THE JOHN FAHEY TRIBUTE CONCERT SECOND EDITION
SUNDAY JUNE 16, 2002
SCHEDULED TO APPEAR:
From Nashville, MICHAEL GULEZIAN astonishes
audiences with his unique brand of acoustic pyrotechnics.
Another TAKOMA RECORDS artist, Michael attacks his
instrument with both hands and takes no prisoners.
The late guitarist Michael Hedges referred to Gulezian
as "my kindred spirit".
From Massachusetts, guitarist GLENN JONES is a
founding member of the experimental folk-rock band
Cul De Sac. That group’s album "The Epiphany of Glenn Jones" was produced by
Fahey. Throughout the making of the record, John and
Glenn established a fiery friendship that lasted many
years. Cul De Sac is currently touring with singer Damo
Suzuki of the band Can. Scroll to bottom to read
Glenn's story of John.
Bay Area resident guitar zany Henry Kaiser is
familiar to music fans from his work with French/Frith/Kaiser/Thompson,
Yo Miles!, as well as many solo guitar albums. Henry recently returned
from several months in Antarctica, where he was comissioned to create a
signature piece for that country.
Event organizer PHIL KELLOGG was Fahey’s opening
act in the early 1980’s and maintained an ongoing
relationship with the guitarist that was part student,
part friend. His album "Passive-Aggressive" twists
itself elegantly around the blues, pop, flamenco, folk
and other areas not currently defined. A live album is
planned for release later this year. Phil is a frequent
Bay Area performer.
legendary guitarist PETER LANG recorded several albums
for John’s TAKOMA RECORDS label. Peter has returned
full-force from several years’ absence with the release
of his album "Dharma Blues". He is featured in the current
issue of GUITAR PLAYER magazine, which states that
"...there’s no one that can
touch (his) lyrical complexity and dazzling sparkle..."
From Portland, guitarist TERRY ROBB has become a
West Coast tradition with his All-Star Blues Orchestra.
Terry was a frequent Producer, opening act, and duet
partner of John’s throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s.
Terry was recently honored with his 13th Muddy Award
as the northwest’s Best Acoustic Guitarist.
John Fahey will join us all in spirit.
By Glenn Jones:
I refuse to feel gloomy.
John Fahey was such an unusual creature, as "wond'rous rare" in our
lifetimes as an auk or a dodo or a coelacanth. If anyone's life demands
celebration, his does.
Fahey's music, some of which he came to reject as flawed or dishonest, seems
to me some of the purest ever made and is as important to me as any I've
ever heard. I first encountered it in my teens. I only knew then that it
spoke to me and was an antidote to everything in my life that seemed trivial
and phony. Yet for all the hundreds of hours I've spent listening to it, I
still don't understand why it makes me feel the way it does.
Later I was able to name something of what gripped me about it: its
spotlessness, its diamond-hard conviction, its emotionality.
But there's still a quality about it which I cannot describe.
At the memorial service for Fahey on Sunday, March 4, 2001, in Salem,
Oregon, Mitch Greenhill (who was Fahey's manager) asked, "How will we
explain John Fahey to people who never met him?"
I'll miss John's voice (that VOICE!), his throaty guffaw, his prickly
provocativeness, and I'll find it hard to shake a feeling I've carried with
me for nearly 30 years, namely the sense that somewhere John Fahey is up to
Unlike everyone else I know (and almost anyone else I can think of) Fahey
lived his life on his terms, not on the world's. (That sounds glib and easy
enough. We all live life on our own terms, right? Really? How much are you
willing to sacrifice, how far are you willing to go, to live a life
unfettered by non-essentials? What, exactly, is essential? Your job, your
house or apartment, your security, your health, your country, your family,
your mate, your possessions? Tough questions. And for the sake of this
remembrance, largely rhetorical. Let's not pretend to answer them now.)
John Fahey paid a price for the only life he knew how to live. And as rich
as it was, let's not romanticize it. In his last lean decade, a decade of
illnesses and little money, of rediscovery and reinvention, Fahey drifted
between several of Oregon's welfare motels. In one of them John was knocked
out and robbed by someone he considered a friend even after he was mugged,
and to whom he'd have readily given whatever money he had if the guy had
only asked for it.
Here, surrounded by drug deals and frequent visits from the police, with the
smell of Lysol in his nostrils, amidst the detritus of countless visits to
pizza parlors and fast food joints, Fahey recorded most of City of Refuge,
scripted the first drafts of the stories that appear in his book, How
Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life, and slapped together the first of
hundreds of paintings.
