Perfect Sound Forever


photo by Bettina Herzner

by Byron Coley
(May 2001)

Salem, Oregon is not a large city, but it has its amusements and we are in search of one. "Turn in here," says John Fahey, waving his arm in the direction of a gas station mini mart. "Their sausages are great."

 Fahey orders the last two sausages-on-a-stick available from the establishment's hot table, as well as a quart of sweet iced tea, a package of three pink-frosted goodies whose origins are not clearly terrestrial, and a small warm bucket of deep-fried mushrooms. "And we can write this all off?" he asks. I assure him that we can and we return to the front seats of my small rental car. We squeeze our fat asses into the sedan and Fahey proceeds to direct me toward our next destination, a local Salvation Army thrift store at which he regularly buys classical records to resell to a dealer in Portland.

 The scent of the mushrooms -- not so much earthy as somehow fishy -- fills the vehicle, eradicating its pernicious "new car smell" once and for all. I mention that the counter help at the mini-mart had a "born-again" look in their eyes and Fahey launches into a discourse about the inability of most evangelical Christians to grasp the transitional nature of Paulist theology, gobbling oily mushrooms all the while. During a moment of quiet mastication, I say that a friend of mine studied guitar with the Reverend Gary Davis when Davis was teaching in New York in the 1960's.

 "Oh, Rabbi Davis," Fahey says with a smirk. "He sure made some insanely good guitar playing records in the '30's. By the time he was rediscovered he really couldn't play that well anymore. He was a pedophile. Did you ever go to his shows? Somebody always gave him a girl to lead him around. He was always doing a lot of groping, with his wife right there. I always thought the guy was an old jerk. The Salvation Army's right over there."

 Such is a typical car ride with John Fahey, a guy who has made his own slew of insanely good guitar playing records, and seems ripe for "rediscovery" of the sort that was visited upon those few pre-war blues artists who had the good sense to survive into the 1960s. While Fahey has languished far apart from the cultural mainstream for most of his life, there have been periods where his performances and recordings were very popular with a certain set of hipsters. Thurston Moore is one musician who has admitted as much, saying that, "Fahey's weirder tunings, especially on stuff like 'Guitar Excursion into the Unknown,' were a real secret influence on early Sonic Youth."

 That his popularity is nowhere near its zenith currently was obvious from the first moment that I laid eyes upon the Salem welfare motel in which Fahey was living when we met. In a room strewn with a curious assortment of food containers, classical LP's, esoteric non-fiction books, and an inches-thick layer of general detritus, Fahey was sprawled vast, white and shirtless across a queen-sized bed. The room was dark, Fahey was listening to a record of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's farewell speech, and his grizzled countenance seemed to be relaxed by the familiar blabber of MacArthur's "old soldiers never die" kiss-off.

 The discomfort of Fahey's situation (since our meeting he has relocated to the rooms of a local Salvation Army) says as much about the paucity of the public's imagination as it does about any of his personal failings. In the 35 years since his first recordings were released, Fahey has created a universe of complexity, emotion and exquisite otherness for acoustic steel string guitar. His musical inventions match those of John Coltrane and Harry Partch for sheer transcendental American power. As Fahey's acolyte, Leo Kottke, once said in an interview, "John is one of the heroes of whatever this country has for a culture."

 But, as I sit in Fahey's cluttered quarters, I'm trying to figure out if there's a guitar around somewhere or whether he has had to hock it again. "I'm so poor I keep pawning my guitar," Fahey says. "A friend got it out of pawn for me, but I'll have to put it back in next week to pay the rent.

Life has been pretty grim. I'm not used to being poor. I've never been poor in my life. Although certain aspects of it are interesting and good for one's humility, of which I don't have any, it may help me be more humble, but so far I just get mad. I have no experience with this. I've always had plenty of money."

