Got the latest article on John Fahey
in the email box today courtesy of Bob Sarles dedication to keeping music and culture alive and breathing.
This was a hard read. I could barely read through Fahey's first spate of obituaries and now with a posthumous release he's being roughly manhandled and shoved into the grave again. I know other people who had much more to do with Fahey than I, but I'll give you my quick glimpses as I think of them. I'm tired and not much in a writing mood, but I feel the need to say this right now while it's fresh.
The first time I heard of Fahey, I heard his music. My guitar playing pal commuted thirty-five miles on the freeway all the way to my house to bring over an lp to share, which he had just acquired and was excited about. An original copy of Fahey's first record, complete with a glued-down cover. I'd never really heard anything quite like it, and although his technical skill was impressive, there was no chance of me acquiring a copy of my own as I was advised it was rare as hen's teeth.
Then a few years later the very same guitar playing pal and I were among the packed throngs at one of the UCLA Folk Festivals (1964 or 1965). Breaking for lunch meant long lines at one of the university dining commons, and I managed to withstand those long enough to get a large coca cola which I carried out into the courtyard. I sat down, propping my back against a building and within talking distance of the fellow next to me. He asked before I could take a sip, "Did you get that for me?"
I wasn't sure if he was serious but I had to laugh. He had five or so copies of that rare record next to him, and I commented on that rare fortune. Yes, you've guessed, that was John Fahey himself in the flesh. Being a college student, I didn't have the five bucks to buy a copy of the record right then, but he heard from me about my friend driving many miles just to play it for me, and obviously because that young man was a talented player himself, that was a tremendous compliment.
I crossed paths with Fahey several times, once in Santa Monica or Venice and then again in Berkeley. One time, on one of the days after a long winter when the sun at long anticipated last was starting to burst through in the Bay Area, I took a walk with some folks and Fahey met up with us. We were all galavanting in shorts, promenading down the avenue, so happy that spring was about to burst out, and even John was wearing cut off levis (just to show off his gams, I am sure).
He was very handsome fellow as a young man, and when people are young, as I also was, you tend to be more forgiving of odd behaviors, or perhaps don't entirely trust other people's powers of observation, or perhaps not realizing that depression or mental illness is even a possibility for people or if it is you tend to regard it as a temporary phase. With maturity and experience, I came to think of John Fahey as a person struggling with severe depression who derived much of his emotional support from music. So what the hell? Why drive more nails in a dead man's coffin? Such are the infirmities of genius. He was able to work through all that and make some beautiful music. Most of which, I will add, eventually became too dark for me to listen to at any length once I had been exposed not so much to him but the stories about him from people I knew, but that's just me. They did not tell those stories unkindly.
If there is a song that sums John Fahey up to me, it would have the line: "In the pines in the pines where the sun never shines."
He had a good crazy sense of humor at times, though. You don't hear much about his "Win a Date With John Fahey" mini-tour, but that was a part of him, too, he really did that for a lark.
One time I saw him in Berkeley casually playing outside on his Gibson and the sun happened to hit the white spruce front and make it gleam. That's a nice memory, too.
Another time, he was inquiring about a record from an avid record collector and friend. They were bartering, and the collector was driving a brutal bargain, insistant that the record was immensely valuable. Fahey finally asked what the collector would be willing to take for it. My blood chilled when the man replied with, "Your first born, John. Your first born." So the first one of the kittens that John and Jan's cat (I think a siamese) birthed eventually went to live at the record guy and his girlfriend's home; and so the rare 78 rpm exchanged hands.
I must admit, though, you can get awfully fatigued with any monoculture, and hippies in Berkeley and the Bay Area in the sixties could outwear their charm.
Apparently, things got bleaker for Fahey emotionally in the '80s. He came to visit friends of mine who were stalwart friends of his since the beginning. Fahey sat upstairs reading during a bonechilling cold rainy winter evening with the windows open, like he wanted to catch a cold and die, and the hostess had to carry up a bowl of warm soup and beg him to eat it because he wouldn't come downstairs.
Such behaviors can be troubling and disturbing to other people, but try to imagine what he must have been going through himself. So I would be inclined never to paint a portrait of him in absolutes. There are just too many areas of gray already.
My best memory: Watching the new foreign film by a famous director in a theatre in Berkeley, and when the guitar work came into the soundtrack, people a few rows down began applauding, and saying "Yay John!"
They were his stalwart friends from the very beginning and they still most likely are. When Fahey died, the DJ (who had been friends with Fahey about forty years, since they first drove out to California together from Takoma) played a whole show devoted to him. I'm not in that radio zone, but that show carried enough significance for a friend to call me just to tell me about it. He also menioned that he was glad his own college-age children were there visiting so they could be introduced to the music of John Fahey. Not often played on the radio, but it's nice to know that his music is out there and he is appreciated, which probably is all he ever really was looking for in life and music helped him that way, too.
So hip hip hurray! Long live John Fahey! Long Live John Aloysious Fahey. (He was the first person I ever met named Aloysious, and I told him that once, too.) Long live friendships! And long live the real power of music.
P.S. If you have time, there are some photographs I once saw on the internet of Fahey's last residence, with sunshine coming through the window but still a bona fide flophouse -- at least for his puppy and cat, the cushions on the couch well indented from those critters snuggling down into them. Among cat lovers in particular, Fahey had a reputation of always having very nice cats. Here's John Fahey's website.