John Fahey, dancing after death
In May 2003, I wrote an essay about a posthumously released John Fahey CD, Red Cross. I just came across a copy of that review. I’d forgotten I wrote it. In part because my blog entries from 2003 are long trashed, I have no idea whether I published this anywhere. But I know it’s online now.
The myth of John Fahey is a heady thing. The late guitarist, writer, painter, entrepreneur, heckler, rescue mission resident, and ornery comeback king, full of contradictions in every role, could easily be used as a vehicle to tell many good stories: The rise and fall of American independent labels (he founded Takoma and Revenant), the era of rediscovering blues giants (he found long-lost Skip James and Bukka White, among others), and the advent of New Age music, which happened on his watch at Takoma, to name but three. As for that last one, don’t judge Fahey too harshly; it would be like blaming the Beatles for the Knack.
Fahey’s life has a strong narrative arc. It begins with a Maryland kid buying old records and rebuilding the careers of some of the performers on them; it ends with Fahey’s own rediscovery after some down-and-out years in Portland and him casing used record stores full of his 40-plus LPs. And there’s something fascinating about someone so deeply, unstoppably verbal (read his collection of essays How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life) who doesn’t sing.
The myth isn’t nearly as complex or rewarding as Fahey’s music. His greatest critical success came from the first six records he released in the 1960s, most of them with the word “Death” in their titles, as he fused blues, ragtime, and bluegrass solo-guitar styles with methods of song structure that had more in common with classical composers than his fellow folkies. Those records seem austere and peaceful during an initial distracted listening, then you get pulled in, listen more and more, and realize how eccentric and ravaged they are. Sometimes listeners didn’t get past the surface: Fahey’s greatest commercial success was a solo-guitar Christmas record in which he pushed Yule standards through a peculiar Delta blues funnel.
Fahey’s music keeps showing up in record stores, again and again. Fahey is not as productive in the afterlife as Tupac Shakur or John Coltrane, at least not yet. Diehards welcomed last month’s reissue of Old Fashioned Love, an uncharacteristic 1975 set in which Fahey’s solo performances jostle alongside some wacky, full-band Dixieland exercises and three strong duets with fellow guitarist Woody Mann. Also out within the past year from Fantasy, which now owns the Takoma catalog, is an expanded version of The Best of John Fahey that covers the early Takoma recordings sensibly.
The most enticing piece of recent Faheyiana is a “new” record, Red Cross (Revenant), much of it recorded in the months before Fahey’s death in February 2001. The posthumous set pulls together most of the strands of Fahey’s restless career, makes some clever connections, and offers a pair of revelations.
A chunk of Fahey’s later work, some of it recorded with Sonic Youth’s Jim O’Rourke, sought to replace his unerring sense of melody and calm with an almost-as-unerring sense of noise and terror, and the near-title cut “Red Cross, Disciple of Christ Today” builds a rickety but passable bridge between his more accessible and more experimental recent work. The guitar figures rise and fall in waves of echo and decay, creating an eerie, moaning late-night feel that’s equal parts Highway 61 and Twin Peaks. Similarly, “Untitled With Rain” is a spooky evocation hovering over organ, chimes, and sundry effects. On the more traditional side, a mow through “Summertime” starts straightahead and then we get to ride shotgun with Fahey as he shows how much he can mess around with well-worn melody and meter but still deliver the Gershwins’ composition in recognizable form.
Midway through Red Cross, Fahey fans are back in familiar territory. Extremely familiar, it turns out. The sly, percussive “Annanaias” is extremely reminiscent of Fahey’s classic “American primitive” style, and it’s a hissier recording (on headphones, anyway) than the songs that precede it on the CD. Those two clues led a Fahey discussion group on the Net to conclude, correctly, that despite the CD credits, “Annanaias” and another piece, “Charley Bradley’s Ten-Sixty-Six Blues,” were in fact put on tape in 1977 around the height of Fahey’s performing career (if a bit past his compositional apex). In particular, the compact “Charley Bradley’s Ten-Sixty-Six Blues” is outstanding. You can hear Fahey use a lighter touch than later work, playing sprightly and deftly – and then he surprises you with an unexpected section, at first apparently unrelated to the previous sections of the song, that he reconnects to the main theme. That’s the key to Fahey’s greatest work – surprise – and that’s why the two quarter-century-old cuts rise so high and cast a shadow over the rest of Red Cross. Most of the collection is very good, but back in 1977 Fahey was far beyond very good.