Scheduled to perform at this weekend’s Transmissions Festival, guitarist John Fahey has been described as difficult to work with, prone to strange obsessions and snide to audiences who would rather hear his earlier, more traditional, acoustic guitar work than his current noisy improv and found-sound musique concrete. His first recording, passed off as the long-lost work of an aging black bluesman named Blind Joe Death, was intended as a jab at the ultra-serious 1950s white musical intelligentsia, obsessed as they were with all things primitive. Just about every article you read about him mentions his abusive childhood, his alcohol problems, his years in psychotherapy, his battle with Epstein-Barr disease and his stint among the down and out.
But what often gets lost in the shuffle is the fact that the 61-year-old guitarist–whether he’s strumming a traditional Christmas tune or exploring the outer limits of musique concrete with improv demigod Jim O’Rourke or Boston post-rockers Cul de Sac–is a damn fine musician. He possesses an almost innate understanding of how the individual intricacies of blues, jazz, folk and classical can all fit together to form one seamless sound that transcends genre and even the concept of music altogether.
Spin critic Byron Coley, whose championing of Fahey almost single-handedly led to renewed interest in his work in the 1990s, has said that Fahey’s 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.” That’s an appropriate analogy. Not only does Fahey’s work possess the shimmering quality Coley describes, Fahey himself, like the scientists who recently decoded the human genome, knows exactly what secrets lie within each harmony, each chord, each note. He knows how to take them apart, flip them around and breathe new life into them. In the hands of a lesser musician, the result might be a Frankenstein’s monster. In Fahey’s, what’s usually born has no resemblance to any previously known life form.
If you want answers as to the how and why of Fahey’s music, Fahey himself may not be the best person to ask. Reached by phone at his Oregon home, he takes on a slightly exasperated tone when asked why he has such disdain for his more traditional works. In particular, he was asked to explain a certain quote that he gave to The Wire in August 1998:
I don’t think what I’ve done in music is particularly important. A lot of what I’ve done is embarrassing to me because I find it pretentious and stupid.
“I meant my early albums,” he says. “They were kind of pretentious. Or I was trying to be cosmic. And now I don’t do that anymore, so looking back on it, they seem kind of silly.
“The people who want me to play that old stuff, I just don’t play it. I tell them to get lost,” he says. “I can’t be the person I was 20, 30, 40 years ago. I don’t feel the same. I’m not the same. They want me to stay the same, and I don’t want to.
“All I can say is that on the early records I wanted to be more experimental, but I was afraid to. And now I’m not so afraid.”
As for what drew him out of his fearful shell and convinced him to embrace his experimental side, the answer, according to Fahey, has less to do with creativity than practicality.
“So many times I’ve been on stage and I’ve been at the mercy of some soundman who didn’t know what he was doing acoustically. And I got so tired of that. So I went electric. Now I have more control over what I do.”
When told that this answer seems a bit simplistic (to say the very least), he thinks for a moment and then admits that he likes to “play with echo and reverb and change the frequencies.”
Is Fahey really so glib about his accomplishments? Is he just playing mind games with a hapless reporter? Or could he be resurrecting the spirit of Blind Joe Death for the current musical intelligentsia?
Fahey insists he’s serious. Glenn Jones, the Cul de Sac guitarist whose collaboration with the musical legend is chronicled on the CD The Epiphany of Glenn Jones, thinks Fahey is serious, too. But he also thinks it wouldn’t take much to pull the wool over the average Fahey fan’s eyes.
“There is great depth to his music, and to meet him on the fields or planes that his art exists is to confront something that can be difficult, and can say something unpleasant about the human condition,” says Jones. “There is great angst and pathos as well as joy in what he does, but I don’t think that for the most part his audience comes to grips with that. I think they’re more susceptible to the hype of what he’s about.
“A friend of mine was telling me about seeing him in Chicago, and said you couldn’t even hear him play because there was so much chatter throughout the entire show,” he says. “At some point someone screamed out from the back, ‘Fahey’s a fucking god!’ It’s like, well if he’s great then listen to him.”
Fans and the curious alike will be able to listen to Fahey this Saturday at 6:30 p.m. at the Cat’s Cradle. He says the performance will be pretty similar to what’s on his most recent CD, Hitomi.
“It’s pretty much just guitar, but it’s very modern and has a lot of inharmonic chords.”
It’s also, like Fahey himself, bound to leave you with more questions than answers.