by Lisa Rumel Cretsinger
Feb. 24, 2001
© 2000 Lisa Rumel Cretsinger, All rights reserved.
Dan Lissy held up God, Time & Causality. "Ever heard of John Fahey?" he stroked his smooth gray beard. "This is his latest album, he is a genius."
"Never heard of him", I replied.
"What about Blind Joe Death, you ever heard of Blind Joe Death?"
"Blind Joe who?" I said, straightening the rap section.
"Blind Joe Death." He gave up on me with a wave, " You’re too young to know anything about Blind Joe Death."
Okay, I’d play along. I took the God, Time & Causality from his hands, "Now who is this?."
"John Fahey. He lives here in Oregon. Father of the American Primitive Guitar. One of the greatest musicians of all time. He stopped drinking awhile back, or is he still drinking?" Stroking his beard, eyeing the dead flowers hanging from the roof of the counter area at Music Millennium we called, "the Shack".
We called it that because it had a fake roof of wood shingles. The Shack overlooked the massive tape room. Once a week I straightened every single tape in that immense room, starting with AC/DC and ending up in the New Age section. Actually, I skipped the New Age section because that was Dan’s section. He got offended if anyone mentioned at all that he was a New Ager, he just liked the music. Perhaps it was the women it attracted.
There was a buzz that John Fahey was going to do a Christmas performance on stage near the front of the store. Why everyone was all up in arms about his performance was beyond me, I guess he didn’t play much anymore. I wasn’t going to ask and make myself look stupid.
Then one day he was there. A big man, wandering through the tape room, leaning against the shack, looking up and down and every which way. He looked like a big lumbering Polar Bear, a little unpredictable, a little wild. Someone asked why he had recorded another Christmas record, "Because it sells", he said. I liked his honesty. He was funny.
There were more instructions and talk from the store Patriarch, Dan Lissy on the wonders of John Fahey and how New Age music was influenced by him. Then Christine Lavin came out with a song called, Sensitive New Age Guy, and all they guys at work couldn’t resist playing it over and over, just to drive Dan crazy. At the brink, Dan marched right up to the stereo and popped that CD out of the player and dropped it on the carpet, then he rubbed it up and down with his foot saying, "Let’s see if it is true that CDs can play even when they are scratched." He was half smiling, as he always was, with a look as if what he was saying was a joke, not to be taken seriously, unless you wanted to take it seriously, then he could get serious. That scratched up CD played just fine. Later, Dan broke it in half.
After I moved to Salem I saw John Fahey in the Lancaster Mall, eating a gyro. He was with some crazy looking guys, I thought they might have escaped from the famed Salem Mental Hospital. One of them, who we came to know later as Robert Wheeler, was yaking away in John’s ear about the government plotting against him personally. John had stains all over his tee shirt, his hair was sticking up in all direction. It looked like he had indeed been drinking. I got the nerve to say hello to this guru, legend. He didn’t recognize me, let alone see me with his head wandering to and fro, searching or maybe listening for the source of some humming sound. John seemed to me a man on a constant journey to somewhere, somewhere safe. A place of perfect tone and pitch where all his demons would vanish. His life long quest gently persuaded everyone else to follow along.
In 1992 My husband and I opened our own record store in Salem and it wasn’t too long after, that John Fahey sniffed us out and materialized on our doorstep. He seemed completely unaware that we had met him before. All he wanted to do was sell some records.
John continued to appear at our door for the next eight years that we were in business in Oregon. Each time he came I had a semi panic attack for many reasons. My experiences with him had given me mixed feelings. Sometimes I simply feared that he was going to leave a big mess in the bathroom (which he often did).
John sold or traded records for classical music or the latest Yazoo collection. He never kept anything, into the music for the music sake and not the collectibility of it. The first few times that John came to our store selling records, he had gotten himself into a desperate situation and was broke. It was hard for me to understand why he didn’t have anything. He had made a ton of albums by this time. He was a genius, right? A big influence on nearly everyone. It just baffled me. How did this happen? Were people ripping him off? I didn’t realize then that John didn’t want anything.
