"DOES ANYBODY understand what's going on with all those foreign countries?" asks John Fahey of his less-than-standing-room audience during the second set at the Cellar Door. Sitting alone in the spotlight, he gives his guitar a twang and listens intently, staring at the floor. The crowd titters, mildly horrified by the top of Fehey's head, which grows hair only in patches. A few lengthy strands usually combed over from the side for camouflage have slid off his sweaty pate and hang like dripping icicles. Long muscular arms, huge torso, short legs, big questioning eyes, a monstorous tumor of a wallet bulging in the back pocket of his baggy brown cords -- Fahey seems to be evolved from some distant ancestor of Today's Musician, a strange old dinosaur who hasn't quite figured out how to stop the mammals down the block from eating his eggs.
"I mean, what are we going to do about the kurds?" he continues. "I never heard of them, but I don't want them all to die." (Twang, tune, tune.) On the otherhand, the price of gasoline is outrageous. (Thrum, twing.) I don't get all this talk about military spending. Who's going to invade us? (Strum.) Mexico? (Riff, twing, tune.) Suppose the Russians did invade us. They'd have to put a soldier in every house. (Twang.) And another one for the night shift. There wouldn't be any Russians left in Russia. (Ta-thrummmm.) Did anyone ever stop to think: How could they control us when we can't control us?"
Apparently no one had stopped to think of this, so Fahey embarks on the long final portion of his show, which he refers to as the "void." Music as errie as darkenss on Golgotha, as familiar as your own soul. Fahey's depiction of evil plunges far deeper into the mind than words can penetrate. Gong under various titles on his 19 albums, the void is easy to recognize; in your living room, guests suddenly declare a urgent reason to leave; in clubs, bartenders clink glasses and opening acts speculate on why a wierdo with just a guitar is topping the bill. For Fahey believers, it is just an opportunity to confront whatever infalable truths they have lurking in their unconscious that night . . . until Fahey brings them back up with "In Christ There Is No East or West," a melodic breeze after a trip to hell. No stomping or cheering from the crowd, just dazed clapping relief that they are awake, relief that they are alive with one more chance to repent.
"Modern Technology is a massive conspiracy to make you drink less," say Fahey, well juiced in his hotel room afte the show. "You can't go anywhere without driving a car. If you study old civilizations, you'll find they were on booze all the time. My hero, Charlie Patton, drank first thing in the morning, all day, every day."
Patton (1887-1934), the Delta blues singer, was known for beating his eight wives, being so abrasive that he couldn't keep any sidemen, playing the guitar behind his head, and "eating out of the white folk's kitchen."
"Ever hear 'High Water Everywhere Part I?' he asks. "Nobody can play that way anymore. It's a very simple song, a 12-bar blues in open G, just three notes. But something is there that nobody else has. You could talk about technical facility, his age, his influences -- the same things apply to most of his comtemporaries. What is it that he had? In the Middle Ages, everyone assumed the artist had grace. You can't really say that anymore, but it's true: Charlie Patton was infused by grace, God dropped it on him like a bomb."
"I hate what I do," Fahey continues in his peculiarly rhythmic modulation. "I hate traveling. I hate business. I don't make any money. The only time it's really fun to play the guitar is when I've just worked out a song. I have to believe to do this crazy stuff. But I do think I've written some good music and I believe it comes from God. Several of my best songs I attribute to divine inspiration . . . well that and knowing how to steal from obscure sources."
Fahey's Christianity is as unorthodox and to-the-point as his guitar playing. "Jesus didn't say much more than that the Kingdon of God is here and you better repent. And even then the disciples couldn't understand him. They's why he was God: Nobody could figure Him out. He went around saying. 'God loves you,' and they all thought he was insane. Divine humor there."
"I'm a pretty lousy Christian myself." I'm an alcoholic. I've been addicted to barbituates. But at least I'm not born-again. Their attitude is, 'I-know-the-truth-and-you-don't.' I tell those people that I worship the Devil."
Fahey pauses a moment to roust some Alka Seltzer out of his suitcase. "Two years ago. I was flying to Chicago. I was thinking, I'm exhausted and I can't go on. Please Jesus, find something else for me to do if it's you will.' I was looking out the window and suddenly there he was: Jesus Christ wearing a Hindu swami robe in the midst of the Mississippi Delta, surrounded by Negro cotton pickers who hadn't left the land to make more money in the city. It was highly personal, a vision that wouldn't work for anyone else. I kept doing reality checks to make sure I wasn't hallucinating. I could still see the landscape and the lights of other airplanes, so I could sit back and think objectively, 'What is this? Finally, I just accepted it was Jesus.I told him I was an awful sinner, all the things I'd done.He just kept repeating, 'I love you. It's not important.'
