So much mythology exists about John Fahey. Most is of his own making. To sort through the life of this true American original is a daunting task at best. Steve Lowenthal’s new book “The Dance of Death: the Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist” represents the best effort to date at making sense of the life of a man who constantly defied sense and logic.
Writing a biography takes a point of view. Everybody has an opinion, even biographers. Unfortunately, they run the risk of “liking” their subject too much. This can lead to certain conclusions being drawn that may have been best left to the reader. This may be the main fault with this particular biography. Lowenthal does not put Fahey on a pedestal. Far from it. Fahey is presented fairly, warts and all. Fahey’s particular brand of insanity seems to have been the fuel for his creative output all of his adult life. And this fuel was the high-octane stuff! We have terms and diagnosis today that did not exist in Fahey’s lifetime.
However, insanity isn’t a symptom of genius. Had Fahey never touched a guitar, he would have mostly likely found himself among the scores of walking wounded that decorate the urban landscape. It’s too easy to draw the conclusion that his madness was somehow tied to his genius, that he was in a world that the rest of us mere mortals will never know. It is that point of view that colors this biography, more often than not, to its detriment.
There are also countless other points of view that are contained in this biography from friends, colleagues and family. Some are informative. Others are laughable. At one point, an ex wife of Fahey (I think, I might be wrong) said something to the effect of “I’d like to find these doctors that killed John Fahey” by prescribing him all kinds of drugs. Fahey was a guy who never took care of himself. He may not even have had the ability. He ate, drank, smoked and medicated himself with suicidal abandon. To blame doctors for his death is nonsense.
The author also spends some time bemoaning Fahey’s lack of commercial success. This is an issue that never seemed to bother Fahey. At one point, Lowenthal even goes as far as surmising that Fahey was jealous of the success of bands like Canned Heat and Country Joe and the Fish. He also postulates that Fahey’s revulsion to the New Age genre was due to Windam Hill’s soaring record sales as opposed to his own Takoma label. These seem to be a reckless conclusions made by someone with a true lack of understanding of Fahey’s own point of view. Fahey never seemed deterred by a lack of public approval or financial support. In fact, he seemed to thrive on disappointing his public’s expectations and doing the very things that would challenge and even offend the people that listened to him or could help him financially. Fahey surely measured his success very differently than the author.
It would have been nice to have heard a little more about the instruments Fahey played. His Bacon & Day, his Recording King, his string of pawnshop Martins and the electric instruments. It’s a safe bet that a large percentage of readers will also be guitar players who would be genuinely interested in hearing more about these iconic instruments.
Fahey is a tough nut for any biographer to crack. I hope this is the first of more from others who find this man so fascinating. I’d like to hear this story from the point of view of a guitar player.
One point Lowenthal makes is quite insightful. Truman Capote once said “When God gives a gift, He also gives a whip. The whip is for self flagellation.” Fahey’s life and difficulties sometimes had the mark of a flagellant’s zeal. There was sometimes the stink of the martyr about him and his life. It’s an interesting thought that Lowenthal presents.
Still, this book is a great first step in unpacking the myth of John Fahey. It’s a must read for Fahey fans. I hope this book does well and encourages others to do more research into this unique artist’s life. Well done