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.” (more…)