John went on and on about how he needed money and how he didn’t have a manager. I thought I could learn something by helping him out. I offered to try and arrange some things for him – some places to play. This ended up being a much more difficult task than I thought. I called his old manager in New Jersey, a guy who had hung in with John for many years. He told me that John had burned all his bridges and no one wanted to hire him anymore. I called everyone I could think of that might be able to help John get some gigs. I even left a message on Leo Kottke’s answering machine. Now, I see that John was in no condition to play anyway. He was depressed.
The fall of 1994 we talked John into performing at our store. John said that he was going to have to eat something first, even though he was eating a sandwich while telling me this. He was stalling. It was strange to see him in sitting at our desk, eating a sandwich. I took him to a Chinese restaurant nearby and he ordered Broccoli-Beef. John was happy. We went back to the backroom, he borrowed our wire cutters and he re-strung his guitar. Tim asked him how he can remember so many notes, "It’s east, just do this (demonstrating) and then this and one of these. You don’t have to remember anything." Then out from back he came and into our little record store. He played for about 35 people and was quite fabulous. The tape of the show is around here somewhere, someday we will have to do something with it. Our store at the time wasn’t a real comfortable place to listen to live music. There weren’t many places to sit and people kept coming in and out, shopping. The door bell kept banging against the door with every entrance and exit, disturbing John no doubt. Finally we cut the damn thing down. John seemed to just go on and on and on in a little world of his own. Then he said he was going to take a 20 minute break! This was a bad idea, because many people didn’t want to wait and took this as an opportunity to leave. When John came back there weren’t many people left to hear him. We had a little drawing for prizes after the show and John helped with that. I think he liked that part best. He was upset when he found out he couldn’t win anything, we gave him a package of CDs anyway.
John was living at the Oregon Capitol Inn in Salem for many years. Then he ran out of money and lived in his car. A big green 70’s style station wagon that I heard coming way before it got anywhere near our driveway. I knew once John was there, no one else or nothing else could have my attention, it had to be all John or he would soon leave. I didn’t want him to ever leave because he was always entertaining and interesting. Without much warning he would say goodbye and then be gone. I always had the urge to run after him and say, "Wait, don’t go yet." I never did.
John would have a big ice cream treat from Baskin-Robbins and a big stack of records under his arm. It always amazed me at the selection of records he had with him. Usually there were an assortment of John Fahey records mixed in with pop and hard rock – stuff John thought we could sell. Once in awhile there were some Russian Composers, one of his favorites. I imagine John found his own records at Goodwill and couldn’t bear to have them go to just anyone, he brought them to our store, so they would have a good home. It was sort of sad to picture John finding his own records at Goodwill. He liked it though.
After John’s dad died he went back to Maryland and got all the records there, he brought some to us. He said he had given them to his dad, some weren’t even opened! That surprised me. Consequently, most of my Fahey collection, are records I actually bought from John himself. I would often have him sign them, which he thought was funny. He would sign them in big loopy letters or tiny letters or just an X with "His Mark" written beside it. I would say, "John, just sign it normal", he’d laugh at me, "That is normal". One of my records says, "Merry Christmas, John Fahey" on it. He wrote that. It wasn’t even Christmas.
John laughed at himself. One time we were playing one of his records and he laughed right out and said, "This is all ad-lib, I didn’t even know what I was playing here, made it up as I went along." He was just having fun. I wondered to myself if he would be able to play the piece again. I began to see how it was possible that John Fahey could be so destitute with so many albums to his name. I also began to realize that John was pulling everybody’s leg all along. Wow!
John told me he was writing a book about his childhood. He said that the publishers wanted him to write about all the musicians he had known, stories about them, gossip. John didn’t want to do that, he wrote about growing up in Takoma Park, Maryland. "Do you want to read it?" he asked, "Heck yeah!" I said. He brought me a big bundle of photocopies of his handwriting and I took them home to try and figure out. It was pretty hard to understand what John was trying to say and his handwriting was messy. He kept mentioning the refrigerator in the kitchen the "Kalvinator", this sound must have made a tremendous impact on him for some reason. It is obvious to me now that John had a fascination with the sound, tone and pulsation of motors whether they be home appliances or large industrial machines. John loved the rhythm of railroads and steam engines too.
