etc."
Perhaps he heard in their music that suburban emptiness that clung to every note of his own music. "The Void is a term you find in existentialist writers and it's particularly well-described by some Catholic mystics in books on contemplation," Fahey says in an interview excerpted in the book. "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."
How strange then, as we learn in Dance of Death, that Fahey's music influenced the founder of Windham Hill Records and helped unleash the glut of technically proficient New Age guitarists whose gentle flatulence Fahey ridiculed as "hot tub music."
Lowenthal captures this and many other ironies of Fahey's life of musical and personal rebellions. Most importantly, he captures the irony in the way that Fahey's life mirrored the lives of the bluesmen he chased: a descent into alcoholism, penury, and obscurity, then rediscovery by musicians who had created a myth around the music only to be shocked and insulted when they finally met the man.
John Fahey's artistic legacy is monumental and mesmerizing. Using the strength of his own idiosyncrasies, he drew together the mutually repellent sounds of American folk and the avant-garde. Merging a scholarly grasp of folk traditions with a disgust for orthodoxy, he created myths around his music that were electric with contradictions and eccentricity.
The rebellions behind his music and myths raise the question, however, of how much white suburbanites like Fahey really had to rebel against. The music Fahey searched out and-whether intentionally or not-helped to canonize, is from a rural, black world where rebellion meant at the least obloquy and at the worst death. (Lowenthal notes, in fact, that Fahey put himself and the black families he pestered for records in danger-this was, after all, the South in the late 1950s and early 1960s.) It is much the same with the uncanonized American outsider music, those recordings from immigrant communities collected by Baltimore's Ian Nagoski for his Canary Records label, which depict an urban exile that dwarfs the malaise of suburban outcasts. (Who knows-if Fahey had heard a 78 rpm record of Greek singer Marika Papagika, he might have heard The Void there, too.)
Now, with a documentary and a biography, Fahey takes his place in the outsider canon. "Outsider canon"-a rich oxymoron, but it's what we've got. Outsiders no longer get to keep their outsider heroes to themselves-they're only a click away, conveniently listicled and buzzfed for our consumption on sites like Dangerous Minds, ready to mourn with us for the innocence we feel we were denied.
"Turtles are my favorite animals," Lowenthal quotes Fahey as saying. "Everybody runs over them on the highways and that's why I want to kill everybody. That's one reason I want to kill everybody."
Fahey, always with the turtles, protecting them and all they represented with the same fierceness of Holden Caulfield protecting his sister in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.
When Holden stumbles upon some graffiti at the end of the book, he says, "If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn't rub out even half the 'Fuck you' signs in the world. It's impossible."
John Fahey only got 61 years. To the very end, he was screaming, "Fuck you!" right back.
Lowenthal presents Dance of Death at The Windup Space on June 8. For more information, visit thewindupspace.com.
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