Looking for Blind Joe Death

Earthly appetites: The brilliant and curious career of steel-string demigod John Fahey

Other times, he would play his mixes: collages of Nazi rallies, Balinese gamelan, and recent Chicago blues licks with their verses and choruses mischievously lopped off, rearranging their 12- bar logic. Whether it was blue plate specials, convenience store crap, or world music, all went into his maw. Such devouring and consumption was what Fahey did throughout his career. His repertoire mashed Hammerstein with Dvorak, Christian hymns as well as Hindi chants, Dock Boggs and Duke Ellington. Classic albums like Requia and Days Have Gone By feature the same sort of aural collages he was still spinning 30 years on, as if no time had elapsed. Dislocation isn't too odd of a sensation, as critic Nat Hentoff recognized: "[Fahey's] music keeps stirring up old memories and all kinds of new anticipations."

I saw four concerts of his that week, but I can't recall a single tune. What lingers is Fahey's desire to dig beneath the veneer of the blues, philosophy, industrial noise, classical music, past names and labels, so as to unearth the collective unconscious of the tragic human condition that courses underneath the music. Songs were gateways to more profound, sometimes more horrific, truths. As his rambling online exegesis reveals: "When I play, I very quickly put myself into a light hypnotic trance and compose while playing. . . . I would go so far as to say that I am playing emotions and expressing them in a coherent public language called music."

In his later years, Fahey eschewed the acoustic steel-string altogether; he didn't even own a guitar, pawning it to make his rent. Due to the effects of Epstein-Barr syndrome and diabetes, his immaculate style slowed. Gone were the ornate five-finger rolls of a one-man orchestra as instead he swamped his tone in delay and reverb, stirring up fuliginous, phantasmal lines that slowly accrued in the air. "There's something about guitars," he wrote in How Bluegrass Destroyed My Life, a 2000 collection of his tales, noting that the guitar "evokes past, mysterious, barely conscious sentiments both individual and universal." At these shows, everyone in the audience would be mesmerized, drawn in by that slow spiral of sound and transported elsewhere. It was like the tornado in The Wizard of Oz, with shards of recognized melodies suddenly separated and reconfigured in the space-time continuum, moving counterclockwise while unlocking the subconscious, spinning like swastikas do.

I think now of the very first time I saw John perform, under a starry sky a year before our meeting at Mars. His shades affixed in the twilight, he spun out a lugubrious though transcendental waterfall of sound. Staring up into the firmament, I was startled by a melodic line suddenly remembered amid Fahey's hypnotic whorl. It was "O Holy Night," a Christmas carol played on that hot July evening. Dislocated in time, it was all the more relevant, its unsung words echoing my own thought: "The stars are brightly shining."


Andy Beta is a freelance writer in Brooklyn.

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