It is true that Fahey has been flush in the past. The record label he founded, Takoma, had several hugely successful albums including his own The New Possibility (an album of beautifully-arranged Christmas songs that sold over 100,000 copies) and Kottke's Six and Twelve String Guitar. But lack of interest in the details of running a label resulted in the sale of Takoma. "I never argued about stuff because I really didn't care about it. I couldn't stand being in an office. 'That's an office decision,' I'd always just tell them. 'You do what you want.'" From the end of the '60's through the middle of the '80's, Fahey also maintained an extensive and well-paid touring schedule, playing concert halls and colleges from here to Tasmania (where he recorded a live LP in '81). He has, however, been dogged by persistent medical problems since his youth. Now that he is 55, some of those troubles have intensified, and wide-ranging tours are almost too grueling to consider. "What wears me out is the anticipation, the traveling and the nervousness," he says. "You've got excess adrenaline that's making you nervous. You've got to burn it up, so the first pieces you play have to be hard and fast. That's the only way to do it. Stagefright is a purely physical thing. Although I suppose some people are more afraid of people than others. And I'm pretty scared of people."

 Fahey is now past the five-year bout of Epstein-Barr Syndrome that made his life hell in the mid-to-late '80's. "I could feel it when it entered me and I could feel it when it left," he says. "That's when I was at my apex of drinking. I had to drink a lot of beer for the energy. I didn't play nearly as much. I talked most of the time. That's because I didn't have the energy to play more. It was horrible." Still, he is plagued with something called Restless Leg Disorder, which causes long periods of involuntary muscle contractions, as well as the persistent chronic insomnia that made him one of the first people to receive a prescription for Quaaludes when they were introduced in the '60's. Fahey had just begun to take his Quaaludes when the Italian director, Michaelangelo Antonioni, flew him over to Rome to record music for the soundtrack of Zabriskie Point.

 Antonioni's conceptual sequel to Blow-Up is an Italian leftist's goofball cinematic view of late '60s American counterculture. It features a long sequence with nude couples making love in the desert, for which Antonioni wanted Fahey to do the music. When Fahey arrived in Rome, Antonioni showed him the segment in a screening room. "Antonioni says, 'What I want you to do is to compose some music that will go along with the porno scene.' I kept saying, 'Yes, sir.' Then he starts this, 'Now, John. This is young love. Young love.' I mean, that's young love? All these bodies? 'Young love. But John, it's in the desert, where's there's death. But it's young love.' He kept going, 'Young Love/Death' faster and faster. I was sure I was talking to a madman. I'm still sure I was.

 "So I experimented. I had instrumentalists come in and told them just to play whatever they felt like. They had to pretend to understand what I was talking about, especially if Antonioni came in the room. That was fun. They were very cooperative. I came up with some sections of music that sounded more like death than young love. It was actually pretty ominous. I played it for Michaelangelo and he thought it was great. So he took me out to dinner at this really fancy restaurant and started telling me how horrible the United States was. We were drinking a lot of wine and I don't remember which one of us started cussing. It started real fast and ended in a fistfight. You have no idea how much that guy hates the United States. What a jerk. I did like 20-25 minutes, but they only used about two minutes. Somebody's driving along in the car and the announcer says, 'And now some John Fahey.' And that's it -- young love and death."

 Fahey brims with stories of this ilk, intercut with profoundly observed religious and philosophical expositions, as well as weighty treatises on the aesthetic milieu of pre-WWII American music. More than almost anyone whose thoughts are collected in the musical press, Fahey is an incredibly complex individual with intellectual, mystical and creative depths that are extraordinary. He has also lived a life that buggers easy description.

 For instance, there was the time he was playing at the Berkeley Folk Festival and decided to tweak the crowd. "I was trying to convince the audience, who was mostly Negros, that these jerks like Phil Ochs and the impartial moderator Pete Seeger, were writing music about Negros to make money and not to help Negros. That they were actually exploiters. And I got booed by the Negros. I kept saying, 'I think that Negros have enough intelligence to write their own songs. I'm really convinced of it.' BOO! I was set up, I just didn't know it. I was percieved by the left as being dangerous. Because I was playing at the Jabberwock every weekend and packing it. And I was playing an Al Capp role, calling them communists and using the word 'nigger' and things, just to see if they really had any backbone. Nobody ever said a word. Somehow the left found out about this and thought it was much more important than it was. It wasn't really very important, it was just sort of fun. I remember when you'd go into a folk store, there'd always be a big sign up, 'Should Pete Seeger Go To Jail?' I'd always say, 'Absolutely. Because he sings such lousy music.'"