One day, I’ll never forget it. John came in and sat down on our little maroon couch hung his head, and cried. He was so sad. everything had turned out crappy for him. He was living in his car and had nothing. This was the one and only time I ever saw him unhappy. We were broke ourselves, starting out our own business so I offered to clean out the inside of his car and we gave him a quilt to keep him warm at night. The quilt we gave him was my brothers quilt, when he was a little kid. My mom had made matching drapes for his windows. Anyway this quilt is on the cover of the Womblife album. It is all wrapped up under the seatbelt with John. Odd to see that now. John said he liked the quilt.
I did clean John’s car. It took me a long time. Two bags of garbage came from it. The things I found in his car were shocking to me. It was as if I had entered some alien land – a place where people with different brain functioning lived. After taking everything out and getting down to the floor I saw numerous cups and wrappers and straws from fast-food outlets, several half eaten hamburgers (which made me sort of sick), clothes of various shapes and sizes, piles and piles of unopened bills and personal mail. I asked John if I could read one of the letters, he said, "Why, yes of course", did he object to anything? The letter was from a friend in Germany who sounded genuinely concerned for John. He wondered where he was, if he was o.k. etc. The letter was over a year old! I asked John if he had ever written back, "I haven’t found the time" is what he said. I asked if it would be alright if I wrote back for him. "Yes, that would be fine." I wrote the letter, but I left it to John to approve it, sign it and then mail it. It probably never got mailed.
Some other interesting stuff I found in John’s car, besides his guitar and many, many, many, stacks of books and records, were some original master tapes. I asked John what they were. "Oh, just some stuff I picked up here and there". They were of some obscure musicians and just melting away in the back of his car. John didn’t seem to mind.
Another time, not long after I cleaned out John’s car, Doctor Demento (Barry Hansen) and John came to the store together. Doctor D had gotten John’s guitar out of the pawn shop and John was extremely happy. Probably the happiest I had ever seen him. John couldn’t keep his hands off his guitar. It was as if he had been without one for a very long time. He kept playing and playing, just sat in our high back chair and played. Doctor D Went though a stack of old 78s we couldn’t decipher. They turned out to be old porn 78s. I took a picture of this moment with John and Doctor D. It is my favorite of John. He is truly so happy to have his guitar and his all time best friend, Barry Hansen, in his all time favorite record store Groovacious Platters, (at least I like to think so).
One thing I always tried to do with John was respect him. The guy was an easy target, he felt so vulnerable to me, and it seemed there was always someone new trying to get a piece of him. I figured he deserved to be treated with respect and consideration. When he came waltzing in with a wad and I do mean a wad of bills, gingerly stuffed into his tiny tee shirt pocket, I would always refold them for him so they wouldn’t get lost and drop out, which is exactly what they looked as if they would do. "John, why don’t you put that in the bank?" I asked. "A bank account? What would I do with a bank account?" He said with a laugh and a shuffle. Sometimes he would do that, show up with a wad. Baffling really, since most of the time I knew him he seemed to be living by the kindness of strangers. He ended up staying in the Union Gospel Mission. I think he sort of liked it there. It was safe and the crowd was pretty interesting. The curfew was an adjustment for him and he didn’t like the sermons. He ate cheese sandwiches there.
John said there was a girl who worked in a bookstore in Portland that he had fallen in love with. He sent her flowers and went to the book store every day to see her. She didn’t want anything to do with him. He was nearly twice her age. This was a side of John I didn’t want to see, a sad desperate man who had made a lot of mistakes in his life. His divorce cost him a lot. John said that his wife got tired of his routine of staying up all night listening to records in the basement, then sleeping all day. Actually it was the divorce that forced John to meet some new people and get creative again. It turned out to be a good thing, if not painful.
John and I had many long discussions about religion, one of my favorite topics. His comments were canned, a little naïve or inexperienced. I know he appreciated my honesty and knowledge about religion. He asked me lots of questions. I gave him a card that stated all the things I believed in and what my religion regarded as a code to live by. That night on my answering machine John’s voice said in tears, how grateful he was that I had given him this card. That it had answered many of his questions. He did have a strong interest in religion. John came to some of our church meetings. I nearly trembled in fear that he would shout out some offense, but he never did. He ate all the cookies afterward. John had some lessons in hi s hotel room he really wanted to be baptized and we were trying to figure out how to go about it, because he was so large, then he disappeared. John told me later he just wanted a wife who would take care of him, and that was why he had come to our meetings. In a Spin Magazine article John slammed my religion and made fun of it. This hurt me a great deal, but by then I had learned that that was how John was. Everyone was game, anytime.