Born 41, years ago in Takoma Park, Md., John Fahey recalls his childhood as miserable and his schooling as "an education in demonic bureaucracy. I was extremely unpopular. My only friends were turtles. My neighborhood was horribly anti-Semetic and racist. Goldie Hawn was on my paper route and people used to tell me she was half-Jewish to make me hate her." Seeing the guys who played guitar in the park could pick up girls, he became a musician during adolescence. His early exposure to classical music quickly gave way to the local hillbilly station, WARL, where he fell under the influence of the Carter Family and Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys. This is turn led him to black gospel and blues.
One of his friends, Jim Hill, now a copilot with American Airlines, remember Fahey as a "loner, but not strident about it. I think he liked people. It was just that his own ideas were enough. He used to spend his weekends driving around the Carolinas looking for old bluegrass 78s. He had a great ear. He could immediately tell is a record was honest -- that was his highest praise. Where most guitarists try to improve their technique and move on to conquer new territories, John was always the opposite. He stayed in the same area, searching for some kernel of truth the others had missed in those old records.
Graduating from high school in 1956, Fahey bounced from college to college, eventually earning a B.A. in philosophy of religion from American University and a master's degree in folklore and mythology from UCLA in 1967 (Charlie Patton was his thesis subject). After founding Takoma Records in 1959, he pressed a hundred copies of his and his alter ego's first album, "John Fahey/Blind Joe Death." Fahey moved to Berkley and in 1963 released his second record, "Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes," with a pressing of 300 copies. Those were the years of the great folk revival, which Fahey predictably shunned. "I didn't fit in the social scene," he says. A lot of the people throwing parties turned out to be communists. The tip-off was their emphasis on group singing. I'm not in favor of capitalism or socialism, so I'd just get drunk on whiskey and Dexadrine."
Fahey meanwhile continued his forays into the South, discovering old records and two living blues masters: Bukka White and Skip James (now dead). "The very atoms of this place seem to be filled with incarnation." Fahey wrote of the Delta is an unpublished letter. "It is very much like 'I have been here before, a very long time ago, and now I've come back -- but everyone else is gone.' There's something about these cotton fields when then sun goes down. Perhaps when the people have gone, Christ leaves an imprint, a spiritual signature, if He and the peole have suffered enough together. Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James, Robert Johnson -- reality had them in its teeth . . . When we hear them today, they draw us out of the deadly haze surrounding us. And what we are really responding to is people who once were in close touch with essences and not appearances."
This attitude is the foundation of "American Primitive Guitar," Fahey's term for his style, which, because of its deceptive simplicity, is probably forever doomed to a small audience. To modern ears attuned to speed and electronics, it just doesn't sound as if much is going on. Fahey relies on the awesome power of his stroke and rhythmic subtlety. He seems to have a little Charlie Watts beating a hypnotic pulse in his brain and no Mick Jagger to prance his way onto the charts.
Fahey's best seller so far has been "The New Possibility," a masterpiece collection of Christmas carols stripped of all cuteness. It sold 150,000 copies. The rest of his records average about 10,000. Perhaps the best place for a beginner to start is "The Best of John Fahey 1959-1977," an anthology of his shorter work. Once that is successfully digested, move on to some of his "suites." A single song, in which good and evil have enough space to duke it out for your soul, may take up the entire side of an album: "America," the second Christmas album, "John Fahey Visits Washington, D.C.," and "Fare Forward Voyagers" ("I dedicated that one to Swami Satchidananda" 'cause I was trying to make it with his secretary"). If you are then hooked, you'll start searching the cut-out bins for his two out-of-print Warner Bros. albums, which hold his most extensive and stunning work with other musicians: "Of Rivers and Religion" and "After the Ball." The just-released "Live In Tasmania" contains new versions of some of his best out-of-print work, a haunting rendition of "Waltzing Matilda," and an memorable stage tap in which he chides the Tasmanians for not being "esoteric" enough.
The main stockholder of Takoma for most of its existence, Fahey sold it last year when Chrysalis figured out it could get a new Leo Kottke album (Fahey discovered Kottke) cheaper by purchasing the record company to which he still owed an album. Fahey now draws $25 a week and health insurance for listening to tapes that come in the mail.
Lack of riches, unlike his state of grace, is a fate he is largely responsible for himself. Many of his album covers appear to be hallucinations of doom. His liner notes -- hilariously rembling free associations on topics ranging from the consumption of "She-Wolf Brand Homogenized Afterbirth" to "incipient Ozmatroidism" -- are hardly calculated to reassure the average Olivia Newton-John fan.
Now living in relative happiness with his thrid wife, Melonie Brennon, in Los Angeles, Fahey is experiencing uncharacteristic good luck with the opposite sex. "Whenever I'm between wives, I propose on the first date," he says, "I usually score that way, but unfortunately I end up married too often."