 Or there was his relationship with the Integral Yoga Institute in the early '70's. "Probably the primary reason I got involved with them was that I fell in love with Swami Satchidananda's secretary, Shanti Norris. So, I was doing benefits for them, hoping to score points with her, and along the way I learned a lot of hatha yoga. I could go over there and get food any time I liked. That was okay. And I learned the secret passwords, so I could get through the young devotees who all wanted to convert me. They had a service every day with singing and horns and amplified harmonium. I'd go over there just for the beauty of it. I didn't believe in Krishna or anything. It was like being in the middle of The Thief of Baghdad. 'Here we are in the Orient, folks.' I always wanted to hire an actress, and have her go over there with the right stuff on her head and everything and her robe and start shedding her clothing in the middle of the service. The Quakers used to do that. There'd be Quaker women with no clothes on in the middle of the service."

 The brief interest Fahey evinced in Mormonism after moving to Salem had a similar flavor. "What happened in this case was that I decided I needed a new wife. I thought I'd try the Mormons. So I called them up and said I was interested. They came right over. They're real sociable. But there are built-in contradiction factors in the Book of Mormon that they're going to have to deal with as their membership becomes more intelligent and well-educated. Joe Smith claimed that he found another edition of the Book of Matthew on one piece of papyrus. Brigham Young University has an open invitation for any Egyptologist to come by and examine it. The Egyptologists all say it's a shopping list. But the majority of the Mormons, if they know about it, go along with it. The Mormon missionary I first met was this beautiful woman and what was amazing was that she said she'd read the Book of Mormon 40 times. I couldn't believe it. She had a really high IQ. How could she read this crap and believe it? That's just incomprehensible to me." Fahey's own philosophical stance has been fire tempered over many years.

 Raised in Takoma Park, Maryland, Fahey bought his first guitar with money earned on a paper route that included Goldie Hawn's house. He'd been a devotee of classical music when he noticed some guys hanging out in a local park playing guitars and picking up girls. It looked like a good gig. His early influences were country and bluegrass players. Indeed, when he first started getting hooked up with blues collectors to go looking through the rural South for rare 78s, Fahey was uninterested in any black music. It was only after an epiphanic hearing of Blind Willie Johnson that he became a blues hound.

 In 1956, Fahey enrolled in Maryland University, but became embroiled in an argument with his ROTC captain. He transferred to American University and continued to live at home. A loose circle of suburban outcasts formed during this period. They'd meet at the local Episcopal church to discuss malaise in the Eisenhower era, and also to play and record weird ensemble music. "We were all trying to keep from going crazy," Fahey says. "All our parents were busting up. We were all miserable. But the people who were unhappy around that time couldn't figure out why. They thought they were abnormal. And the adults, who were all in psychoanalysis, didn't help us. But that's where we all learned about psychoanalysis. It was an interesting period."

 Fahey's guitar playing and composing developed with speed and iconoclasm. He attempted to fuse some of the dissonant things he liked about contemporary classical composers, like Bartok, with blues' syncopated rhythms. During the day, Fahey was the star of the philosophy department at AU. In the evenings he worked as night manager at Martin's Esso Station, once the third biggest gas station on the east coast. "We pumped 100,000 gallons a month," Fahey says.

 Fahey thrived on the night shift. "Martin's was the only thing open in the county. I always invited the cops to stay as long as they wanted. 'You want some free batteries for your flashlight? Take them.' I got to know all the cops and they let me speed. I never got caught. It was just, 'Hi, Fahey.' I became a very important person for the only time in my life. I still dream about it. I have very nice dreams of going back and working all night at this gas station. And I liked the responsibility. In the three years I had that, gig not one quart of oil was ever missed on the inventory. I watched. I'm real good at watching things. And that was the main part of the job during the week. There was not much work to do."

