Monday, December 18, 2006

Late transmissions from my late hero

am kinda dazed and under the weather after the weekend's travels. the Tylenol Sinus caplets i purchased and swallowed this morning didn't work, but the John Fahey i've been listening to for a good portion of the day sort of did.

John Fahey is kind of a biggie for me. he's been in my untouchable pantheon of "holy shit" artists since i discovered him in high school. (this was as a result of Jim O'Rourke saying in an interview that his two favorite guitarists were Fahey and Derek Bailey. i bought Rhino's marvelous Fahey primer and was smitten; as for Bailey, i bought the Dexter's Cigar reissue of Aida, couldn't make heads or tails of it and promptly sold it. i've since come around on Derek, but he could never touch Fahey for me.) there's no real point in intro'ing Fahey here, b/c so much ink has been spilled on him in the past decade or so. David Fricke's obit is as good a summary as any, i suppose, hitting all the key points: smitten w/ folk early, canvassed the South for records, "rediscovered" bluesman like Skip James, fused roots styles w/ love of Bartok, went into the wilderness of drink and madness in the '70s and '80s, was himself "rediscovered" by the Thurston/Coley/O'Rourke cabal in the '90s, etc. etc.

anyway, the occasion for my thoughts is Sea Changes and Coelacanths: A Young Person's Guide to John Fahey, a new two-CD reissue of the late-'90s stuff he did for Table of the Elements records. along with City of Refuge, these recordings--originally released as Womblife and Georgia Stomps, Atlanta Struts and Other Contemporary Dance Favorites--were the latest and most readily available ones around the time that Fahey started to get hipster hype. so for a lot of people, including moi, they were among the first ones heard and purchased. i think City of Refuge was my first Fahey and while i kind of dug parts of it, i found it long-winded and somewhat obtuse. it wasn't until i started digging into the classic Takoma stuff--via the aforementioned Rhino comp, The Return of the Repressed (which is *****absolutely the best intro to Fahey, both musically and annotationally, that there will ever be****** ), that i started to revere this guy as a complete fucking genius/inspiration for the ages, etc. etc.

so yeah, i had these TOTE discs at the time, and i remember developing a pretty intense fondness for Georgia Stomps and sorta hating Womblife. listening back, i'm finding that i'm simultaneously really enjoying them both and also understanding why they may have been frustrating. basically, i would classify these albums as post-technique records, a concept i'll define in just a sec, but one which is captured sorta by some lines in the essays that accompany Sea Changes: Fricke writes that by the time of these discs, Fahey was "all but deserted by his original virtuosity," while Byron Coley says, "It's true that he may not have been physically playing enough right then to have all of his chops, but that's besides the point. He was playing what he wanted to play."

any way you slice it, the message is clear: these were not the sort of Fahey recordings that made you sit up and go, "Holy crap, is that one guy playing all that guitar at once?"--which was definitely one of my original reactions to hearing his awesome fingerpicking technique. what the records do display is Fahey's wonderfully pure melodic gift, completely intact and even maybe deepened. hence "post-technique"--the emotional intelligence is there even if the execution is less brilliant. i'd compare this with what Dave Burrell has been doing lately or what Miles did throughout much of his later career--it's the kind of playing where you're no longer proving anything about your instrumental skill or genre facility, you're just playing. it's a pretty intense place to be, and it's not always going to be satisfying to people who were with you from the beginning.

and indeed, these aren't my favorite Fahey discs. i'd never recommend that someone start with them--hence my objection, even despite it's probable sarcasm, to the subtitle of the Sea Changes set, which is "A Young Person's Guide to John Fahey"--and yet i am definitely happy going back to them. Georgia Stomps, now simply "Part 2" of Sea Changes, is still the stronger of the two. it's a live set from Atlanta recorded in August of '97 and captures the sort of thing Fahey was doing the only time i saw him play, which was in (i think ) '99 or 2000 at Tonic. that thing was, as best i can describe it, long impressionistic, reverbed-out electric guitar suites weaving together back-catalog favorites with standards-ish stuff and some oddball selections. like with peak Dave Burrell, you get the sense on Georgia Stomps of an encyclopedic musical mind just roaming where it pleases. Fahey takes his sweet time dancing around melodies before actually playing them, and despite the somewhat off-putting twang of his tone, it's a joy to stroll along beside him. this is the strongest late Fahey disc i think.

Womblife is more of a sound-collagey type of thing that's almost like John Fahey remix album. his guitar is really just another texture in this sonic soup that Jim O'Rourke helped him put together. it's a really interesting experiment, but this one is a bit harder to stomach than Georgia Stomps b/c it bears very, very little resemblance to pure solo Fahey, which is obviously his most awesome setting. as Coley smartly argues in his liners, though, why would we expect or even want a facsimile of early Fahey from a dude this far into his career?

Womblife contains psychedelic soundscapey thingies of a very high order, and i'm probably overstating the disparity between them and classic Fahey. that melodic rapture is still there, even though it's more textural and minimal, sometimes merely a minor element in the midst of some whacked-out ambient collage. but i agree that he does deserve credit for pushing at this late inning of his life. Hitomi is the other one from this late period. i don't know that one so well, but now i'm curious to revisit it; i remember it being, noisy, eclectic and improv-ish, but we'll see.

as i've got Womblife on in the background, i'm struck by the sense that Fahey seems to be just sort of communing with the guitar and kind of unlearning it, as cheesy as that sounds. his technique was so fully formed on his early recordings that we never heard any sense of wandering or uncertainty. here he's just sort of scraping away in a trance, sort of transfixed by the weird sounds he can get out of the ax. it's a more stoned, or hyper-aware sort of playing, the kind that a child--or for that matter an old man--unburdened by technique would do. i'm liking this more and more and though i'm still very wary of Fahey's dismissive attitude toward his back catalog, i can see why he would've been frustrated that people couldn't take this stuff for what it was, which was pure experimentation of a very challenging and rewarding stripe.

and then there's "Juana," which is this lovely jaunty little carefree melody thing, played on acoustic on Womblife and electric on Georgia Stomps. Fahey treasures the melody, bandying about all these pre-themes before actually getting to the core of the tune.

anyway, most of these tracks are too lengthy to really work as mp3s. maybe i'll do a Fahey primer via mp3s sometime, but for now, i'll just say, as Walt Dickerson did about John Coltrane, "I hear you, John." at least i think i do.

(think i should mention real quick that on Georgia Stomps, you get some awesome snippets of Fahey's amazingly wry stage patter. on the disc, he says something like "If I take off my sunglasses for too long, the world will explode," in that awesome warbly, sarcastic tone of his. when i saw him at Tonic, i remember him stopping dead in the middle of some epic passage to fixate on a particular chord and wryly state, "Wow, that chord is so ominous. What an ominous chord that is. It's like an omen." he just sort of obnoxiously cycled through statements like that for an uncomfortably long time, totally killing the mood but cracking everyone up. what a weirdo.)


L. said...

best music blog on the web now. i make sure to read it everyday!

good job hank!



Phil Freeman said...

The only thing I've ever heard by Fahey is a track from a CD that came with an issue of the zine "Halana," and it was awful - he was playing detuned guitar, so every note kinda sagged as soon as it was struck. It sounded like the worst kind of self-indulgent bullshit to me. But maybe I'll look for that Rhino comp, if it contains early work that's actually intended to sound conventionally "good." What can I say, I'm a traditionalist sometimes.