John Fahey
Railroad I
Takoma
1981; r: 2007
B+



oh, Fahey would be pissed. He didn't particularly relish the idea of cupboard raiding and found overly passionate musical archeologists frankly embarrassing. And here we are with yet another reissue, vouchsafed upon an unwitting populace certainly no different than the indifferent masses that silently greeted him and his label’s roster back when he was lumped in with the bone-rolling, dayglo’d hippie ilk—a grave mistake for a man who’d always rather be fishing deep river holes with a buddy and a bottle of cheap whiskey.

Always the iconoclast, Fahey found nothing so much in contemporary music save for Cecil Taylor or the No-Neck Blues Band. The sentiment wasn't reserved only for others; he didn't give two shits about his back catalog and infamously derided his early and well-lauded output a few years before he went to the grave, characterizing the work as "kitsch"—a "mixture of emotions" that "contained no clear statement about anything." Apologists anxiously chalked this up to minor self-loathing: Fahey's patented resistance to lounge comfortably in his own goddamned skin. But he was jarringly forthcoming about his psyche's shortcomings.

Whether stitched meticulously into his liners, or drawn into the pictographic symbols that haunted his cover art, his psychoses scampered across the punch-drunk zeitgeist of the late '60s: reptilian, amphibian, its skin scaled and covered in carapace; amber eyes sunk in summer’s entropic rapture, turning over gold as tooth riddled beaks grinned from stained, sulfur reeked marshes. When it wasn’t the God-given horrors of gators and turtles it was the sheer steel tonnage of man-made myth destroyers: The train.

Small, squirming male minds captured by their movement—their size and shape and color. Their rattling undercarriages, their roaring flywheels and pumping pistons and sockets, the screams of their steam trumpets as they cut course across states, as they settle into stop, and as they yellow and atrophy in brittle black and white photographs. Fahey wasn't the first to find favor with trains; he wasn't the last to have some tweed-cocooned peckerwood connecting his innocent inclinations with psychoanalytic symbols drowned in sexual innuendo and import either. A freight train in a tunnel or a box turtle working its way across the yard—both brought the Big D Dread for the big man; the turtle episode coming when he was only five-years-old. “I thought it was a penis walking across the front lawn,” Fahey recalled. “It kind of upset me.”

For what it's worth, he did what the best of the rest do. He made art out of his metastasizing fixation, out of his boredom, out of cognitive liability and dispossessed relationships, a life broken down, suspended from the dust by wobbly cement blocks with no fuckin’ where to go. Little wonder he turned inward to trains.

In 1983 he recorded Railroad I for his Takoma label: a 10-song album with titles a mixture of Richard Brautigan's porch-side mysticism and folky small-talk with a grizzled convenience store clerk. Some sound like ad hoc itineraries: “Frisco Leaving Birmingham,” “Afternoon Espee through Salem.” Others are lent an ambiguous personal symbolism or naïve simile: “Summer Cat by My Door,” “Life Is Like a Mountain Railway” (“I ask you, is it?” Fahey mused in his liners). There’s the rail fan’s favorite: “Steve Talbot on the Keddie Wey,” a locomotive picker rhapsodizing the steel tracks laid along the Feather River Canyon.

There’s the conflation of the ineffable and the empirical: “Enigmas & Perplexities of the Norfolk and Western;” “Delta Dog thru the Book of Revelation.” There are meditations and ruminations, vignettes and moderate and capable extrapolations of worn and ossified themes. There are whimsical and worried tones; there are deep death tolls and ecstatic birth cries. And there is no clear statement about anything. True to his word, Railroad I is a puzzle askew—scattershot, a colorful and emotive mess, bereft of configuration and purpose.

The album’s short but admitted brilliance is embodied predominantly by three cuts: “Oneonta”—an ode to Rockwellian New York State; “Imitation Train Whistles—Po Boy,” a gothic creeper co-authored with fishing buddy Bukka White, taking flight with eerie coos and atonal couplets, and “Afternoon Espee through Salem,” which features some of Fahey’s most passionate and focused playing.

“Afternoon Espee…,” likely hewed from his Kona Hawaiian steel-string, begins cautiously, as if he’s stamping out a smoke and gathering the slide in his hand. The moment the slide slips over the strings, the piece is beatific—a paean to ragged religiosity or hot romps in a Chevy’s rusted bed. Suns rise and fall; rains come wet and warm; herons stalk river rock while osprey wheel on high. There are barns in ruin, tractors taken by the very fields they once turned up. There are summer snakes coiled and lethargic, sunning on gravel and hot, gleaming white train-track. There are steeples and gables and bodies built of worn, white board; houses of God seemingly grown from the stone gardens that run ‘round them as so many teeth rotting in an earthen jaw. “The train I ride, it don’t burn no coal; oh, it’s don’t burn no coal.”

Blind Willie Johnson's "Praise God I'm Satisfied" was Fahey’s “Road to Damascus:” Johnson’s croaking, bullfrog voice and baptismal bottleneck brought him to his knees. The light he saw was a waning, pulsing Morse—an atavistic beckon harking back to times undocumented, days and months and years impossible to characterize or encapsulate. There are times when Fahey brought his Kona to his lap and rekindled the conversion, when the notes bleated and wailed, yellow light roaring through their bodies like hundreds of fireflies undulating in summer twilight, heat lightning waking in shattered white veins across the dead gray sky of the distance. “Praise God I’m Satisfied” brought the waterworks; Fahey boo-hoo’d and did it in front of a bunch of record collector buddies to boot. He said he allowed himself to like it. That at first he was swept up in a dense and clenching nausea given quick life from prejudice and fear. Despite the disgust, he had to hear it again.

Now we’ve got Johnson to thank for a wealth of Fahey material: he never borrowed from it, he only used it as a foundation, a ramp to roll his little boat into big water. He coasted through enough records; he labored honestly at others. Railroad I undoubtedly shows both approaches, but holds enough magic in its shallow well to keep those that seek a bare bones account of the man that made it mired in stubborn stories that do little to lay the self-proclaimed “primitive” bare. And Fahey wouldn’t have had it any other way.



Reviewed by: Stewart Voegtlin
Reviewed on: 2007-09-04
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