Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

John Fahey - God, Time and Causality

John Fahey
God, Time and Causality

Released 1988 on Sanachie
Reviewed by alKmyst, 14/01/2004ce

1. Revelation
2. The Red Pony
3. Lion
4. Medley: Interlude / The Portland Cement Factory / Requiem for Mississippi John Hurt
5. Medley: Snowflakes / Steamboat 'Gwine Around The Bend / Death of the Clayton Peacock / How Green Was My Valley
6. Medley: Sandy on Earth / I'll See You in My Dreams

"When I play the guitar, even when I am practising, I am besieged with images, memories, deja vu experiences, and emotions; and for every chord I play, for every tune I write, there is within me a distinct and unique image, emotion, or feeling. What made and continues to make guitar playing exciting for me, and what makes it bearable during long, long two-set jobs, is the continual show of emotions, images, memories, etc., that comes before me internally as I continue to practice or play... Where was I when I wrote this song? What is the name of this strange feeling I am having while I play this chord sequence or this song? Consciousness is in a constant state of flux."
- John Fahey

I'd sell my soul to the Devil, if only I believed in him, to be able to play the guitar like John Fahey did. As it is, I'm out on the edge of town on a nightly basis, down at the crossroads making blood sacrifice to Cernunnos, Herne, Robin Goodfellow, Puck and the Homme de Bouc, begging every passing phooka, boggart and bwca, howling hopefully at the hornéd Moon. With just one acoustic guitar Fahey can make me dance for joy or weep with the sorrow of the whole world, and I cannot listen to him without immediately afterwards picking up my own guitar and playing my fingers raw, a man possessed. He makes me want to destroy my guitar in despair (always a temptation, once you've experienced the unique feeling of satisfaction that is the reward of that particular annihilation) yet at the same time inspires me to sit and play for many obsessed hours at a time.

His style of playing, which he termed Primitive American Guitar (when forced to put a label on it), takes in everything from bluegrass to the raga, incorporating elements of classical, flamenco, the blues and folk, melding them together like the melting pot that is America itself to transcend all of these terms, creating a sound that is uniquely his. This stylistic melange has an effortless, organic grace, weaving tapestries of sparkling sound, unravelling dancing threads, patterned, blossoming, pouring like fountain waters overflowing paradise, falling like a blessing to the Earth. It is not technical brilliance that makes Fahey's music such a treasure. Indeed, he did not think of himself as particularly technically accomplished, and there have certainly been more mechanically perfect guitarists than he, for all that the standard of his playing is head-and-shoulders above that of your average musician. No, it is the purity, intensity and beauty of the feelings that he expresses that make of him a wizard. He effortlessly conjures emotions, wringing my soul with aching tragedy, filling my eyes with twinkling tears of laughter. My heartstrings are the strings of his guitar, which he plays with a magical expertise, summoning, invoking, until the raw feeling is just pouring out of me.

Fahey's creativity knew no bounds, driving him to produce over forty albums and many more pages of writing. I cannot claim to have heard even half of his music, the pursuit of which will undoubtedly occupy me for many years to come. Yet from what I have heard, and from what I have read of the multitudinous writings on the subject of his music (which can be found at the excellent www.johnfahey.com), "God, Time & Causality" seems, to me, to be an excellent guide to navigation for those approaching his bewilderingly vast catalogue for the first time. This album (grandly, but ironically, titled: "a joke from a former philosophy major") came relatively late in his decades-long career, and his musical experience and prowess are at their full maturity, aged well like a good wine. The track-listing features re-workings of some of his best-loved pieces in a set that draws from his entire back catalogue and which has been described as "the ultimate - both in terms of best and final - statement of American Primitive Guitar, an album that was 30 years in the making" (quoted from Mark Humphrey's sleevenotes). Fahey himself is fresh from an extensive tour and therefore incredibly well-rehearsed, the technicalities of his guitar playing honed to perfection by the road. Indeed, this album has a very live feeling, just Fahey and his guitar on their own, each track cut quickly, with few takes.

It begins with "Revelation", which looks the apocalypse calmly and steadily in the eye and does not weep for what is to be swept away. It has a sound as eternal as the desert, and as deathly and dusty, the pitiless endurance of infinity. A holy, primal blues as broken and barren as a Madmax landscape, ramshackle hulks of burnt out cars strewn along the roadside, people huddled around burning tyres, funeral pyres. And there at the fireside, in the very heart of the devastation, sits Fahey, eternal minstrel and archetypal prophet, old as the wind. He surveys the scene as he plucks a battered guitar: dignified, unhurried. A lack of surprise that saw it all from the start, a perspective that took in the whole cycle from beginning to end and back again. The whole world aflame and still he sits there just playing the blues, like he always has and always will.