 Since that was the case, Fahey would spend long hours playing and composing. One night a friend who'd stopped by, said that she thought he ought to make a record. So he did. An LP's worth of material was recorded and issued under both his own name and a wise-ass blues soubriquet: Blind Joe Death. Fahey called the label Takoma and tried to sell the records at work. Nobody bought them. He also stuck a few of them in the bins of a local Goodwill. "It was my secret way of breaking records," he says. "That first record took years to sell." It was also among the first albums recorded and produced by an independent artist, without the succor of record companies. As Barry Hansen wrote in '72, "John Fahey is the original underground musician. Dylan was still at Hibbing High School when John Fahey made his first record."

 After getting his BA, Fahey and much of his crew headed for UC Berkeley. He packed the remaining copies of his LP into the trunk of his Chevy and enrolled in the school's Philosophy PhD program. He soon found he didn't appreciate the department's empirical bias. Nor did he like Berkeley's social scene. The east coast transplants were avid record collectors, well versed in the real shit; Berkeley was full of earnest, pasty young people plunking Martin copies and singing "This Land Is Your Land." Fahey and his friend Ed Denson spent many hours heckling these clueless would-be hepsters.

 It was during this time that Fahey and Denson "rediscovered" the blues singer Booker White and also that Fahey recorded his second album, Death Chants, Break Downs & Military Waltzes. This album included pieces recorded back in Maryland, and also introduced Fahey's practice of writing extensive, hilarious and sarcastic liner notes. Because a local 78 dealer was also a national distributor, this album sold much more quickly than the first had, and it got favorable press in places like Peter Stampfel's influential column in Broadsides. Stampfel recalls, "Death Chants really blew my mind. He used a traditional guitar style to play modern-based compositions in an extended way. And his liner notes were way cool." The press garnered by Death Chants was enough to get Fahey his first paying gig -- a weeklong engagement at Boston's Odyssey Coffeehouse in the summer of '65. By this time Fahey had relocated to Venice, California, and was enrolled in the masters program at the folklore department at UCLA.

 This change in venues had come to pass in the wake of the '64 Berkeley Folk Festival, at which Fahey had stood up after a bluegrass set by J.E. Maynard and lectured him about the aesthetic evils of tailoring his music to the demands of the marketplace. "So, everybody's saying, 'Shut up, Fahey. Sit down. They did a fine job.' I left and I saw this little ferret-like fellow following me. He said, 'Say, I don't know who you are, but you're the only one who knows what was going on today, besides me.' I said, 'Yeah, what do you want?'" The little guy turned out to be D.K. Wilgus, head of the folklore department at UCLA. He recruited Fahey for his program and enrolled him in the fall of '64.

 Fahey made many important contacts in L.A. He met fellow blues scholars, young musicians and collectors, introduced Ry Cooder to the pleasures of slide guitar, and generally lived the life of the debauched scholar/artist. It was while he was a grad student that his music began to become popular. Noted blues scholar, Sam Charters, adds that, "It was during this period that John's concept of composition within the form of an extended improvisation was most influential. Country Joe and the Fish was one of the most successful of the bands that absorbed his ideas." So, Denson ran the Takoma label up in Berkeley, while Fahey split his time between working on his thesis about Charlie Patton, and playing long impressionistic guitar suites in folk clubs with a whiskey bottle his omnipresent companion. Zap Comix publisher and longtime Berkeley resident, Don Donahue, says, "Fahey was the first guy that any of us had seen drinking on stage. It just wasn't done in those days. But he made drinking look very hip and sexy." Fahey finished his thesis in '67, and continued to play and record prolifically.

