John Fahey – Age Against The Machine
By the ’70s, Fahey’s work and interests began to splinter. Takoma recruited a many-striped stable of Fahey proteges, from strict disciples like Robbie Basho and Peter Lang, to new acoustic/age-stars-in-waiting Leo Kottke and George Winston, to authentic weirdo Joe Byrd. Byrd’s psychedelic masterpiece with his band the United States of America prepared no one for his subsequent Takoma release A Christmas Yet to Come, an album of traditional holiday carols as rendered by primitive synthesizers.
The Takoma roster of the ’70s reflected Fahey’s belief that popular music reached its eclectic peak, “its zeitgeist,” during that decade. Fahey himself supplemented his Takoma output with inspired, if not definitive, recordings on the larger Vanguard and Reprise labels.
As the ’70s stretched into the ’80s, the story became cloudier. Fahey generated less music, likely because of a succession of personal and health problems. A couple soured marriages, alcoholism, and bouts with Epstein-Barr syndrome all sapped Fahey of some of his creative impulses. By the late ’80s, he had vanished from the musical vanguard as quietly as he had entered it 30 years prior.
Hindsight reveals that Fahey spent his lost weekend in and out of charity missions and dive motels, earning a piecemeal income as a different kind of picker, finding collectible records in thrift stores and reselling them for meager profits. In some ways, his life had come to resemble those of his blues heroes he happened upon back in his UCLA days. It’s only fitting, then, that he too would be rediscovered — by noted critic, collector and Fahey fanatic Byron Coley — and with no small amount of encouragement, would embark on the most prodigious phase of his career. With legend intact, Blind Joe Death lived again.
…the sounds I could not identify, the really frightening ones…
1997. John Fahey, the notorious cynic, the hardened bastard, talks with the wide-eyed mettle of a man recently emerged from an extended tenure in a musical deprivation tank. “I think this is a really exciting time for music,” he insists, “experimental music particularly. People are a lot more open and curious than they ever have been before.”
And the new-fangled John Fahey is here to give the people what they want. By the end of this year, Fahey will have added five more albums to his already sizable canon, as well as a loosely autobiographical book published by Drag City Press. He’s also re-entered the biz by way of Revenant, his new record label, aimed at releasing “raw music” from the likes of Cecil Taylor, Derek Bailey, Jim O’Rourke, Hasil Adkins and the Stanley Brothers, to name just this year’s crop.
The onslaught begins with City of Refuge on Tim/Kerr Records, Fahey’s first release in over five years, an album so good that in one fell swoop it erases many of the transgressions of former colleagues Kottke, Winston, and a host of other players who claim Fahey as a formative influence. “I don’t understand that connection [between my music and new age music] when people make it, and I claim no responsibility for it.” Fahey says flatly, impatiently.
Sure enough, Refuge carries none of the traces of lobotomized minimalism inherent to new age music. It’s Fahey’s most challenging — and, by his own claim, his best — work to date. The album is more akin to the works of a newer crop of Fahey descendants, groups like Gastr Del Sol and Cul De Sac (both of whom Fahey has collaborated with in recent months).
Refuge opens with “Fanfare”, a nihilistic sound collage drawing on a series of disparate sources from a train to a Stereolab song (the track “Pause”, from Stereolab’s 1993 album Transient Random Noise Bursts with Announcements, is “the only one of their songs I like,” Fahey says). On the album’s subsequent five tracks, Fahey blends primitive acoustics with the occasional found sound in thoroughly updated fashion. It’s as though he never left.
He saves his starkest work for the final track, “On the Death and Disembowelment of the New Age”. Asked whether the song addresses the new age musical genre or the new age of cyber culture, Fahey replies, “Both.” Of course. Either way, I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of the song’s dark manifesto, its unidentifiable, frightening sounds.
The True Adventures of John Fahey
In his book of the same name, James Rooney explains the concept of Bossmen: “Every field has its ‘bossman’ — the one who sets the style, makes the rules, and defines the field in his own terms. Each man is aware of who he is and exactly what he has done. Each man has thought deeply about music and respects his music. Music has been for each a way of getting at what is true and real in life.”
Fahey is a bossman unto himself. He invented a genre that only he seems to understand, but he’s eager to share his talents nonetheless. His first-generation students proved to be a mutinous bunch of turncoats, perpetrating lies atop the truths and realities he showed them. But maybe Fahey is right. Maybe now is the time when he will finally be understood, even cherished. God knows it’s been a long haul to get here.
Matt Hanks writes and talks about music in Memphis, TN, where his employer swears he is the very best babysitter.