Perfect Sound Forever


By Byron Coley
(May 2001)

John Fahey is one of the premier guitarists/composers of our era. That is a platitude with which few would argue. When one attempts to define the exact parameters of this era, however, the path becomes a bit prickly. Most people would probably say that Fahey's largest, most important body of work was created in the 1960's, thus, that was his era. Upon closer examination, my unofficial count makes it seem that his shit is spread quite evenly across the last four decades.

Fahey released one album in the '50's, ten in the '60's, eight in the '70's, nine in the '80's, and nine-or-so in the '90's. These decades do not represent discrete, extractable stylistic divisions, but I use them to illustrate the fact that John has remained fairly active throughout his career and that, in many ways, the 1990's are his era as much as any other. In many ways, this is his golden decade, although that might not have always been predictable. When the 1990's dawned, Fahey was still contending with Epstein-Barr Syndrome in addition to other medical problems. He had created some outstanding work in the previous years, but there was a narcoleptic quality to his playing that some were ascribing to his infatuation with Bola Sete, and others were crediting to his then-legendary thirst. After a couple of releases early in the decade, Fahey dropped from the recording scene to attend to his worsening health. The release of the Rhino compilation, Return of the Repressed, in '94 helped get his music heard by a new generation of heads and his recording career was soon in full swing. But in this new phase, rather than being accompanied by the folkies with whom he'd so often been saddled in the past, he was more often found in the company of young musicians with more experimental backgrounds.

 These pairings, while obvious to Fahey (who has always considered his music as a part of the avant garde), upset some of his old fans, but that was an inevitable byproduct of his re-emergence. John's technique and attack now are very different than they once were. Some claim he can no longer play his old material. There's a grain of truth to that, since it's the sorta stuff that requires constant practice. But anyone who speaks to him at length about such things comes away with the distinct impression that his playing now is just as he likes it. When one starts to realize that his true descendants are people like Thurston Moore, Alan Bishop and Loren Mazzacane Connors rather than Stefan Grossman, John James and Steve Tilston, Fahey's evolution makes sense galore. Also, as his new approach evolves, it cannibalizes more aspects of his traditional compositional gambits. In time, the geezers may sit contentedly alongside the kids.

 Recent shows I've had the pleasure to witness have been all over the place - from attacks of sheer metallic noise, to the gorgeously woven medleys that were similar to his live playing of the '60s and '70s, to great combinations of the two. He is always unpredictable, a master raconteur, and one of the few musicians upon whom the mantle "evil genius" could be properly bestowed. His live shows are not something that anyone with half-a-mind should miss on purpose, and his recordings offer equal pleasures. Here is a brief guide to the past decade's output.

John Fahey's Christmas Album CD (Burnside '91)

 Released by a Portland record store, this is one of Fahey's lesser works. Akin to his holiday music LPs on Varrick, it is a far cry from 1968's The New Possibilty, which made seasonal albums safe for hippies. This is more like a transcription of John's annual Christmas concerts of this era, which were designed to please crowds rather than break new ground.

 Old Girlfriends & Other Horrible Memories CD (Varrick '92)

 Like a Sandy Bull cassette album released around the same time, Old Girlfriends mixes some beautiful originals with seemingly-incongruous covers of tunes to which Fahey had a youthful attachment: "The Sea of Love", "Don't", "Blueberry Hill," etc. This album has always seemed very revealing and transcendent to me. Some of the originals have that indescribable depth to which Fahey seems to have sole access, and the cover tunes are wonderfully evocative of the heavy repression that helped to nurture John's genius.

 Return of the Repressed 2CD (Rhino '94)

 This 2CD comp offers a very signifying album title and so much more. There are truly outstanding liner notes by Barry "Dr. Demento" Hansen (a longtime friend, as well as the producer of Fahey's fifth LP), and a wonderful selection of tunes drawn from throughout his career. Some might niggle with a few selections, but the overall brunt is superb and the fact that it made John return to the guitar is enough to assure its place amongst his essential '90's pieces.

 The Mill Pond double 7" (Little Brother '96)

 Four ecstatic, lo-fi grabs for the ring of eternity, recorded in Fahey's Oregon hotel room. Containing the first graspable evidence of John's throat-singing abilities, this represents the merging of the bull and the china shop. The crudity of the electronics and the delicacy of the stringwork makes for a wonderful match.

 City of Refuge CD (Tim/Kerr '97)

More fucked-up hotel room recordings. My favorite passages are those where an electric fan (or something like it) creates a huzzing racket whilst Fahey slides and strumbles across the strings like the madman he is. City has distinct elements of John's classic style, interwoven with the industrial racket he was then discovering. At first this album disappointed me. More recently I have come to appreciate its charm and acerbic wit. Some critics griped that John's finger speed is diminished here, but Fahey (unlike his acolyte Kottke) was never really "about" speed so much as he was about magnificently odd juxtapositions. The album's last track, "on the death and disembowelment of the new age," is a chittering and rambling 20 minute piece of insect paranoia. This is probably what set the critics' hair on fire.

