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Steve Lowenthal - Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist (Chicago Review Press, 2014)

Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist
6 August 2014

“Being one of the greatest guitarists in the world simply is not very important to me,” John Fahey states near the end of the biography Dance of Death. “Oh, but if you took it away somehow I would be very unhappy.” Self-serving? Contradictory? You bet. According to Steve Lowenthal‘s heartfelt but evenhanded biography, those warring impulses drove the East Coast-bred, West Coast-based guitarist through his life, possibly even to his grave.

At first glance, Fahey seems the epitome of the self-made man. A diehard record collector before he became a musician, Fahey picked up his instrument in an attempt to emulate the country blues pickers and classical composers that captivated him. Completely self-taught, he developed his own distinctive fingerpicking style, one that combined bluesy runs and bends with dissonance and collage in the manner of the avant-garde composers he most loved. Nearly 20 years before the term “D.I.Y.” became prevalent, Fahey founded his own label Takoma in order to release his work, bypassing the music industry almost entirely for the first decade or so of his career. While his music had its ups and downs, he stuck to his guns as far as its direction, creating an entire genre of acoustica more concerned with emotional expression than technical virtuosity. Careerism didn’t interest him; either the world would accept his music as he envisioned it or it could go hang. Fahey cared little for achieving fame; respect, though, was something else again.

But while his art may have been self-willed, in his personal life Fahey was nearly the opposite. A difficult childhood (he claimed to have been molested by his father, but no evidence beyond his assertions exists) led him to be socially inept, even confrontational, while at the same time possessed of an impish spirit given to pranks. His lack of financial ambition led him to make questionable decisions about opportunities, leaving him on the edge of poverty for much of his life and over it near the end. He was nearly incapable of taking care of himself; the man who sculpted his own genre of music needed someone around to make sure his bills were paid and his health maintained. His marriages tended to end ignominiously; his friendships and business partnerships were often strained. He loathed the first wave of guitarists who named him as a primary inspiration, including Will Ackerman, Michael Hedges and other icons of the so-called New Age movement.

In short, Fahey was a brilliant artist but a very difficult man. He may have left a trail of bruised feelings and broken relationships behind him, but his musical legacy remains carved into stone – a fact that would please him, fame and riches aside. “Even though he believed that ambition toward careerism was hollow, Fahey wanted to matter,” writes Lowenthal. “That his music is continually discovered and enjoyed proves his enduring relevance.” The magic created by the current wave of young guitarists like William Tyler, James Blackshaw and the late Jack Rose bears this out. Ultimately, his work stands taller than his behavior as a human being, and while Dance of Death faithfully documents the flaws in the latter, it argues just more passionately for the former.

 

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