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More than 30 years of mind-blowing

guitar playing and composing have

earned John Fahey a hip handful of
devoted fans and a squalid room in a
welfare motel. Byron Coley explores
the uncommon life of one of America's
neglected musical treasures.

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 establishments
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 deepfried mushrooms. "And we can write this all off?" he asks. I assure him that we can,
and we return to my small rented 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 fishyfills 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 1960s.
"Oh, Rabbi Davis," Fahey says with a smirk. He sure made some insanely good
guitar-playing records in the 30s. By the time he was rediscovered he really
couldnt 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 is 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 a redis
covery" of the sort that was visited upon those few pre-war blues artists
who had the good fortune to survive into the 60s. Certainly, the 55-year-old
Fahey is as monumental and singular a musical talent as any this country
has produced. His guitar playing and compositional skills are both stagger
ing and unique. Many of the finest moments of my life (either engaged in
sexual congress or navigating the waters of higher consciousness) have
been heightened by the presence of his music as life soundtrack. At its best,
his work offers all the beautiful intricacy of a DNA double helix cast in pure
gold and bathed in the blue glow of pre-dawn light. And although 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 popu
lar with a certain set of hipsters. Thurston Moore is one musician who has
admitted as much. Faheys weirder tunings, he says, were a real secret
influence on early Sonic Youth."
That his popularity is currently nowhere near its zenith was obvious from
the moment I laid eyes upon the Salem welfare motel in which Fahey was
living when we met. In a single room strewn with a curious assortment of
food containers, classical LPs, esoteric nonfiction books, and an inchesthick layer of general detritus, Fahey was sprawled, vast, white, and shirt
less, across a queen-size bed. The room was dark. Fahey was listening to a
record of General Douglas MacArthurs 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
a local Salvation Army) says as much about the paucity of the public's imagi
nation 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 transcen
dental American power. As Faheys acolyte Leo Kottke once said in an inter
view, John is one of the heroes of whatever this country has for a culture."
Still, as I sit in Faheys cluttered quarters, I'm trying to figure out if there's
a guitar around somewhere or whether he has had to hock it again. Im 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 pret
ty grim. Im not used to being poor. Ive never been poor in my life. Although
certain aspects of it are interesting and good for ones humility, of which I

structed (and ultimately aborted) tour. His Boston show occurred in the
revolving bar atop the local Guest Quarters Suites Hotel. This place does
sometimes present jazz, but Fahey did not appear to be part of their regular
ly scheduled fare and the tables were full of blabbing junior exec types inter
ested in nothing other than a slowly spun drink. These nimrods made such a
racket that the dozen or so faithful in attendance had to strain to hear even
the ghosts of Fahey's laconically plucked notes. It was one of those events
that make even the most gentle aesthetes wish for a gun. After the show,
Fahey said it was fairly typical of the ways things were going: unadvertised
gigs played to uninterested suit-and-tie jerk-offs pounding down cocktails
named after cartoon animals. Its no wonder hes a little stage shy.
Fahey is now past the five-year bout of Epstein-Barr virus that made his
life hell in the mid-to-late '80s. I could feel it when it entered me, and I could
feel it when it left, he says. Thats when I was at my apex of drinking. I had
to drink a lot of beer for the energy. I didnt play nearly as much. I talked
most of the time. It was horrible." Still, he is plagued with something called
restless leg disorder, which causes long periods of involuntary muscle con
tractions, 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 '60s.
A lot of people are eulogizing the 60s," Fahey says. Praising the '60s
for me it was a time of misery. In the '70s, I had a lot of fun. In the '50s, too.
But in the 60s everything went crazy." Fahey had just gotten his prescription
for quaaludes when the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni flew him
over to Rome in 1969 to record music for the soundtrack oiZabriskie Point.
Antonioni's conceptual sequel to Blow-Up is an Italian leftists goofball cine
matic view of late-'60s American counterculture. To assemble the sound
track, Antonioni reportedly asked various American hippies what music they
liked. Their answers included Pink Floyd, Kaleidoscope, the Grateful Dead,
and John Fahey. Zabriskie Point features one particularly long sequence
with nude couples making love in the desert, and this is the one Antonioni
wanted Fahey to score.
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, thats
young love? All these bodies? Young love. But John, its in the desert,
wheres theres death. But its young love. He kept going, *young love/death'
faster and faster. I was sure I was talking to a madman.
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. I came up with some
sections of music that sounded more like death than young love. I played it

"A lot of people are eulogizing the '60s," Fahey says.

"For me it was a time of misery. In the '70s, I had a lot of fun.
In the '50s, too. But in the '60s everything went crazy."



