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.
disturbed, even tormented him. Eventually, of course, his writing became an end unto itself, still related to his music but not attempting to explain any particular pieces.” Released on Takoma in 1968, The Voice of the Turtle is a musical collage as well as a visual one. In his most elaborate prank, Fahey released two different albums with the exact same cover, booklet, and track titles—but with completely different recordings. Each pressing of the record contained a different sequence and
just seemed normal.…John could do that.” The gun-toting incident didn’t faze Kottke too much. Surviving that first night, he figured nothing worse could happen. He was right; afterward, Fahey became calm toward Kottke and enjoyed his company. The two got along well—they genuinely liked each other. “John had so much contempt for all his peers. He had no reason to even consider them on the same planet,” says Charters. “Leo was an exception because he came under John’s wing.” In public Kottke came
retreat with an endorsement by Fahey printed on it. “I would like to introduce you to this healthy, spiritually based concept of living. The 46 people living here follow the ideals of Integral Yoga as taught by Swami Satchidananda. To the extent that I have practiced these techniques, they really seem to work.” These were his only words for the album; no stories or fiction found their way in. Takoma Park, for once, seemed out of view. He never returned to this style of long-form playing, which
technique of collage, he found that the new technology allowed him to edit and layer more efficiently than splicing tape together. Seeking the furthest reaches of out-there music, he discovered Japanese noise, a devout circle of extreme electronic musicians. “I like noise,” said Fahey. “I use Merzbow [a Japanese noise artist] in my tape collages. I like the violent. It’s abstract violent. When I come home exhausted and I want to lay down and forget about my obligations to other people, I’ll turn
regret his divorce from Melody. Since the initial shock of their split, her anger toward him had cooled. Whenever business calls for him came to the house, she got him the messages. Never fully out of contact, he attempted to bridge their friendship. Although she had remarried, her company and affection seemed his only shot for comfort. He began to feel his mortality more completely. Feeling not long for this world, he began attempting to rekindle some of his other relationships, even e-mailing