Starting out in 1996, Dean Blackwood and John Fahey launched a new label called Revenant to make sure that the music that they loved was available to the public (this being Fahey's second label after starting Takoma in the late '50's). Thanks to this bold venture, work by (pictured above from left), country guitarist James 'Tex' Carmen, Sun City Girls' Richard Bishop, Captain Beefheart and Derek Bailey saw the light of day with historic recordings also from Cecil Taylor, Dock Boggs, the Stanley Brothers, Charlie Feathers, Harry Smith and others. A great admirer of folklorist Smith, Fahey surely followed in his footsteps with his own archival series on Revenant. Happily, Blackwood intends to carry on with Fahey's vision, starting with a box set of Charlie Patton's work to be released later this year.
Remembers John Fahey
PSF: Talk about how you first met up with John.
I got to meet John after I read Byron Coley's Spin article in '94- I called Byron and asked about him, what happened to him. I was putting out a series of '78's (with Sun City Girls and others) and wanted to get Fahey to do one. He was into the idea. He had a prankster nature and thought it would great to have it in good-will bins. He didn't have anyone managing him- there was an audience of younger people not wedded to notion of John as folk troubadour, and not wanting him to stay pickled, just the same always. Young people would embrace whatever he was doing. Although they loved his old work, they were interested in what he was doing now. That wasn't being tapped into.
I wanted to get him back out there- he was still doing it in his room with a boom-box recorder. Jim O'Rourke and others were fans so we just got him back in circulation. Jim was the way he ended up with Drag City and stories were passed around that became How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life. I did a bad job of editing them- I tried to make them into literary NY stories and that was the wrong approach and Jim wised me up. The best way was to keep his voice in tact, which they did when he decided to do the book. He had the record with Tim Kerr and Table of the Elements, recorded a lot of material.
PSF: What was his life like up in the Northwest?
We got him set up with a DAT recorder in Oregon, in a series of weekly-rent motels, as when he died. I wanted to get him out of that but the reason he didn't leave... He was paying crazy amounts of money to live in these places. He could have found a nice apartment. He didn't want that. There was something comforting to him that he wasn't left to his total self-sufficiency. They had maids who came around and there were people around there. While he was sort of an isolationist, he knew that he wasn't cut out for living in a trailer in the woods. When it came down to it, he wasn't fit for true self-sufficiency. He liked the idea that there was someone to watch over things and it was just easier. He wasn't responsible about paying bills. He just had to pay his rent. I gave up trying after a couple of years. He lived in a house for a while but that was a little too cozy for him. He had a lot of cognitive dissonance. He had this real independent streak but he knew he couldn't be a pioneer there in the woods. Ultimately, he couldn't abide living in a house.
The people who ran these places liked him personally but he reached his critical mass at each place and they couldn't tolerate him because of things like setting up a painting studio on his bed spread.
PSF: How did Revenant start?
In 1995 or so, he came into some inheritance money from his dad. Instead of investing, he wanted to start a label. He wanted us to run it together. We wanted to do it the way we wanted, with raw music. We had ideal candidates- Doc Boggs, Beefheart, Ornette, early Stanley Brothers. It's interesting to compare the early formulation to what we're doing today. It really hasn't changed course from the original notion, which was driven by John's vision. It's a testament to him, knowing what he wanted. We wanted to put out what was missing as far as what record labels were offering: the artist's vision preserved in tact in its raw form.
The label started in '96 and first records came out in '97 with three releases a year (starting with Derek Bailey) and then one a year. We added more to the scope of the packages: Harry Smith, Beefheart, Feathers and now Charlie Patton due summer 2001. There was no staff, just me and him. My mission is to carry through with his dream project for 30-40 years, the Patton thing. I wanted to have him write a new piece on Patton. He's such a wonderfully unpredictable guy in his writing. His writing is almost tongue-in-cheek mock-scholarly but you saw how penetrating his intellect was. He wrote the notes for the Gospel release on a plane and they went in there pretty unedited.
PSF: Was he working on any of his own work recently?
The last several months, we talked about new material. He passed through this period where he was indulged in his desire to experiment in his music more than he had before, not so much as an undercurrent and let him release a lot that was pent up. While I think that music is fascinating and worthy of study, he ended up at ease with his past. He was railing against it, and then he came to terms with it more recently and wanted to draw on all his musical influences and assert himself organically and not vent these pent-up experiments. The stuff he sent lately (CD-Rs) was to be distilled into one record and it was evidencing a new state of being more at ease with his musical history and embracing it all rather than rejecting one to the benefit of the other. It shows a real mastery of his craft. He had real peace with all his history. What he continued to rail against was people who were stuck in the past. "I'm doing different things- why can't you understand it." But musically, he came to a different place where he was at peace with all the aspects of his storied career. I will probably be working on it after the Patton set is done. We have to remaster the old (Patton) 78's and its pain-staking.
