Born in Takoma Park, Md., in the suburban shadows of the nation’s capitol city, John Fahey died on Feb. 22, 2001, a few days shy of his 62nd birthday, at Salem Hospital in Salem, Ore. The cause of death was reportedly from complications, generally not unexpected among patients afflicted with diabetes and a history of Epstein-Barr syndrome, following sextuple heart bypass surgery.
In news that will surprise no one who knows anything about the times and trials of the musician, composer, misfit, mystic, author, essayist, raconteur, recovering alcoholic, self-destructive flame-throwing curmudgeon and genre crushing artist/warrior whose earthly stint forever altered the trajectory of plugged and unplugged guitar playing as we know it, prior to entering the hospital, Fahey was unwinding the last remaining strands of his mortal coil contentedly ensconced in a residence hotel in Salem. “He didn’t have to clean up after himself and they changed the sheets for him,” offers Jeff Hunt, founder of Table of the Elements (TotE), the Atlanta-based record label responsible for producing a series of Fahey recordings in the late 1990s.
Universally praised for developing a uniquely American “voice” on the steel-stringed acoustic guitar, Fahey was a “primitive visionary” whose revolutionary style, inspired by the slippery syncopations of Bukka White, Skip James, Charley Patton and other rural blues pioneers, “laid the foundation of an entire school of folk-based instrumental guitarists from Leo Kottke to Peter Lang and Will Ackerman.” No less an icon than Pete Seeger called Fahey “a stubborn genius” in a testament to the instrumentalist’s talent and temperament, while Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo are among the multitudes representing an entirely different generation of ardent Fahey fans, by virtue of musical predilection, if not by age group.
In September, Dust-to-to-Digital, the Atlanta-based specialty archival label run by Lance Ledbetter, who briefly worked as an intern with Hunt at TotE, released Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You: The Fonotone Years (1958-1965). The 5-CD box set is officially designated as a co-production between Dust-to-Digital and Revenant, the label founded in 1996 by Fahey and Austin, Texas-based attorney Dean Blackwood.
Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You is the product of more than a decade of effort by a small group of collectors, scholars and enthusiasts. That group includes Glenn Jones, a longtime friend of Fahey’s who served as co-producer and contributed to the 88-page booklet of remembrances, graphical incantations and photographs packaged within the set’s specially crafted box.
“When I first heard John’s music, sometime around the early ’70s, it struck me like no other music ever had,” remarks Jones, a guitarist whose own band, Cul de Sac, collaborated with Fahey on an album titled, with no small degree of implied bathos, The Epiphany of Glenn Jones. “Over the years, I’ve tried to intellectualize the feeling I get from John’s music,” Jones said. “The best I can come up with is that there is a peculiar mix of joy and sorrow in the work. There’s a melancholic layer, but also fierceness in his playing that evokes confidence or, at least, a certainty that you can rise above the melancholy and not become undone by it.”
Once ‘lost,’ now found
Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You effectively chronicles the entire run of legendary “lost recordings” made by Fahey in the late 1950s and early 1960s for Joe Bussard, a world renowned 78 rpm collector in Frederick, Md. Distributed under Bussard’s Fonotone label, in their original incarnation the Fahey albums were hand-cut 78rpm shellac disks containing music derived from reel-to-reel tape recordings.
By the early 1990s, ill health and personal strife precipitated Fahey’s dropping off the music radar screen. Nevertheless, a series of laudatory articles, most notably an appreciation by Byron Coley in a 1994 issue of Spin, sparked a resurgence of interest in the guitarist’s work. With “raw Americana” and new acoustic bands and projects popping up like amber waves of grain, the artist formerly known as John Fahey suddenly found himself very much in demand.
Meanwhile, in 1993, fresh off a flight from San Francisco to Atlanta, Hunt had launched his record label, the sole mission of which was to create a series of musical artifacts based on the elements in the Periodic Table. Operating from a loft apartment in his newly adopted hometown, Hunt began his grand experiment by inviting a dozen seriously avant guitarists, such as Englishman Derek Bailey and Birmingham, Ala. native Davey Williams, to record whatever they felt like playing on 7-inch vinyl disks.