 As the decade ended, Fahey got married and decided he was interested in running the Takoma label himself. He found, however, that he had no real faculty for it. His A&R ear was keenly tuned enough to hear the genius that lurked in Leo Kottke's homemade demo tape, but his attention drifted too easily. His marriage broke up, he investigated countless eastern and western philosophies, and he devoted less and less energy to the business side of the label. Throughout the '70's Fahey recorded and performed regularly. Brilliant albums like Fare Forward Voyagers and In Washington DC resulted, as did a reputation for an eccentric stage persona. He would lumber onto stage looking like a cross between a liquor-fueled bear and a slightly seedy college professor, then fill the air with a mix of fantastic guitar playing, loud burps and caustic asides. "Being a genius is tough, I guess," ventured a Village Voice reviewer. So it went.

Fahey remarried in the late '70s and relocated to Salem, Oregon in '81. About that time Chrysalis Records, who had bought Takoma from him, sold its catalogue to another company whose royalty payment schedule was not as energetic as Fahey might have hoped. He did record Railroad I, one last great LP for the foundering Takoma label, and records for other companies followed, as did a stream of reissued material, but not much cash accrued. "Two of my records are owned by Lawrence Welk's son," Fahey says. "Welk Entertainment bought Vanguard. At least I get a royalty statement from them." Then came Epstein-Barr Syndrome, accelerated drinking patterns, and the dissolution of his second marriage. Fahey managed to give up the bottle with some help from AA. "I had tried to stop drinking in the past using 'willpower,' but I spent too long in scientific philosophy to do that. I don't know what 'will' is. I recognize trying, but not will. And with 'trying-power' I could never do anything. But all I had to do in AA was dream things up and say prayers every once in a while. That worked."

 Fahey's long-time booking agent died while all this was transpiring, making gigs even more difficult to acquire. Consequently, Fahey turned his attention more toward writing. He has written some new pieces for guitar, including a long kaleidoscoptic opus on the order of "Fare Forward Voyagers." He has spent more time, however, working in prose. At the behest of a local college professor he began to collect his memories of meetings with famous musicians, and the stack of this and other music-related writing is approaching book-length thickness. Plus, there's the continuing work on Admiral Kelvinator: Clockworks Factory, an autobiographically-based phantasm dealing with the early years of his life, and the general heft of American life during the years leading out of the Second World War. "Sometimes I almost feel I like writing better than playing," he says. "Maybe you shouldn't print that."

 What the future holds for Fahey is unclear, but there are hints of bright possibility. He's hunting for publishers for his written work. He has a new booking agent who promises to locate him work on the west coast. Shanachie Records (who've already reissued a few choice Takoma titles) supposedly have several more in the works, although I couldn't find anyone at the label who knew what their plans were. Rhino Records is releasing a wonderful 2-CD compilation of his work in September (Return of the Repressed on Rhino). Assembled and annotated by Barry "Dr. Demento" Hansen, this comp will undoubtedly set some young minds ablaze, since it includes many seminal performances that have been unavailable for literally decades. There can be little argument (except from Fahey himself) that he has produced a remarkable body of work, and if circumstance allows he will produce much more in the years to come. "There's no one even remotely like him," says guitarist Barbara Manning. "His records are so beautiful that it would be tragic if there weren't at least a few more of them. There are certain moods I get in where I can't bear to hear anything else."

 "I've always really thought of myself as a spiritual detective and a psychological detective," Fahey says. "I guess with my music I'm always trying to get to a fuller understanding of myself. I felt so alienated from the culture around me, like I was from a different planet, like I wasn't really a member of the human race. I had two heads, one just wasn't visible. So I was looking for another path of music. I didn't really know what it was. I didn't care what it was and I still don't. Makes no difference to me and that's perfectly okay. 'Cause I'm just a little blip. The whole style is just a little blip on all the mainstream of music. We don't fit anywhere. And we never will."

See the rest of our John Fahey tribute

Dean Blackwood/Revenant Byron Coley on the '90's Byron visits John Bob Gersztyn interview with Fahey
Dr. Demento interview George Winston interview Fahey interview 1997

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER