Courtesy of Dr. Demento website
Other than being one of the world's most manic record collectors, host of long-running, widely-syndicated Dr. Demento radio show (which the editor of PSF grew up on and worshipped), perpetrator of many enlightened articles, liner notes and compilations, Barret Hansen had one of his first forays into the music industry with his work with John Fahey in the '60's as one of his earliest fans and supporters.
Gets serious about John Fahey
Interview by Jason Gross
PSF: How did you first hear about John's work?
I was going to Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Around 1960, a fellow student who was a guitarist had a copy of his very first album, the one that there were only 95 copies of. He said 'you ought to hear this guy.' He knew nothing about him (Fahey). He just bought this album sight unseen in a store in Los Angeles, which caters mainly to jazz and blues buffs. So he wasn't sure whether John Fahey and Blind Joe Death were the same person. I remember him saying 'I can tell you that both sides were played on the same guitar, is all I know.' I borrowed his copy and made a reel-to-reel tape of it and enjoyed that frequently for the next few years.
Then flash forward four years later and I'm going to UCLA graduate school for folk music studies. The story is told in my notes in the beginning of The Return of the Repressed.
PSF: When you first met up with John, what did you think of him on a personal level?
He was skinny back then, dressed in a work-short and Levis blue jeans. He seemed very friendly because he had come to UCLA for the first time for the folk festival that they used to have there. He was just pleasantly surprised to see that somebody he'd never seen before knew about his first album 'cause the distribution had been so limited. I didn't know it was him- I had no idea what he looked like. But there I saw someone carrying an armload of albums which said 'John Fahey' on them. It was the first pressing of his second album. I couldn't resist stopping him, saying, 'Oh, a new John Fahey album!' He quickly said 'Oh yeah, I'm John Fahey.'
PSF: What was it about his work that struck you as being so unique?
I suppose it was the combination of two things that I loved: on the one hand, traditional blues and so-called ragtime guitar and on other hand, harmonies associated with contemporary classical music. Nobody had done anything like that before.
PSF: How did you first come to work with John?
The fall after the folk festival, which would have been '64, John enrolled in the same program that I was in. Then by pure coincidence, he moved in next door to me in Venice at a little beach area about 5 or 6 miles outside from Venice. Venice today is very gentrified and trendy. In those days, you could rent a nice cottage for $65 a month so that was a place where students could live. So, just by coincidence, we moved in next to each other. So between UCLA and Venice, we saw quite a bit of each other. That was the time when he was just starting to do some gigs. All through the early years of his career, he never performed in public.
PSF: Why was that?
I guess it just never occurred to him until he moved to Berkeley, which was the year I met him. There he found a few more people who were interested in what he was doing. He was certainly shy about it at first. He always had stage fright, at least all through the earlier years of his career. It's why he developed the habit of bringing the big bottle of Coke on stage with bourbon in it. He readily admitted, at least to me, it was to help him through his stage fright.
PSF: Were you promoting his work and encouraging him then?
As best as I could. I was not any kind of celebrity then. I was just Barry Hansen, graduate student in folk music studies. I'd done a teensy bit of writing but that was about all. Dr. Demento was still in the future. I worked at the Ash Grove and one thing I always did was... I was usually in charge of putting on the music that was on in the background before the show began. I'd always play John's albums, the only two that he had at that time.
PSF: Was there interest in the music from other people around there?
A few people said 'what's that?' There was one waitress who hated it: 'don't play that shit again!' But I'd play it at least now and then anyway. For a while, I played it every night. I guess she got tired of it. (laughs)
PSF: I know that you traveled to the South with John. Were you with him when he was looking for people like Bukka White?
No, that was before I knew him. I wasn't on the trip where he found Skip James either but I knew all those people. They're all gone now. Bill Barth (of the Insect Trust) lived in town so I knew him. I remember that they phoned me and said 'We just found Skip James.'
PSF: So you think that led to the folk blues revival at the time?
Certainly those two people. There were quite a few other people who were similarly rediscovered around the same time, like Mississippi John Hurt and Fred McDowell who never made records before. Lance Lipscomb was one of the first. Bukka and Skip were two of the best so you can't take that away from John. Stephen Calt, who wrote that book about Skip (I'd Rather Be the Devil), did everything he could to disparage John- don't bother with that one. There's a book about Charlie Patton that also disparages John, which is pretty good.
PSF: Revenant is coming out with a box set on Patton- one of John's last projects.
Of course, most of that material is already available on Yazoo but I'm sure that Revenant will do a terrific job.
PSF: John had kind of an impish attitude towards some of his work. He took on different pseudonyms and made up stories in his liner notes. Did you see that side of John much?
He liked to put people on. John liked to do things that befuddled people. I think he loved to have people say 'what the fuck?' He would do weird things like taking a few copies of the Blind Joe Death album and just snuck them into stores, put them into record bins so people would buy them. John frequently talked to me (I don't think he did this) about finding someone who could still press 78's out of shellac. I was involved in some of those 78's but they were vinyl so any collector could tell that they were newly made. He really wanted to find someone who could make shellac records, not just the way they looked in the '40's but the way they looked in the '20's. So then, he could make phony old blues records of his own playing and sneak them into thrift stores.
PSF: John was in the folk program but he also seemed to have some kind of mistrust of academia. Did you find that yourself?
Oh yeah. Once he got exposed to more of it, he developed a disdain for it. I did too in my own way.
PSF: So you think he was part of it and yet he wasn't.
That's well put. His approach was to do these subtle spoofs of academia. That's a thread that winds through all the notes in the early Takoma albums. They were also full of private jokes about his friends. If you see a reference to Tree Sloth Man, that's me. Sometimes, he'd only subtlety change the names. He was also responsible for Alan Wilson of Canned Heat meeting Bob Hite. He was also responsible for Al's nickname, Blind Owl.
PSF: Of those early records, do you have any favorite moments where you were around for the creation?
I was around for Days Have Gone By (1967) as I recorded some of the sound effects for the raga track. And of course The Yellow Princess (1969), which I co-produced in a more orthodox manner. That was done in a regular, legit recording studio with me setting up the times for the sessions and bringing in the backing musicians. Of course, John himself pretty much picked the repertoire. We kind of consulted on picking the takes. The other one I worked on was The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, the one that started out on Riverboat Records and then became a Takoma release.
PSF: How was it to work with John in that capacity?
He pretty much had his mind made up as to what he wanted to do. It was just up to me to help make it happen. With The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death (1965), it's really two half albums. He recorded half of it on the East coast and then he need some more tracks to make an album. We didn't have the budget for a legit studio for that one. So I found someone who had a real nice home recorder and a quiet room. I pretty much set John up and let him play. He was all by himself for most of it. I wasn't even around for many of the takes. I set him up and let him play. He sat there with a dog at his feet. There's one track where the dog barks in the middle of the music- it was my decision to leave that false start in.
PSF: After those records that you did with him, how often were you in touch with him in the '70's?
We kind of went our separate ways a little bit. When he performed, I'd go and see him. We'd talk on the phone now and then. I remember when he got married to his first wife- he had me over by that time. Then I remember when he married Melody and was living in Los Angeles. I had gotten married by that time so we had several evenings together, the two couples. Other times, we wouldn't see each other for a while so we kind of went in and out of each otherís lives. Then when he moved to Salem, we didn't see each other that much. There were occasional phone calls and postcards.
Then Rhino decided they wanted to do that 2 CD set so that resulted in my seeing him for the first time in the flesh for a while. I went up to Salem to interview him and go over the track selection.
PSF: Had his attitude about his own work changed much by then?
He'd done more public appearances so it wasn't such a terror to him anymore. He got more used to being on the road. He did other things. He told me 'I just got back from India' he reported at that stage in his life.
PSF: Was that a big change for him?
Yeah but... the only religion I had heard him talk about before was the Episcopalian Church he was raised in, as was I. That was another thing we had in common. Then of course, he'd talk about German philosophers all the time. It didn't surprise me then when he got involved in Indian religion. He liked the music I know.
PSF: Did you see him as a spiritual person?
Yeah. Not the kind who went to church often for sure. But certainly always spiritual. He never went to church any other time that I knew him but he would, in his early concerts, always close with a hymn. He eventually made a whole album of hymns, along with the Christmas albums. Spiritual, yeah... I was maybe a little bit of a smart-aleck in those days but if I ever said anything smart-alecky about religion, he did not want to hear anything like that. One could criticize the church, sure, but not religion.
PSF: When he moved to Oregon, did you notice any changes about John?
At first, he loved it. It seemed more serene. He wanted some place where it was quieter, where there was less crime, less traffic. He loved the green countryside. He was near a railroad track and he liked that. He loved to watch trains. Another thing he had in common with me.
Of course, two bad things happened. He came down with the Epstein-Barr syndrome, which was something that just kind of snuck up on him. Then the divorce. Those two things were linked, I think. The Epstein-Barr syndrome sapped his energy and Melody just got tired of him lying around the house, not doing anything. Then there was that sad story that he lost his house and didn't have any money. When I went up to Salem to do the work on the Rhino compilation, I had to get his guitar out of pawn. He hocked the guitar so he could pay the rent at the welfare motel he was living in. Then a year after that, he went to live in a gospel mission for a while.
PSF: It seemed though that some of these things, like hocking his guitar and living in hotels, were things he did regardless after he got 'rediscovered' himself.
Yeah, that's true. He even seemed OK with life at the gospel mission. He didn't entirely enjoy having to sit through sermons but it wasn't as hard on him as it might have been on some of the other people there. But I think he kind of liked having companionship.
PSF: He seemed to disparage his older work at that time. Did you find that?
Not to face though I certainly heard that he did that. I can understand that, especially after his new electronic thing got going. We were working on the Rhino project, which was a little before his involvement with Thurston Moore and all of that. At that time, he seemed very much into the project of bringing these old recordings back into print again. Most of them were out of print at that time.
PSF: Who initiated that?
Rhino. There's a fellow in the A&R department named James Austin who's a big Fahey fan. He brought me into the project.
PSF: So you were saying John was enthused about this project.
Yeah. We spent the afternoon with my tape recorder on and through various correspondence, we had picked all the tracks. James came up with an initial list, I made a few changes and then we submitted it to John. He said 'Can we put this one in? I don't know if we want to have this one in.' So, he made a few changes himself, but not many.
PSF: Was he pleased with the final result?
Yes, I think so.
PSF: You too?
I was happy with it. It was maybe a year later that I got one of my occasional late night phone calls from him. He said 'Have you ever heard of Sonic Youth?' I said that I had. He said 'I got one of their records and I really like their music.' Which surprised me, but it really shouldn't have. John frequently discovered things that one wouldn't expect and turned out to like them. So, that was another stage.
I got to hand it to him. Frankly, in his later years, technically he couldn't quite do the same sort of picking that he did in the '60's and the '70's- the double-thumbing and all that. It just got to the point where he couldn't do it at that speed anymore. The last time I saw him do an acoustic performance, he tried but everything seemed to be at half-speed and not very energetic. He was playing these kind of medleys, like on the America (1971) album though that was a number of years later.
I really got to hand it to him because he found a way that he could make music that was recognizably him but was new and that it didn't matter anymore whether he could do that fast double-thumbing. He could do the things he could still do and found a new way to present them with the electronic elements. And he brought back the musique concrete that had been evident (in his work) as far back as The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party (1966). He kind of made a new version of himself that... I don't know if the sales of his last few albums were commensurate with the ones in the '60's and the '70's but he certainly got a lot of attention so he felt validated.
PSF: When you said some elements of this were already in his work, is that what you meant when you said you were a little surprised but shouldn't have been?
Like the album with Cul de Sac (The Epiphany of Glenn Jones, 1997), that sounds radical and different from what he'd done before. But you put that on next to "A Raga Called Pat" and you can see there's a thread that links them together.
PSF: So you think he just had a certain restlessness to his nature?
PSF: That seemed to be the biggest turning point or break in his career.
In a sense yes, in a sense no. You put one of the last few albums on and your immediate reaction is 'wow, that's much louder than what he did before and there's all this other sound.' But then that was, at least from The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party onward, always a part of his approach. It was maybe not what he was best known for. I think a lot of people in the '60's would tend to skip over the musique concrete stuff, looking for the nice clean picking and the interesting progressions as they skip over "Requia" and things like that. I know I did- I liked his more orthodox picking better myself. That was just my taste. But the other stuff was always there. And you can take that thread back to "The Transcendental Waterfall" even though that doesn't have any other sounds in it. It's certainly the most free-form, experimental and less orthodox side of his nature.
PSF: His relationship to his audience seemed to be confrontational sometimes. Did you see that yourself?
Oh yes, especially when he had too much to drink. He would bait the audience. He would say racist things for instance and he'd bait women in the audience.
PSF: Stage fright?
Partly. And he liked to test people. He certainly tested me sometimes. John did not really know the meaning of the word 'tact.' Or at least if he did, it didn't apply to him. He said what he thought, drunk or sober. Even if it hurt his own career and even if he knew it might, he still said what he felt.
PSF: Dean said that John was coming to peace with his old work in the end. Did you find that?
The subject never came up in the last few communications we had, which was by e-mail. The last few were all about Revenant. Basically, he was saying 'that was a great album' and 'can you think of any more projects for Revenant?' There were no generalized evaluations of his work. I'm glad to hear that he felt that way.
PSF: What did you think of the work he was doing with Revenant?
Fantastic stuff. Packaging was wonderful, it knocked you out. The sound restoration was state of the art. The music was well-chosen too for the most part. That Beefheart album is in a way just for completists and specialists but there are enough of those. I was certainly interested in it. I was a little disappointed not to find anything that I could play on my radio show in there but still, it was great.
PSF: Other than the Revenant releases, what else was John most interested in during the last few times you contacted him?
He talked a lot about the classical records he was finding in thrift shops. When I visited him in Salem, we went on a few expeditions to thrift shops. He had large stacks of these albums in his room at the welfare hotel and talked about them. I knew something about classical music and old LP's so I guess he was happy to find somebody to talk about that stuff with. So that seemed to be the main thing on his mind.
At that time, in '94, his musical direction (the electronic phase hadn't begun yet) was that he wanted to make an album of '50's soft rock and roll tunes. He was convinced that it was going to be just as big as his Christmas album. He would play me tunes like "Twilight Time" and "To Know Him Is To Love Him." After we got the guitar out of hock, we went to see a friend of his who ran a used record store out on the edge of Salem. He got out the guitar and played several '50's pop tunes, quite nicely though it wasn't music that had much challenge to it. He basically played the melodies like he played the Christmas carols on his Christmas album. But he was excited about that as a commercial possibility. But then his mind went in another direction, probably a better one at least in terms of finding a new audience. His version of "To Know Him Is To Love Him" wouldn't have found him any kind of a critical new audience though it might have sold some records. (ED NOTE: some of the Ď50ís songs did appear on Old Girlfriends and Other Horrible Memories, 1990)
PSF: What do you think John's legacy might be?
A lot of music that is very varied. Just like Stravinsky, he went through different periods, creating something of value in each period. Some of it is heavier, some of it is lighter. It all has value. I'm sure like with any other composer, some is going to be more highly esteemed than others. But it's really a very impressive corpus of music. At the same time, he influenced a lot of other people. Leo Kottke, for sure. Whether John liked it or not, the Windham Hill people too. (William) Ackerman certainly wouldn't have sounded the same way without John being around.
PSF: You seem to be describing John as a classical musician.
Yeah. I think John liked the label 'American Primitive' but he wanted to be known as a composer, not just as a picker. I think that's how he'll go down in history, as a composer who for a while could also play some pretty decent guitar though he readily admitted his fingers weren't as fast as Kottke's. He could still get around pretty well for a while.
But it's the compositions that he'll be known for and his writing, I imagine. Which is something that's come to the fore more in the recent times, with his book having come out (How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life ). The liner notes were always there but you could consider them as incidentals, as many people did. But it was certainly him expressing himself. Even if the Transfiguration album might be better remembered for "Brenda's Blues" or "The Death of the Clayton Peacock" but the notes are real fascinating too.
PSF: Do you think John might have had an effect on your own work?
Oh, I can't say it influenced the Dr. Demento show, which is what I became known for. We certainly had a lot of discussions about the meaning of blues, which might have subtlety influenced the book I just wrote (Rhino's Cruise Through The Blues). He certainly helped me see what makes the Delta Blues tick and other kinds of pre-war acoustic blues music.
PSF: What about any outlooks on music or his spirituality?
It was certainly moving but I think we agreed to disagree. I respected the way he felt. He didn't try to convert me. When he came back from India, he might have tried a little harder to convert me at that time, to that way of thinking than he ever did to Christianity.
PSF: That didn't work though.
No, I'm fairly set in my ways. (laughs)
PSF: Is there anything else you wanted to say about John?
It was great the way that he renewed his creative energy in his last years and got a better outlook than he had before. Found a new audience. It was just too damn bad he couldn't renew his body.
PSF: How had his outlook changed?
He was creating new music that was exciting people. More and more people were coming to know him as someone who had a strong, valid position on the American music scene and had for a long time. I think he was beginning to realize this. It renewed his energy. And he was making music that was more exciting than he had in the '80's or in the early '90's. But he just couldn't do much about his body. I'm just saying that it's too bad.
See the rest of our John Fahey tribute
Dean Blackwood/Revenant Byron Coley on the '90's Byron visits John Dr. Demento George Winston Fahey interview
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