London calling: Fahey and first wife Jan Lebow during his 1969 British tour.

dont have anyit may help me be more humblebut so far I just get mad. I
have no experience with this. Ive always had plenty of money.
It is true that Fahey has been flush in the past The record label he found
ed in 1959,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 Kottkes 6 and 12 String Guitar. But lack
of interest in the details of running a label resulted in the sale of Takoma. I
couldnt stand being in an office. Thats an office decision, Id always just
tell them. You do what you want From the end of the 60s through the mid
dle of the 80s, 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 80).
He has, however, been dogged by persistent medical problems since his
youth. Now that he is 55, some of those troubles have intensified, and wideranging tours are almost too grueling to consider. What wears me out is the
anticipation, the traveling, and the nervousness," he says. Youve got
excess adrenaline thats making you nervous. Youve got to burn it up, so the
first pieces you play have to be hard and fast. Thats the only way to do it.
Stage fright is a purely physical thing. Although I suppose some people are
more afraid of people than others. And Im pretty scared of people."
The last time Fahey played the East Coast was as part of a poorly con-

for Michelangelo, 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 dont remember which one of us
started cussing. It started real fast and ended
in a fistfight. What a jerk. I did like 20 to 25
minutes, but they only used about two min
utes. Somebodys driving along in the car, and
the announcer says, And now some John
Fahey.' And thats ityoung love and death.
Fahey brims with stories of this ilk, intercut
with profoundly observed religious and philo
sophical expositions, as well as weighty treatis
es on the aesthetic milieu of pre-WWII American
music. More than almost anyone whose
thoughts are collected in the musical press,
Fahey is a knotty individual with extraordinary
intellectual, mystical, and creative depths. He
has lived a life that buggers easy description.
For instance, there was the time he was
playing at the 1965 Berkeley Folk Festival and
decided to tweak the crowd. I was trying to
convince the audience, who was mostly
Negroes, that these jerks like Phil Ochs and
the impartial moderator Pete Seeger were
writing music about Negroes to make money
and not to help Negroes. I kept saying, I think
that Negroes have enough intelligence to
write their own songs. Im really convinced of
it. Boo! I was set up, I just didnt know it. I was
perceived by the left as being dangerous.
Because I was playing at the Jabberwock
every weekend and packing it. And I was play
ing an Al Capp role, calling them communists
and using the word nigger and things, just to

walked over, and asked me if I knew who it was on the stereo. Since hed just
finished lecturing me on the lyrical topics Robert Johnson had heisted from
Lonnie Johnson (in order to make the point that Robert Johnsons supposed
pact with the devil was a latter-day fiction created by white fanboys), I felt a
bit sheepish admitting that I did, indeed, know who it was. Fahey pointed his
finger at the speakers, through which the songs final croak was blasting,
and said, Man, that guy can write some great lyrics." My jaw slackened in
dumb agreement.
Raised in Takoma Park, Maryland, Fahey bought his first guitar at the age of


13 with money earned on a paper route that included Goldie Hawns house.
Hed 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.
Faheys early influences were country and bluegrass players. Indeed,
when he first hooked up with blues collectors to go looking though the rural
south for rare 78s, Fahey was uninterested in any black music. It was only
after an epiphanic hearing of Blind Willie Johnsons Praise God Im
Satisfied that he became a blues hound. I had just found the Blind Willie
record, and Id traded it to Dick Spottswood for some hillbilly stuff. Then he
played it, and I got physically sick. I broke down and started crying for about
15 minutes. I cant explain it, that's just what happened.
In 1956, Fahey enrolled at the University of Maryland, but became
embroiled in an argument with his ROTC captain. He transferred to
American University in D.C. and continued to live at home During the day,
Fahey was the star of the philosophy department at AU. In the evenings, he
worked as night manager at Martins Esso Station, once the third-biggest
gas station on the East Coast. We pumped 100,000 gallons a month,
Fahey says. He thrived on the night shift. "Martins 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.
With not much else to do except grease cars and cops, Fahey would
spend long hours playing and composing, attempting to fuse some of the

American beauties: The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Deaf/>(1966); /?e<7u/a(1967); The Voice of the Turf/e(1968).

"\ remember when you'd go info 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.'"
see if they really had any backbone. I remember when youd go into a folk
store, thered always be a big sign up, should pete seeger go to jail? Id
always say, Absolutely. Because he sings such lousy music.
Or there was his relationship with the Integral Yoga Institute in the early
70s. Probably the primary reason I got involved with them was that I fell in
love with Swami Satchidanandas 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. And I learned the secret passwords, so I could get through the young
devotees who all wanted to convert me.
The brief interest Fahey evinced in Mormonism after moving to Salem had
a similar flavor. I decided I needed a new wife. I thought Id try the
Mormons. So I called them up and said I was interested. They came right
over. Theyre real sociable. The Mormon missionary I first met was this
beautiful woman, and what was amazing was that she said shed read the
Book of Mormon 40 times. I couldnt believe it. She had a really high IQ. How
could she read this crap and believe it? Thats just incomprehensible to me.
Faheys own philosophical stance has been fire-tempered over many
years. Still, his mind seems to be incredibly open. The third day we spent
together, we decided to drive down to Eugene to survey the used record
stores. Fahey was looking mostly for old Takomas, which he can sell to
European collectors, or underpriced classical LPs. At the last store we hit,
the guy at the counter was a dedicated new waver, and a few minutes after
our arrival, he slapped on Big Blacks Atomizer at a pulverizing volume. I was
scrunching up my eyes, the thing was so loud, and I felt kinda bad for Fahey,
hunkered down among the 99$ Vaughan Williams albums while Rolands
beats scrubbed the air and Steve Albini railed: Nothin much to do in this
town / Been here my whole life. As Kerosene was ending Fahey got up,