When money was particularly tight or the motel management got fed up with
him and kicked him out, there was the Union Gospel Mission, where meals and
a roof over one's head came with strings attached: sermons, chores and the
sort of dehumanizing contempt reserved for the dregs of society.
When the Union Gospel Mission became intolerable Fahey lived in his car.
His guitars -- the very means of whatever sort of livelihood John could
carve out for himself in the '90s -- were sold for whatever he could get. I
lost track of how many times he pawned them.
I'd known John for 20 years and I couldn't understand how this could be
happening to him.
Though occasionally he'd call to ask for money, I never heard him whine
about his setbacks. Regarding money, he simply asked for help; he never
begged or played on ones heartstrings. Sometimes he was angry. But more
often he was simply matter-of-fact. ("You pawned your guitars?!," I'd ask,
dumbfounded. "It's no big deal. I'm making collages now," came John's blasé
Someone said that John earned and spent enough money for a couple of
When he could no longer put off the dental work he needed, John got a friend
in Chicago to call his mom in Louisiana to cadge money to pay the dentist in
Salem. He himself refused to speak to his mother during the last decade or
so of his life. "I have nothing to say to her," he said.
Even when he had money -- and there were times in his life when he had a
good deal of it -- he'd give it away or spend it with little thought for how
he might pay for tomorrow's breakfast or next week's rent.
After settling his late father's estate some years ago Fahey was left with a
pretty nice chunk of the inheritance. Given his circumstances he well might
have taken a vacation from desperation and discomfort. Instead he gave it to
Dean Blackwood and told him to start the record label they'd talked of
forming together. Thus Revenant Records, John's second label, was born. His
first, Takoma, was -- along with Sun Ra's El Saturn and Harry Partch's Gate
5 -- one of the earliest artist-owned record labels in the country; Fahey
began it as a vehicle for his debut album, Blind Joe Death, in 1959.
Those of us who knew John cannot imagine ever again meeting anyone with his
iron will, his seemingly indestructible constitution and enormous appetites.
His passions were insatiable: food, women, music, books, drugs, alcohol,
cigarettes. The most obviously destructive of these John dropped years ago
and forever, quitting booze, cigarettes and non-prescription drugs cold
A decade later, and some 20 or more albums after Fahey's 1959 debut, Takoma
released Leo Kottke's watershed album, Six and 12-String Guitar. After
meeting him Kottke fancied that if John didn't expire that very night he
might well live forever.
Peter Lang (a Minneapolis-based guitarist whose debut album was also issued
by Takoma, in 1973) recalled touring with John in the late '70s. After one
particular gig Lang was presented with a bar tab that practically ate up all
the money the pair had earned that night. Lang questioned the bill, saying
"But I only had two Guinesses. . . ." To which the bartender replied "Yeah,
but your friend had 27." Astonishingly, Fahey had still played his set.
People said Fahey never grew up, that he was a child all his life, with all
that that entails, both good and bad. John's prankster charm, endless
curiosity, guileless spirit, largesse, and a life lived in the present made
him a delightful and engaging figure to be around. But his associability,
belligerence, irresponsibility and an almost constant need for gratification
Given a choice between doing what he wanted and accepting the
consequences -- no matter how awful -- or not doing what he wanted in
deference to the consequences, John always did what he wanted.
He obsessed over the events of childhood more than anyone I've ever met.
Friends, parents, teachers, high school crushes, radio programs, comic
books, jingles, appliances (Admiral Kelvinator -- a character whose name
comes from two brands of refrigerator from Fahey's youth -- is a recurring
figure), power plants, the woods, rivers, viaducts and railroads of his
Takoma Park, Maryland, boyhood turn up again and again in Fahey's writings,
in his song titles, and in his own self-mythologification.
This wasn't nostalgia or an escape from the grittiness of day-to-day
reality. Some recently recalled event from his youth, an event that Fahey
might have only half-understood at the time, could suddenly --
explosively -- take on new meaning or resonance in light of something that
had just occurred to him.
In 1996 John played me a cassette of a work-in-progress. Behind the
spattered notes of his guitar there was a low, muffled curtain of sound,
whether sampled or from a tape loop I couldn't tell. An evocative noise, and
one to delight anyone fond of drone-based music. I told John that I liked
it. His eyes grew wide.
"You know what that is?" he asked.
"A sine wave?" I guessed.
His answer came in a breathless rush. "When I was little I used to listen to
the trains going by near where we lived. In the winter, after a big
snowfall, late at night I'd sometimes hear the sound of the railroad plow
clearing the snow off the tracks -- a metallic, grinding noise. I've been
looking for that sound my whole life."
