Tormented Genius John Fahey Had Rekindled Creative Fire

The legendary guitarist and label owner was experiencing a musical revival at time of his death.

Blind Joe Death is dead — and so is his legendary, turtle-obsessed alter ego, guitarist John Fahey, who died February 22 at the age of 61, following sextuple-bypass surgery.

Ever the prankster and enemy of pretense, Fahey attributed one side of his first album of guitar compositions to imaginary bluesman Blind Joe Death, whom he claimed to have "discovered" during a trip down South. Fahey pressed 100 copies of the record in 1959 while working in a gas station.

Most of those copies were distributed to blues scholars and friends or sold out of his car. Five were destroyed in shipping. Several were "droplifted" into the bins of used-record stores and thrift shops.

That was the first album on Fahey's own Takoma label, which released records ranging from future instrumental stars Leo Kottke and George Winston to bluesman Bukka White and eccentric guitarist Robbie Basho. Takoma became one of the country's more successful indie labels.

"In a country filled with non-sense," guitarist Kottke said in a statement issued Friday (February 23), "John created living, generative culture. With his guitar and his spellbound witness, he synthesized all the strains in American music and found a new happiness for all of us. With John, we have a voice only he could have given us; without him, no one will sound the same."

Fahey was a classic tormented genius of American music. Born in Takoma Park, Maryland, on February 28, 1939, he began playing guitar at 14 after buying his first instrument at a Sears Roebuck store for $17. His life changed two years later, when he heard Blind Willie Johnson's "Praise God I'm Satisfied." Johnson's earthen country blues inspired Fahey to head south in search of 78 rpm records, which he acquired primarily by canvassing neighborhoods door to door.

Fahey not only collected old American folk, blues and country albums, but he also synthesized them into something unique during the early-'60s folk explosion. His recordings included Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes (1967), The Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites (1964) and The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party and Other Excursions (1966).

"He basically started the whole idea of playing new music on traditional acoustic steel-string guitar," said Barry Hansen (a.k.a. Doctor Demento), who became friends with Fahey when the two studied folklore at UCLA in 1964. "He was the original underground artist."

Fahey also dabbled in collage and musique concrète long before they became fashionable.

Pianist and Dancing Cat label owner George Winston, who recorded Piano Solo for the Takoma label, recognized Fahey as a compatriot after meeting him in 1971. "He was playing great extended pieces at the time, doing his raw thing. He did everything I wanted to do, from playing solo concerts to starting my own label, and became my main mentor, role model, influence and inspiration. We used to ride bikes together and look at cats."

Fahey's talent, according to Winston, lay in his ability to combine country blues styles from the '20s and '30s with impressionist harmonies from classical music.

Guitarist Henry Kaiser summed up Fahey as "one of the first people I heard who didn't use melody and harmony in the conventional sense. He used harmony as timbre, as texture and color." Although Fahey's music influenced the harmonically pretty solo productions associated with the Windham Hill label, his personal life was more of a Windham Hell. His music came from the dark side, Kaiser noted, but it was also informed by his interest in Christianity and Hinduism.

Among Fahey's more popular albums are the semi-autobiographical Voice of the Turtle and the popular Christmas album The New Possibility (both 1968) and Return of the Repressed, a 1994 anthology.

Known for his rambling, often alcoholically confused stage presence, Fahey was married and divorced twice. In 1982 he left Los Angeles and moved to Salem, Oregon, where he lived until his death. He became increasingly depressed during the 1980s, while continuing to drink heavily, and in 1986 was diagnosed with the debilitating Epstein-Barr virus and, later, diabetes.

However, inspired by the music of Sonic Youth and other underground rock and noise artists, Fahey recovered his creative footing during the '90s and recorded a trio of innovative electric albums released in 1997. These included the grungy City of Refuge, the echoing Womblife and the chiming Epiphany of Glenn Jones (titled after, and recorded with, the leader of Boston ensemble Cul de Sac).

"We did a small amount of touring together a few years back, and — sadly — we talked recently about recording some acoustic duets," said Lee Ranaldo from Japan, where he is on tour with Sonic Youth. "Not long ago he sent me a group of his drawings of the Coelacanth, an ancient fish from prehistoric times that survived into the modern era. It's something we talked about while touring together. It seems likely John felt an affinity with this creature.

"Our song 'NYC Ghosts & Flowers' is partly about memory and the loss of loved ones, as well as the birth of new visions. I've been dedicating it to John here since we heard he died."

No less impressive was Fahey's decision to start the Revenant label with Nashville lawyer Dean Blackwood in 1996. "He received a small inheritance when his father died," recalled Blackwood, "and instead of doing something sensible with the money, he invested it in Revenant." The label has released 12 albums, including important collections by Doc Boggs, Captain Beefheart and the Stanley Brothers.

Fahey had been working on a definitive package devoted to bluesman Charley Patton, the subject of Fahey's UCLA thesis. He had also recently delivered four CDs of original acoustic and electric music to Blackwood for eventual release.

"He was able to rekindle his creative fire and spirit in the last years of his life," Hansen observed. "I only wish he had been able to do the same with his body."