The other thing that we've been working but John had mixed feelings about and asked me to wait until he was dead to do it was the Fonotone material. I really didn't know how to play guitar then, he said. This is '58 to '65- he enjoyed the ruse to market these records as Blind Thomas. It shows how eager people were to embrace a Mississippi bluesman of their own before Hurt, James, Houses were re-discovered. 'A recently rediscovered Mississippi Bluesman.' They were half-drunk, having fun. There's 4 or 5 CD's worth. Some of it is really great, some is interesting, some of it is really compelling. Joe Bussard did the recordings for his label with an amazing old collection of records. He'd played these records and he'd have his tongue wagging out.
PSF: He was a real collector, wasn't he?
Fahey started out as a hardcore collector but he collected the music itself. He used it to influence his music. He didn't hang on to them 'cause that wasn't important to him. He didn't want physical stuff. He'd tour around into the '70's and trade things by mail. He didn't keep them. He took what he needed of the music and recorded it on tape to learn the songs and figure out tunings and such. Fahey was part of the group that found Skip James in the hospital- one of the first questions was about the tuning to one song.
The idea of having a label was to share the music that he thought was under-appreciated and languishing out-of-print. 'Why not make value judgments- it's not good just 'cause it's old music! Let's focus on the good stuff. The problem with labels is that they have crappy packaging and it's too academic. You just want good music and that's all.' The main driving thing was sharing this stuff with other people. That is, despite his misanthropic reputation, in his music, he aimed to share with people, whether dark emotion or a trickster element that was what it was about. He fed it all into a meat grinder and showed people what came out on the other end.
PSF: How would you describe his playing style?
His music has that great feeling like in short fiction. It's unpredictable but inevitable. You're surprised but you realize that's how it had to happen, even though the elements are unpredictable. Every note was perfectly placed but unpredictable.
PSF: He had quite a reputation for being belligerent. Did you ever see that?
He really was one of these people who didn't tolerate fools gladly. He was pretty fucked up a lot of time, in mood swings and meds for ailments. It was hard to know if he was exhausted or not. Still, there was never a cross word between us. He and Glenn Jones had a fairly miserable time making the Cul de Sac record. John was a pretty opinionated guy but he didn't always keep it in check. He would say it was a waste even if a lot of money was spent on the session.
I saw his petulance. Most people deserved it but I was a little embarrassed that it happened for the person- not that I ever felt that I had to be apologist for him or anything like that. Lots of people had experiences like that with him. Lots of people would attest to beatific experiences with him.
He ran the gamut. I loved the guy. He was a pleasure to have known. You had to jump through hoops to manage him. He was his own guy. It was a stubborn streak. He had that self-sufficient streak which he had to pull back from totally doing it but he was lazy about things that weren't directly related to doing his art- hygiene and paying rent weren't directly related to it so it wasn't as important. That interfered with him and the expression of his art. It was an impediment. Nothing, not even making sure you don't fall asleep with ice cream on your chest, was going to distract him from his art. That made it difficult for some people to deal with him sometimes.
PSF: What you do you think John's legacy might be?
He put everything into his art and his music and his writing and art work. Nothing came between him and what he wanted to express. You listen to 'Approaching of the Disco Void,' which changed names a lot- it's a devastating piece. This guy left nothing- he put it all on the table. He didn't leave anything in reserve.
He loved doing Revenant but it was sort of incidental. He wouldn't even mention it as something to describe himself. It wouldn't occur to him that he was doing that. He defined himself by what he felt. He had some deep-seeded stuff based on childhood, which amounted to sexual trauma that he was able to get out in his music. If he described himself, he wouldn't say he's 'a folklorist, researcher, play guitar and I don't know... like to read, commune with the devil.' He doesn't think in those terms. He tended to excel at anything he wanted to do. He could have been a writer full-time and he had a very peculiar voice.
PSF: Why do you think a younger crop of 'alternative' fans picked up on his music recently?
It's a lot of same reasons they pick up on Doc Boggs. I think people are sick of the Cocktail Nation and getting winked at and all the irony. The same thing people responded to in Nirvana- venting the spleen and great hooks. His music did that- he's not trying to be funny. He's channeling the real stuff- that's what people responded to. That's what we saw the label responding to. We didn't want to preach to the converted (blues collectors) but to people who are general adventurous listener.
PSF: It's said that John was living a hobo life in the '80's before he got 'rediscovered.' I get the feeling that this isn't really the way it was though.
It was the same life that John led before that- always hawking stuff, shopping in salvation armies and thrift stores looking for rare classical LP's, he knew the market. Whenever people spent time with him, he'd always ask about thrift stores and ask them to drive him around to find shops with old classical records. All his promoters honored that request.
He lived in a series of welfare-motels, weekly rentals, and all of them were more expansive than weekly rent on apartment. He always had this publishing income and that never went away- he was never penniless. It's just writerly license taken with that period. It might have been fallow creatively because he didn't know anyone interested in what he was exploring. He didn't have access to outlets that he had when he was 'rediscovered.'
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
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