Sine wave, ha! What that sound actually was, how it had been made, meant
nothing. This was John's very youth speaking to him across the years.
For all his failings and his more than occasionally infuriating behavior,
Fahey was absolutely ethical when it came to music, and especially his
own -- something Cul de Sac learned the hard way.
The Epiphany of Glenn Jones, our collaboration album with John Fahey (which
he titled) was recorded in Warren, Rhode Island, in the winter of 1996. It
has been called a "psychodrama," but could just as well be seen as a modern
morality play. Fahey simply was NOT, come hell or high water, NOT going to
make an album that he had no feeling for, regardless of friendships,
promises he'd made, money he'd been paid, studio time that had been booked,
a week of rehearsal, or any other consideration. Except one: it was
essential that he believe in the music itself.
I hadn't played the album in a couple years, but I put it on the night Fahey
died. It's still difficult to separate the sheer bloody-mindedness of its
nearly aborted birth from the experience of listening to it.
The track entitled "More Nothing" was recorded the same morning that Fahey
shit-canned three days -- and several reels -- of recordings. He'd waited
till the rest of Cul de Sac had gone back to Boston before making his "I
refuse to be associated with this" pronouncement one morning before
breakfast. It felt like a sock in the stomach.
Later that day Fahey told our producer, Jon Williams, to set up two
microphones, declaring that he was going to interview me. Like hell! I'm
surprised how calm I sound on the record because I was furious with Fahey,
so much so that shortly after the tape started rolling I began talking
("Hey, mister") over the plunking of his banjo-ukulele before he could get
in his first question.
Despite my attempt to turn the tables on John and to keep him off-balance, I
was unable to fend off the question he'd been leading up to all along: "What
does Cul de Sac mean?"
I couldn't answer.
Later, after the band had returned and was listening to these tracks, Chris
Fujiwara asked, "Did you guys script this out?" Fahey's eyebrows went up.
"No," he said solemnly, "that would be unethical."
The last time I saw John was in the summer of 2000. I'd flown from Boston to
Salem, Oregon, to conduct interviews with him for a new Revenant project. Or
so I'd hoped. John and I hadn't spent any appreciable time together since
the making of the Epiphany album and, though I was looking forward to seeing
him again, I was also a little apprehensive.
In hindsight it seems almost predictable -- perversely so -- that my
carefully laid plans should have exploded in my face only minutes after my
arrival. It was a typical Fahey scenario -- but that's another story for
Nonetheless, my visit turned out to be a happy occasion for both of us. Old
contests were forgotten, and for several days we visited thrift stores, took
the tapes that would comprise Hitomi II (or was it Hitomi III?) to a local
studio to be sequenced and edited, ate at the greasy spoons John favored,
talked, and mended our fences.
In the last years of his life many of us found ourselves debating with John
the merits of some of his own work, recordings he began arguing were
emotionally dishonest, confused, pretentious, or show-offy and shallow.
At some point during my visit it came up that The Great San Bernardino
Birthday Party, John's fourth album, from 1966, was about to be reissued on
CD. It was the first John Fahey album I owned and is to my mind one of his
very best. To my "I love that album John; it changed my life!," I can still
hear Fahey's bordering-on-hostile response: "Fine, but that has nothing to
do with ME."
As John had been routinely kicking his early work in the teeth for a couple
years, I wasn't especially surprised that he was now contemptuous of this
album too. However, I was surprised to hear him also now question the merits
of such relatively recent fare as City of Refuge ("It went too far") and
Georgia Stomps, Atlanta Struts ("I shouldn't have let that come out").
There seemed little room for nostalgia or rationalization in Fahey's
assessment of his own accomplishments. Even though his revised opinions of
City of Refuge and Georgia Stomps felt, finally, like a vindication of my
own feelings, it was a hollow victory. Fahey, as ever, had been as unmoved
by my dislike of those records as he was unimpressed by my complete love for
the early ones.
Maybe City of Refuge isn't such a lousy album, all things considered. But
for a John Fahey album, it seems to me a meager effort -- one-dimensional
and derivative -- compared to the body of the man's great work. In
retrospect I understand a little better why it was so important to John at
the time he made it, and what it might have represented to him. I hear it
now as the sound of John Fahey kick-starting his stalled career, and the
soundtrack to his years on Salem's skid row.
While it amused me to listen to him vilify records that still mesmerize me,
eventually I came to appreciate that for John the most exciting record was
the one he was working on NOW. Regardless of how he might feel about it
tomorrow, or next week, or in 30 years, right now, this album, this one!,
was THE VERY BEST THING he'd ever done.
