Pete's Blog

Another Pass at John Fahey

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As regular readers of this irregular space may know, I am a frequent participant at the blog of my old friend Steve Simels, powerpop.blogspot.com, where he posts audio clips from my salad days, New York City in the late '70s and early '80s. Today Steve talks briefly about the guitarist John Fahey, as copied here. I responded at greater length, as I sometimes do. That response is included below. "From his 1994 Let Go, please enjoy unclassifiable American guitarist John Fahey and his breathtaking overdubbed solo version of "Layla." Fahey died, one assumes of a surfeit of the blues, in 2001. I only saw him play once, at some point in the mid-80s, when I lived around the corner from Folk City; he was a little drunk, I think, but very funny between songs. Frankly, I didn't think he was that hot musically, though; I remember thinking "That's what people have been raving about for all these years?" In retrospect, of course, I suspect he was just having an off night, at least if this "Layla" is any indication." I may have been the opener for that FC show - if not that one then another. I opened for Fahey twice, once in Atlanta, once in New York. Despite having gone through a serious Fahey phase in the early '70s, I was disappointed both times, disappointed enough that I put him aside as an adolescent fling (Paul Revere and the Raiders, anyone?) and never really went there again until the day I had to write his obituary for Sing Out! - after which I spent the afternoon playing everything of his that I knew. In Vienna, overlapping but some years younger than Beethoven, a composer named Carl Czerny did his best (along with dozens if not hundreds of others) to match or at least live up to the master. He didn't come close to making it. His concert works aren't in the repertory and probably don't deserve to be. But his student pieces became part of every intermediate pianist's library, because they offered Beethoven's expressiveness in a form developing players could handle: Beethoven's feeling without the daunting technical challenges. I think of Fahey that way. He was not a master, but nobody could match him for writing simple, deeply expressive pieces informed by his long study of American roots music (his biography of Charley Patton, written as an MA thesis at UCLA, remains in print). His playing did not live up to his Jove-like attitude, but he was a great teacher and scholar who offered young suburban players a path into the remote fastness, or at least the outskirts, of country/blues guitar. As for my personal experience of Fahey the two nights I met him. The Great Southeast Music Hall in Atlanta was roughly comparable to the Bottom Line as a hangout for local record-biz types. One such was in the dressing room that night, and when he mentioned that he worked for Paramount Records Fahey positively lit into him for the poor quality of Paramount 78 pressings in the 1920s, well before the poor guy was born. Eventually the flack excused himself and left. My other memory is somewhat more cliched. In the dressing room downstairs at Folk City Fahey summarily appropriated a half-pint of whiskey I had mistakenly opened in his presence, drank most of it at a gulp, and spent the rest of the evening alternately insisting I find him cocaine ("Aaaaww, you know where there's some cocaine, doncha?") and pinching my ass. His girlfriend took part in these frolics, with the clear understanding (at least in retrospect) that I should accompany them back to the Grammercy Park Hotel afterwards. Occasionally I regret not having done so, but only occasionally. I think we did two shows that night, and after my second set I fled to the bar were I sat with Erik Frandsen and Odetta. At one point Erik said, not especially softly, "O! tune it, you fraud," which made Odetta laugh, something she never did softly. It's been my experience, as both teacher and student, that all teaching is part humbug and sometimes the most fraudulent teachers have the most to offer. That's certainly true of Fahey, for me and I expect for many others.

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