Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist, by Steve Lowenthal (Chicago Review)
reviewed by Steve Danziger (http://online.wsj.com):
John Fahey was a composer, musician and absurdist bard of the American suburbs. An acoustic guitarist who combined traditional finger-style technique with an avant-garde sensibility, he called his style American Primitive. He drew from blues, Indian ragas, Gregorian chant, hymns, musique concrète and seemingly anything else he heard to make music of great delicacy and often harsh beauty, infused with yearning and anguish.
Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore called him a “secret influence,” a designation that could be made by admirers from Pete Townshend to Sufjan Stevens. He was also a notorious flake, difficult to fathom in the best circumstances. Steve Lowenthal’s patchy biography “Dance of Death” offers the outline of his life but little insight, leaving Fahey impenetrable as he was influential.
Dance of Death
Fahey (1939-2001), lonely and meek as a child in Takoma Park, Md., eased his alienation by allowing his imagination to go berserk. He and his friends invented “a secret race of cat people” and a “local demigod, whom they named ‘the Great Koonaklaster.’ ” By age 13, his whimsy had teetered into darkness, beginning a lifelong preoccupation with death.
Records saved Fahey. Hearing Blind Willie Johnson sparked a “hysterical conversion experience,” so he bought a $17 guitar and fed his obsession with records from the 1920s and 1930s that he found by trolling thrift stores and by going door to door in black neighborhoods. In 1959, he started his own label and pressed 100 copies of his first album, “Blind Joe Death.” The imaginary bluesman of the title became an alter ego and an outlet for Fahey’s bizarre sense of humor. Later liner notes would include faux-scholarly histories of both Fahey, who “made his first guitar from a baby’s coffin,” and Blind Joe Death, “the old blind negro [he led] through the back alleys and whore-houses of Takoma Park in return for lessons.”
If there is a thesis to Mr. Lowenthal’s account, which draws too heavily on the guitarist’s own unreliable writings, it is that Fahey’s lifetime of success and eroding emotional stability both stemmed from his need to “mythologize” his world. Replacing the Great Koonaklaster with visions of a “Buddha-like bluesman who transcended the slums,” he completed a master’s thesis on the Delta blues master Charley Patton, found the bluesman Bukka White and married three times. He also fawned over women with the inept eagerness of a middle-schooler, scrawled swastikas on correspondence, and fantasized about killing his audience and himself.
But he did not romanticize his musical integrity. He shared with 1960s folkies a hunger for authenticity but disparaged revivalists for “singing someone else’s tradition.” Fahey’s connection to the black masses was a shared sense of estrangement, not a common status as “folk”, and his albums form a crucial link between black vernacular forms and the white rock mainstream. Anything by Fahey is worth listening to, but the eight albums he released from 1967 to 1972, including “The Voice of the Turtle,” “Requia” and “The Yellow Princess,” melded every sound from marching bands to white noise to Hitler speeches and made him perhaps the boldest American composer since Charles Ives.
By his 40s, however, Fahey was drinking heavily and often bedridden with depression and Epstein-Barr syndrome. He lived his final years in welfare motels, his rooms a hamster nest of pill bottles, pizza boxes and loose records. But as his health faltered, his productivity surged. A fad for neglected, distressed musicians brought new interest in his work, and in 1995, with an inheritance from his father, Fahey started Revenant Records, releasing superb box sets of fellow mavericks like Patton, Albert Ayler, Captain Beefheart. Six years later, the empty calories caught up to him, and he died after a sextuple-bypass operation.
Fahey once said his goal was “to record the saddest, most morbid and angry music in the world . . . music to encourage people to commit suicide.” This is exaggeration, the voice of an exhausted neurotic. But it catches the spirit behind his work, that of a wild, extended eulogy for himself and American music’s lost geniuses.