Unfortunately this experience had somehow damaged his side of our relationship and we didn’t see him as often. I would have treated him exactly the same, but I think he had made himself uncomfortable around us. Who knows, maybe he got busy. I only felt bad that he wasn’t around as much and that I had shared too much personally with him, that I had tried too hard to help him and be a true friend. John never explained anything to anyone about his reasoning, it made him even more of a mystery and only now, with him gone, when we can compare notes do we truly learn the full scope of the man.
Then out of the blue John showed up with a girlfriend! Yeah, maybe now he would get on track and take care of himself. John hadn’t lived in a house in years, she moved him into her home and took good care of him. They cooked and had a comfortable place to live. She was a nice, respectable, honest caring woman. They came in selling records (of course), John’s selection was getting dingier as the years progressed. Maybe we were just getting more selective. They also had a stack of paintings that John had done. They were trying to sell those too. I remember them saying, flashing them in front of me, "John Fahey’s original artwork!" I didn’t take it serious, I thought, ‘Yeah right, some weird thing John’s come up with to make a buck’. I also thought they must be in the beginning stages of their relationship. The paintings were basically paint splashes. John laughed his head off telling us how he had made them in the back yard with a phonebook and yarn or something, "People are buying them!" He never could understand why anyone would want anything of his.
The last we heard from John, he was living in Woodburn and playing a little here and there.
Since John’s death I’ve discovered how busy he really was in those final years. He had won a Grammy award, performed in London, Ireland and San Francisco. He gave interviews for NPR and several magazines. He recorded lots of new music with many different people and published his book, How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life. ‘Why didn’t he tell us’, I thought, but then John was never one to toot his own horn.
John died with a small stack of records he was listening to at the time and one electric guitar in his possession, all his acoustic guitars had been pawned off. His Grammy award was stolen from his car in Woodburn, Oregon.
– Inventor of Tone, Guardian of Turtles
by Lisa Rumel Cretsinger
I heard your last groan, and
Dark clouds filled my mind.
I heard the minor pluck from your fingertip.
My heart went soaring to the sky.
I felt the tug and flew towards you.
Could you see my wings in flight?
I knew that here, I would find you
and be able to say goodbye.
The low hum of industrial machines, the high drama of life.
The rhythm of rail cars and creeping things.
The elements of earth and sky.
All gather for one final shout! to you their guardian
Who gave them voice with only wood, and steel
and taught me too how to listen.
Dear friend, gentle man of great humor and enormous skill
I humbly thank you for your brave journey
and for knowing me, when I was no one, farewell, farewell.
Post Note about John's Funeral
The funeral itself was small. Leo Kottke spoke. Terry Robb played In Christ There Is No East Or West - truly devastating! A Japanese woman, Masumi Timson performed on the Koto. At the memorial on Sunday George Winston spoke and played an incredibly slow, moving version of Steamboat Gwine 'Round de Bend on harmonica! Absolutely haunting! He spoke as well as John Doan (Hearts of Space recording artist and Professor of Music at Willamette University as well as long time friend of John's). Mitch Greenhill, John’s attorney, spoke. His father was John's accountant/manager for many many years. Peter Lang spoke, and Terry Robb and Glenn Jones (Cul de Sac). A neighbor of John's had some interesting things to say especially that John had performed at his son’s school and taught his son to play guitar.
Dan Lissy, the man I mention in my story was there to explain how John was the pivotal reason Music Millennium (an independent record store in Portland) came to exist. He said he went to California to find John, but didn’t have to look far when he saw him in a grocery store.
He turned to John and said, "You’re John Fahey".
John said, "I am?"
Then Dan said, "You changed my life!"
John answered with, "I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do that."
Dan went back to Oregon and talked his brother in-law into opening a record store just to carry Takoma records. There was a very heartfelt and moving guitar piece by the producer of "I Remember Blind Joe Death", Tinh (quang) Mahoney who was John's protégé. He actually finished a song that John had started and named it, I Remember John Fahey. It echoed heavily of John. We had to leave and catch a plane, but apparently at a coffee house, George Winston played for some time amongst others.