dissonant things he liked about modern classical composers, like Bartdk,

with blues' syncopated rhythms. One night a friend who stopped by said that
she thought he ought to make a record. So he did. An LPs worth of material
was recorded and issued under both his own name and a wiseass blues
sobriquet.- Blind Joe Death. Fahey called his 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 a record company. As Barry Dr. Demento 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 many 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 schools Philosophy Ph.D program. He soon found he didn't
appreciate the department's empirical bias, nor did he care for Berkeleys
social scene. The East Coast transplants were avid record collectors, well
versed in the real shit, Berkeley was full of earnest pasty young people plunk
ing Martin copies and singing This Land Is Your Land. Fahey and his friend
Ed Denson spent many hours heckling these clueless would-be hepsters.
Their big thing, which I also ridiculed," Fahey recalls, was to get everybody
together to sing the same songs, so wed learn this feeling of unity. Whereas
my agenda was to get everybody apart and to listen to me\ Fuck unity.
It was during this time that Fahey and Denson "rediscovered" the blues
singer Booker White, and Fahey recorded his second album, Death Chants,
Breakdowns & Military Waltzes. This album included pieces recorded back
in Maryland and also introduced Faheys practice of writing extensive, hilarious,
(continued on page 107)

(continued from pag 66)

and sarcastic liner notes, which

poked fun at the archly serious notes
on most blues collections.
Fed up with Berkeleys touchy-feely
folk habituds, Fahey relocated to
Venice,California, in 1965, enrolling in
the masters program in the folklore
department at UCLA. 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, split
ting his time between working on his
thesis about Charlie Patton and play
ing long impressionistic guitar suites
in folk clubs a whiskey bottle his
omnipresent companion. Zap Comix
publisher and longtime Berkeley resi
dent Don Donahue says, Fahey was
the first guy that any of us had seen
drinking onstage. It just wasnt done
in those days. But he made drinking
look very hip and sexy."
As the decade ended, Fahey got
married and decided he was inter
ested 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 Kottkes
homemade demo tape, but his atten
tion drifted too easily. His marriage
broke up, he investigated countless
Eastern and Western philosophies,
spent time roaming through India,
and devoted less and less energy
to the business side of the label.
Throughout the 70s, Fahey record
ed and toured regularly, producing
brilliant albums such as Fare Forward
Voyagers and Visits Washington D.C.
and garnering a reputation for eccen
tric live performances. He would
lumber onto the stage looking like a
cross between a liquor-fueled bear
and a slighty seedy college profes
sor, then fill the air with a mix of fan
tastic 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
1981. He recorded Railroad I, one
last great LP for the floundering
Takoma label, and records for other
companies followed, as did a stream
of reissued material, but not much
cash accrued. Then came EpsteinBarr virus, accelerated drinking pat
terns, 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 philoso

phy to do that. I dont 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."
Recently, Fahey has turned his
attention toward writing, composing
some new pieces for guitar, including
a long kaleidoscopic 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, theres his continu
ing work on Admiral Kelvinator:
Clockworks Factory, an autobio
graphically based phantasm dealing
with the early years of Faheys life,
and the general heft of American life
during the years leading out of World
War II. Sometimes I almost feel I like
writing better than playing," he says.
Maybe you shouldnt print that."
What the future holds for Fahey is

unclear, but there are hints of bright

possibility. Hes hunting for publish
ers for his written work. Shanachie
Records (which has already reissued
a few choice Takoma titles) suppos
edly has several more in the works.
Rhino Records is releasing a won
derful two-CD compilation of his
music this month. Assembled and
annotated by Barry "Dr. Demento"
Hansen, this comp will undoubtedly
set some young minds ablaze, since
it includes many seminal perfor
mances that have been unavailable
for decades.
Theres no one even remotely like
him," says singer-guitarist-fan Barbara
Manning. His records are so beautiful
that it would be tragic if there werent
at least a few more of them. There are
certain moods I get in where I cant
bear to hear anything else."
"Ive always really thought of
myself as a spiritual and psychologi
cal detective," Fahey says. "Im
always trying to get to a fuller under
standing of myself through my
music. I felt so alienated from the
culture around me, like I was from a
different planet, like I wasnt really a
member of the human race. I had two
heads, one just wasnt visible. So I
was looking for another path of
music. I didnt really know what it
was. I didn't care what it was, and I
still don't. Makes no difference to me
and thats perfectly okay. Cause Im
just a little blip. The whole style is
just a little blip on all the mainstream
of music. I dont fit anywhere. And I
never will." 9

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