Sea Changes & Coelacanths: A Young Person’s Guide to John Fahey
ore communiqués from the grave. These are mostly reconsiderations, however, as the whole of the work on these two CD’s included here have been previously issued. The presentation is new, of course, and several engaging essays wax poetic about Fahey and his impact not only on folk and bluegrass, but on the avant-garde “rock” scene as well. The most striking music here is Georgia Stomps, Atlanta Struts, and Other Contemporary Dance Favorites, which provides Fahey the chance to maintain his moving target status, eschewing big-bodied acoustic for shimmering electric.
Ten years ago, Atlanta’s Horizon Theatre filled with young and old; silver hair and spectacles mingling with the thrift-clad throng, curious about this big guy in Wayfarers who’d been hanging out with Jim O’Rourke, talking about Cecil Taylor, Derek Bailey, and Charles Ives in avant-music mags; making merry with paradigm subversion and addling anyone without an open mind and closed ear canals. Fahey showed up, plugged in, and wove classic tunes into an arabesque of flawless improvisational picking. The electric gave him more decay; allowed his notes to stretch out and ponder what followed in their wake. He talked very little. His voice was mismatched by his girth; his sunglasses—to everyone’s surprise—came off for a few seconds. The set was a definitive triumph: The older crowd appreciated his ruminations on tradition, the younger his decontextualization of the traditional.
Fahey’s music had aged well, even as his approach became more aggressive. His predilection for “wrecking” his own comps reared its head again with Womblife, a complex record that marries musique concrete to bottleneck blues. It doesn’t always work: one often strains to hear the guitar over the invasive din. It begins well enough, with “Sharks” merging academic technique with red-blooded guitar wrangling in near seamless fashion. “Eels,” however, is nearly nothing but booby-traps of noise sprung on the ear; the sounds of Ives’ Universe Symphony bouncing around in comic trajectories while Fahey runs his slide up and down the guitar neck in “Coelacanths.” “Juana,” the record’s most enjoyable piece, is also a track Fahey refrained from fucking with, and one is inevitably left wondering what might have been. But Fahey never wanted to just play his guitar like some acquiescing monkey screeching for approval. The Voice of the Turtle, released in 1968, utilized the same techniques as Womblife—only perhaps to better effect.
Hard Time Empty Bottle Blues makes an encore appearance, too, sounding like the “old” Fahey: forlorn, ruminative, down on his luck. His picking is slowed, slurred in some instances. And like the latter work of artist Willem de Kooning, spaciously sprawled, sometimes set into brilliant patches of bright color. Notes stand shoulder to shoulder, embracing in a drunken clamor. And they all shine, twinkling like a bottle’s broken green glass in the shifting trickle of a creek.
Byron Coley, in the set’s liners, writes that “there is no New John anymore; no more Old John.” Well, he’s logically correct: Fahey’s graveyard dead. He should have taken the statement a bit farther, though: There was never really Old or New John. New John was always Old; the Old was always presented in brand New ways. So, raise a glass to neither: John was always at his best with a leg hanging over either side of the fence.