“They were completely flummoxed by the idea because it’s the ultimate pop music format,” Hunt says. “Derek was like, ‘Really? You want to do a 7-inch?’ I said, yeah, just like you would find in a jukebox, only packaged exceptionally.”
Spurred on by youthful idealism and girded by naiveté, an alchemically inspired crew of creative cohorts (which for a while included business partner Kristina Johnson) transformed TotE from a DIY hobby horse into an internationally acclaimed “skunk works” factory representing the vanguard of modern music packaging and design.
During this period, Revenant hired Hunt and Atlanta resident Susan Archie (TotE’s indispensible graphic design chief) to create a similarly dazzling cornucopia of musical delights. Among other wonders, the dynamic duo, who were introduced to each other by former Atlanta Journal Constitution music critic Steve Dollar, produced an array of definitive box sets showcasing the music of Albert Ayler, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, and Charley Patton, and filling in the “missing” gap (volume 4, Earth) in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music that was reissued on CD in 1997 by Smithsonian Folkways.
Archie’s skillful, corporately honed hand can be discerned across the surfaces of products from TotE, Revenant and Dust-to-Digital (she’s credited as designer on Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You). Nominated for four Grammy awards, the proprietor of World of anArchie won one in 2003 for “Best Box Set” for Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: the Worlds of Charley Patton (Revenant).
In the late 1990s, Hunt and Fahey collaborated on a number of projects for TotE including three albums (four, actually, counting an extremely limited run of vinyl silkscreened LPs that were produced for TotE’s 10th anniversary). The first release, Womblife, was produced by Jim O’Rourke (Sonic Youth, Gastr Del Sol) and features Fahey plucking and strumming along with tape loops and samples.
The second album, Georgia Stomps, Atlanta Struts, and Other Contemporary Dance Favorites, holds an historic and somewhat controversial place in the Fahey discography, which spans no less than six decades and dozens of albums on various labels including the guitarist’s own Takoma Records. Recorded on Aug. 9, 1997 at the Horizon Theatre in Little Five Points, Georgia Stomps, Atlanta Struts is the first documented performance during which Fahey exclusively plays electric guitar.
“To credit John with a predetermined agenda is to underestimate the man’s fundamental orneriness,” Hunt says. “I think it was more like, during sound check, he just decided he wanted to play an electric guitar.” Jon Philpot, the soundman and producer, was promptly dispatched home to retrieve his Gibson hollow body, which Fahey appropriated for the rest of the evening.
The playlist was essentially an improvised medley of familiar covers (“House of the Rising Son,” “Mood Indigo”), esoteric favorites (Bola Sate’s “Guitar Lament”) and original compositions (“Juana” and “Song for Sara”). Reviewers invariably note the music’s darkly hued tonal shadings, tinges of Latin fandangos, jazzy glissandi and side trips into the nether realms of the Mississippi Delta.
Listening to the recording, one hears the unmistakable Fahey stylistic cues, but, man, what a trip that performance must have been for audience members expecting the patented reverberating steel-and-wooden syncopations of Blind Joe Death.
“The crowd was generally receptive,” Hunt recalls. “There were younger people in their twenties, some of whom were not familiar at all with Fahey, as well as some older fans, but there was also a group of loud, obnoxious Dunwoody women drunk on white wine.”
By contrast, Archie’s recollection of the Horizon concert weekend is rife with drama and vividly punctuated by a character transformation. “When I finally met him, Fahey was an absolute asshole,” she says. “After working so hard on all these projects, he just acted like an arrogant jerk.”
Nevertheless, after the concert and to her surprise, Archie discovered that her perspective had twisted around a full 180 degrees. “We got to sit on the stage and watch him play, which was an overpowering physiological experience, the kind you don’t get exposed to very often,” she says.
Earlier that same day, Dean Blackwood had asked Archie whether she wanted to go thrift store shopping with Fahey. Based on her initial impression of the man, she declined the invitation.
“I don’t have a lot of regrets in my life, but that’s one of the biggest,” she admits.