Even when I disagreed with him, I couldn't help but smile at the enthusiasm
in his voice, and I couldn't help but admire him for having reinvented
That's the way it should be, I think, a complete engagement with the
present -- right to the very end. During my final visit with Fahey he couldn
't stop talking about Hitomi, the last record released in his lifetime. "I
think," he'd say, to no one's surprise, "it might be the best record I ever
Like a lot of people, I made the mistake of heroicizing John, confusing the
man with the music. Fahey disabused me of that.
I can almost hear John admonishing us for what he called fake sentimentality
and phony emotionalism. I can't help but think that much of what has been
written and said about him since his death, even the warmest and best
intentioned of it, would have seemed an impertinence to him. (Including
this, no doubt.)
Death brings out the best and worst in us. Years after Sun Ra's death,
messages appear on chat groups from people all over the world who, though
they never met the man, are sure they know what Ra, were he living, would
think was funny, what he'd think was cool, what he'd think was crap, what
new bands and players he'd be listening to. All this based on what can be,
at best, only an imperfect understanding of his art and life, even in the
minds of the most sympathetic of listeners.
There must be something inherent in us that makes us project ourselves into
the minds and lives of our heroes. Coveting acceptance, we deny that we're
intruders even as we trespass.
As with Sun Ra, so too with John Fahey. Things people would never have dared
to utter while John was alive have been unblushingly posted for posterity
now that he's gone. Misinformation, half-truths, one-and-a-half truths, lies
and nonsense. This is how we honor our prophets? Spare us our pathetic human
nature, and me my own.
* * *
Dawn was just breaking when Chris Downes and I left Salem, Oregon, headed
for Portland. Chris, a friend of John's since the late '60s, had flown in
from Sydney, Australia -- a trip that had taken him some 26 hours -- out of
a need to mark John Fahey's passing.
The previous day had been a blur. We'd attended the memorial service for
John, an event that attracted a hundred or more of the faithful, the
curious, friends, ex-wives, old girlfriends, managers, collaborators,
associates, at least four or five musicians to whom John had given their
start, and even a few of Fahey's old Salem street cronies. One guy, with
broken teeth and rheumy red eyes, talked my ear off.
The memorial had been followed by an informal gathering of mostly guitarists
at a Salem coffeehouse for a tribute to John. From there Chris and I had
ducked into a local bar, where we hung out and swapped stories with Peter
Lang, Fred Sheppard (Lang's garrulous luthier friend), Melody Fahey (John's
ex-wife, the third of three) and her boyfriend, and Melissa Stephenson,
After we'd told the last of our stories and drunk the last of our drinks, we
went back to Melissa's, whose sunny, spacious and airy home, I have to
think, must have been the most comfortable place Fahey had hung his
sunglasses in a decade or more.
There Melissa, Chris and I spent what was left of the night listening to the
Stanley Brothers and going through boxes of Fahey's writings, paintings,
collages, books, clothes and junk; stuff he'd left behind when he left
Melissa ("like a little boy running away from home," as she put it) shortly
after my visit last year.
Now Chris was headed back to Australia, and me to Seattle and from there to
We said our good-byes and I caught the shuttle bus at the Portland airport.
As the bus wound its way into the city proper I was thinking about John, and
reflecting on the events of the previous weeks, his hospitalization, his
surgery, his death, the funeral, the memorial service, the people I'd met,
the stories I'd heard.
I was startled out of my reverie to suddenly recognize, across the street,
bright in the morning sun, the club where Fahey had joined Cul de Sac on
stage during our west coast tour in 1997. A few blocks later the Salvation
Army Thrift Store appeared where John and I had scrounged for records years
ago. I don't know Portland well at all, and I doubt I could have found
either of those places on my own. Yet here I was, on a sightseeing tour of
Somewhere nearby, I knew, was the crummiest Chinese restaurant in the world,
where Fahey had taken me for lunch one afternoon. After a few bites of
dismal glop I had suggested to John that, in all of Portland, there must be
better Chinese food than this. Fahey had replied, "Oh sure. But I like
flirting with the waitress in this place."
John Fahey's funeral was a closed casket affair. I was told that he was
buried in black denim jeans shorts, sneakers with the laces untied,
knee-socks, white with a red stripe at the top, and a green XXXL T-shirt
with a breast pocket. Whether or not the T-shirt really bore the stains of
Chinese food down the front, as I was told, I can't say. But if so, I
A veritable battleship of a man -- unstoppable, unassailable, unequivocal --
John Fahey upended everything that sailed into his path.
But what glittering Atlantises rose and fell in his wake.
Thanks John, for allowing me to sentimentalize, to mis-remember, and for the
opportunity to bask in your glory.