John Fahey, as Man and Musician

by Michael Potemra

Early in the new documentary In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey, legendary Who guitarist Pete Townshend describes Fahey as a musical figure analogous to William S. Burroughs and Charles Bukowski in literature. Which underscores the key weakness of this documentary: It focuses too much on Fahey’s status as a cult favorite and all-around weird dude. (What I know of Bukowski, I like. But I am not among those who find the writing of Burroughs enlightening: It seems to me more like a catalogue of pathologies than an insight into a broader reality.) I don’t feel especially enriched by knowing more about Fahey’s personal problems, especially since the film fails to get the bottom of some crucial ones. (Most troubling, it lets him remark that “[his] father was a pedophile,” and then drops the subject completely. So was his father actually a pedophile, and thus the source of Fahey’s emotional problems? Was Fahey already emotionally troubled as a youth, and under the misimpression that his father was a pedophile? Or was he an adult fabulist, purposely inventing, for whatever reason, the story that his father was a pedophile? If we want to understand Fahey as a person, it matters which of these is true.)

More interesting by far than the film’s examination of Fahey’s psyche is its presentation of his guitar work. (For a sample, check out his arrangement of the old Phil Phillips classic “Sea of Love,” and his rendition of the hymn “In Christ There Is No East or West.”) Fahey is called a “primitive,” in the sense of untaught, guitarist, and was a master, specifically, of the steel-string acoustic. But while he had no formal training, he is a musician very much in the American tradition of blues and folk; and his music has power rooted in these genres, even as it moves toward the avant-garde. (The film opens at the Cinema Village in New York on Friday, and will open in some other cities later. It runs for about an hour, and is accompanied by Approximately Nels Cline, a half-hour doc about a performance by a band led by the Wilco guitarist.)

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