The final puzzle piece
Lance Ledbetter was already a Fahey fan when he moved to Atlanta in 1996. One year later, he was hosting a special two-hour Fahey special on WRAS-FM, the Georgia State University station, using records from his own and a friend’s collection. The following year, he met the guitarist on the afternoon prior to the concert at the Horizon Theater.
“He was sitting in the back of a friend’s Jeep Cherokee eating—not really eating, but devouring—an El Myr burrito,” Ledbetter recalled.
At the time, Ledbetter was starting to assemble the pieces of Goodbye, Babylon, the six-CD compilation of gospel music, sacred songs and sermons from the early twentieth century, which would ultimately earn a Grammy nomination for Best Historical Album and Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package. In researching the Babylon project, Ledbetter had spent a lot of time listening to cassette recordings provided by Joe Bussard.
“For me, Fahey was an intimidating presence,” Ledbetter says. “But when I started picking his brain about old 78s, he was open and talkative.”
According to Ledbetter, Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You: The Monotone Years (1958-1965) represents “one of the final puzzle pieces in John Fahey’s career. What you are hearing is John Fahey as a teenager and in his early 20s, trying to figure out this old music.”
The Dust-to-Digital set brings forward the exhaustively inclusive methodology and obsessive attention to detail, which can be traced back to the label’s predecessors at Revenant and TotE. Included are five CDs—more than six hours worth of music on 115 tracks—plus an 88-page booklet of essays by Jones, Malcolm Kirton, Eddie Dean, Byron Coley and others; a previously unpublished Fahey interview from 1968 by Douglas Blazek; reminiscences from an early musical collaborator and a childhood friend; family and casual photos; and images of every hand-typed Fonotone label.
When they do appear on the collector market, which is a rare enough occurrence, an original, half-century old, hand-cut 78 rpm Fonotone Fahey disk can fetch upwards of $2,000-3,000 even though the fidelity is bound to be less than desirable. Thankfully, Bussard hung on to his reels.
“Just like we did for the first Fonotone cigar box set, we digitized the Fahey material from the original source tapes,” Ledbetter said. “The sound quality is spectacular.”
This past May, in New York, a three-day Copernicum Festival of music was staged featuring bands and musicians who recorded for Table of the Elements, reportedly to mark the label’s swan song. However, as Hunt recently suggested, rumors of TotE’s demise may have been exaggerated.
“There remain five elements assigned to titles that await release; otherwise, we’re out of elements at 112,” he says. “Plus, there are associated imprints, Radium and Audio ArtKive (Tony Conrad’s archives), which remain active.”
To date, the TotE archive comprises some 115 graphically innovative, ingeniously packaged, sonically astonishing recordings cum art objects, a veritable museum of new material and reconfigured treasures by musicians from the hither realms of art-rock to the outer edges of the avant garde and a few things in between: John Cale, Captain Beefheart, Faust, Tony Conrad, Derek Bailey, Rhys Chatham, Zeena Parkins, Eliane Radigue, Jonathan Kane, Pauline Oliveros, LaMonte Young and, of course, Fahey.
“There’s a reason why I didn’t move to New York,” Hunt says. “It’s because I would have fit in, the label would have fit in, which is not at all what I was interested in doing. To me, it was more meaningful to do it at home, in Georgia.”
Confirming what many critics have written about Fahey, whose demons all too often made public appearances, Jones is convinced that music played the proverbial role of cathartic or therapeutic conduit through which psychic and emotional bedevilments could be exhausted.
“John was always looking for a way out of his pain through playing, and I think he found the way out, occasionally,” he says.
After the Ball, Fahey’s last record for Reprise, contains a track called “Beverly.” When Jones first listened to the song, “I thought it was one of the best compositions for fingerstyle guitar with standard tuning I had ever heard.” He continues: “One day, I said to John, ‘man, if I could write something like that I would feel like my life had some kind of meaning.’”
Fahey looked at Jones and replied, “Yeah, when I played that, I thought it was one of my best compositions, too. But that feeling doesn’t last.”