 The Legend of Blind Joe Death CD (Fantasy '96)

 While this is a reissue of Fahey's debut album, first recorded and released in 1959, its musical provenance is not straightforward. The material from the original album was partially re-recorded for a 1964 reissue, and the entire set was redone for a 1967 stereo issue. This Fantasy compilation, with copious liner notes by Cul de Sac's Glenn Jones, demystifies the process. It's a bit sad that Fahey didn't allow all of the material from the first session to be resuscitated. I think it would do people good to hear some of his more primitive genre-splicing experiments. But this is still the source - the initial pebble in the pool of collective subconscious from which all of Fahey's subsequent work expanded. Thinking that the guy was only 20 years old when he invented some of the conceptual moves on this album might be a bit daunting. So be it.

 Womblife CD (Table of the Elements '97)

 Recorded in concord with Gentleman Jim O'Rourke, this is a more structured and elegant dive into the maw of the unknown tongue. It is the first place where Fahey evidences the use of chiming gamelan techniques he's focused on a bit lately. Womblife is a masterful blend of chaos and beauty. The production works in a neat way, lending menace to the even most glowingly played passages, and Fahey's compositions seem very flowing and relaxed. There is an extreme perversity to parts of this album, but it's still capable of providing succor for those who feel the need for "form."

 The Epiphany of Glenn Jones CD (Thirsty Ear '97)

 My favorite of recent releases is this collaboration with the Boston quartet, Cul de Sac. The abject horror of the recording session is documented by Glenn Jones in the liner notes, but the results of the carnage are amazing. Cul de Sac usually stay towards the background, acting something like living backdrops for Fahey's excellent playing. This allows him to duet with everything from little golden birdies to strolling whistlers without getting off his fat ass. Parts of Epiphany veer into the sort of rock playing that Fahey flirted with during his Vanguard period (when he more-or-less recorded with Spirit), while keeping the soul of his muse intact. I have friends who cringe during the spoken track, but once you've read the liner notes you'll find it perfectly appropriate. There has been talk (at least from John) of another possible collaboration- it would be a fine thing.

 America CD (Fantasy '98)

 Although this issue is marred by the uselessly self-referential liner notes of Charles M. Young, its musical strength is still heavy. America, released in 1970, is one of Fahey's most abstractly brilliant albums. This is the first time it has been issued at its originally intended length. The two-LP vinyl version never got past the test pressing stage. Consequently, half of the material here has only been available on multi-generation cassettes made from the only known copy, which (according to rumor) was plucked out of a 99 cent bin by Fahey's friend, George Winston. The playing and composing on America represents some of Fahey's best work and the newly released material is a major addition to the canon. Too bad about those notes.

Georgia Stomps , Atlanta Struts and Other Contemporary Dance Favorites 2LP (Table of the Elements '98)

 This is a live album, recorded at the release party for Womblife. Although friends of mine have reported being physically sickened by the depth of electric effects that Fahey utilizes, this has been what you'd call a "grower" for me. It's a perfect example of dichotomy of opinion amongst fans - some say he's sloppy, I say he's "with it." Arranged in classic suite format, the playing on here travels into and out of a variety of emotional niches w/o really settling anywhere.

 Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes CD (Fantasy '98)

 Like the reissue of Blind Joe Death, this one combines different versions of the same songs from multiple versions of the album. The tunes are some of the most gorgeously transportational of his early oeuvre, and hearing them in this context gives listeners a very explicit demonstration of Fahey's weird ways of progressing. Good damn liner notes, too.

Red Crayola Live in the '60s 2CD (Drag City '98)

Fahey was supposedly vexed that this was released without his say-so, but it was floating around on tape for yrs before its release, so what the hex? The main of this was recorded just by Thompson and Barthelme in Venice, CA, but there's one longish track with Fahey, live at the Berkeley Folk Festival in July '67 and it is as messy a piece of noise as anything he recorded in the '90s. Totally prescient about the architecture of croak, this track makes his current work seem to be an outgrowth of a tradition, which his previous recordings never really explored.

By the by, there have been reissues of a buncha other Fahey titles by Fantasy and Japanese Warners (among others). They aren't included here because they offer nothing new in the way of tunes or notes. Of course, they're certainly worth hearing. There was also a 10" 78 on the Perfect Sound label in '86 or so, but even if I could find my copy I couldn't play it. Sorry about that.

 On the horizon for this century (or so) are a selection of 78rpm recordings originally issued in the late '50s and early '60s by Joe Bussard's Fonotone label, which Revenant will be issuing. There are also some recordings by Fahey's Oregon trio that we were gonna put out on the Ecstatic Yod label, although whether that'll happen is anyone's guess. Jim O'Rourke is also assembling older live material for issue on one of his labels. As to the status of the book of John's writing that Drag City has been supposed to issue for a while, well... who knows? (ED NOTE: out now from Drag City) Fahey is a tough turtle to crack. But those who would dismiss his '90s recordings are not really breathing with all their holes open. Don't be one of them. Get with the program.

Yr either on the bus or yr under it.

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