Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist
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John Fahey is to the solo acoustic guitar what Jimi Hendrix was to the electric: the man whom all subsequent musicians had to listen to. Fahey made more than 40 albums between 1959 and his death in 2001, most of them featuring only his solo steel-string guitar. He fused elements of folk, blues, and experimental composition, taking familiar American sounds and recontextualizing them as something entirely new. Yet despite his stature as a groundbreaking visionary, Fahey’s intentions—as a man and as an artist—remain largely unexamined. Journalist Steve Lowenthal has spent years researching Fahey’s life and music, talking with his producers, his friends, his peers, his wives, his business partners, and many others. He describes Fahey’s battles with stage fright, alcohol, and prescription pills; how he ended up homeless and mentally unbalanced; and how, despite his troubles, he managed to found a record label that won Grammys and remains critically revered. This portrait of a troubled and troubling man in a constant state of creative flux is not only a biography but also the compelling story of a great American outcast.
shortly after his album’s release, Fahey was completely dependent. “John called me into the bathroom that first night at his place to show me what he needed to get to sleep, and to tell me, standing there in a sweat suit with a blindfold on his forehead and earplugs in his ears, not to wake him up,” recalls Kottke. Fahey’s isolation seemed bizarre to the young guitarist, who implicitly trusted his new mentor, even in the face of severe uncertainty. Fahey’s letters to him were littered with
Cohen) and Joel Druckman (Bonzo Dog Band) to even things out. Through Bruce’s connections, Fahey signed to Reprise Records, an imprint of Warner Brothers started by Frank Sinatra. “Warner’s was still thinking that if enough people told them something was cool, let’s say Rambin’ Jack Elliot or Ed Sanders from the Fugs,” they’d sign them, says Bruce. “These guys got deals too. John Fahey, sure, very well known, very influential. How much do these guys really sell?” The label was able to foot the
at Yogaville. Fahey sent them—after meeting her just once. Eleven years younger than the then thirty-five-year-old Fahey, Goldman, who had turned down graduate school for a job at the institute, went along with it—apprehensively. Although overwhelmed by his aggressive pursuit, the two connected and started dating. “He was funny, he was smart, interesting, intellectual, obviously talented if you like music, which I do,” says Goldman. What truly bonded them was their lifestyle, dedicated to the
summer they went to the local quarry, where Fahey would swim and the two of them would picnic. He practiced his guitar while Melody strummed a few chords on a ukulele. These were good times for the couple. Fahey often donated money to various charities. Few things gave him more pleasure than seeing a homeless person in a Dumpster and then handing him or her a twenty-dollar bill. His generosity sometimes extended beyond his means. “One year he gave $2,000 to this Catholic charity that was a
www.johnfahey.com/pages/cr2.html. ____. Undated interview. Quoted in “The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party and Other Excursions.” Fahey Files. www.johnfahey.com/pages/v42.html. Letters Fahey, John. Letter to Bill Belmont, early 1990s. Personal collection of Glenn Jones. ____. Letter to Glenn Jones, 1981. Personal collection of Glenn Jones. ____. Letter to Ron Cowan, November 25, 1998. www.johnfahey.com/roncowanletter.htm. ____. Letter to Sam Charters, November 27, 1963. Samuel and Ann