The apocalyptic mood continues in "The Red Pony", a piece with the emotional intensity, the fire and brimstone, of a wandering preacher or poet. It begins with a frantically ascending run of chords, the tempo constantly accelerating, building to a discordant trauma then bursting like a thundercloud. A series of chords flash down like lightning, Fahey's right hand moving vertically up and down the strings between the strumming of each one, sounding them all with different tones and intensities. This piece has a strong, hardworking sound, as relentless and driven as King Lear and his Fool, raging with the storm, sparkling with the gleam of ice in a madman's lightning-frozen eye. It is a witness to all the bleakness and tragedy that the world has known, filling me with a hollow but passionately raging despair. It has a pagan rawness that evokes the sorrowful, tragic spectres of Native American history and the fiery (and startlingly accurate) prophecies of Handsome Lake. The tempo is fluid, lingering over the ends of phrases as though hanging on to them, speeding up excitedly when the angry energy builds. There are demons in this music, a tormented darkness, a wild wrath. It ends with rumbling, deep chords contrasted against sudden bursts of the most immaculately beautiful harmonics, ringing right at the top of the neck like perfect diamonds, inviting my soul to soar.

"Lion" is a heartfelt homage to the blues and ragtime guitarist Walter Hawkins, whose style, like that of Fahey himself, is noted for its incorporation of flamenco elements. After the damnation and redemption of the preceding two tracks the laid-back, waltzing happiness of this piece is a striking contrast, making its childlike innocence shine all the more. This lightening of the mood makes me want to move my body, and I usually get up and dance at this stage of proceedings (not for the first time since I put this album on, I can tell you). The same spirit of ramshackle liberty that sings raw and ragged in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn blows as free as the wind through this music, carefree childhood afternoons in Mississippi gardens.

The heart of this album are the last three tracks, longer medleys, each constructed out of more than one song (though played live, without studio trickery). The word "medley", although appropriately down to Earth, is perhaps a slightly misleading term, in this context, because it fails to communicate the symphonic qualities of these pieces. Fahey loved classical music, and the influence really shows in the way that he structures these medleys. The works of, say, Beethoven or Mozart are divided into movements of varying key, tempo and mood. And so it is with Fahey's medleys, each piece within the larger work functioning harmoniously with the others to make a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Each of these symphonies is a musical journey, Fahey gradually spinning his enchantments around you, immersing you ever more deeply in the feelings he is communicating (exorcising?).

Indeed, the album as a whole is structured with similar intent, each track longer than the previous one, a subtle psychology that gradually and unnoticeably lengthens your attention span, drawing you ever deeper into the music. The first track is just over three and a half minutes long, a striking contrast to the album's centrepiece, the final medley, which clocks in at a second under sixteen and a half minutes. The way that the longer pieces are structured into "movements" also aids this effect. It's like reading a book with short chapters and sub-headings, far easier to take in than a wordy tome with lengthy chapters, in which you are always an endlessly hard slog away from a convenient stopping point. Journeys are best appreciated when you pause often and look around, yet such is Fahey's genius that the excited crescendo of finally arriving is not at all lost.

The first of the medleys begins with "Interlude", the guitar (tuned to Fahey's idiosyncratic C) beaten like a drum, bugle calls plucked out over the percussive sound, muted bass notes marching regimentally beneath. The fanfare melody quickly spirals off into an arabesque flamenco whirling, dancing gypsies kicking sparks from a fire's embers. This flamboyance spends itself and the sound becomes deep and pent up, brooding with passion like a heavy sky. The bugle call bursts in once more and the entire structure cycles around again, each fingerpicked pattern revolving like a wheel within a wheel. It all comes to a crisis of ascending chords, speeding derangedly as they climb higher, unbalanced, overtoppling. A lonely melody hangs over the desolation left in their wake, bluesy, plaintive, and the wonderfully titled "Portland Cement Company Factory" begins. Soon Fahey's magic has me hopelessly in its grip, my psyche completely immersed in this classically-influenced musical labyrinth, endless symphonic mazes that draw me inescapably deeper. Each part of the medley flows so seamlessly into the next that no transition is noticed, and by the time Fahey's passionate and compassionate "Requiem For Mississippi John Hurt" begins I have become so involved that I have lost myself and am no longer aware of listening. It is only when the piece comes to a bright and fiery, furious, sparkling conclusion that I look back and admire the lightning-quick intricacies of the rhythms and the amazing tenderness of the surging, burning energy that drives this dazzling raga, even the afterglow bursting my heart with love.

The next medley is played on the accoustic guitar, as ever, but with a slide, giving it a very different character to the previous one. The fluidity of pitch that this allows very much suits Fahey's liquid style, with its ever-changing tempos and dynamics. He begins with "Snowflakes", a series of simple descending chords played at walking pace, the same note sounding simultaneously on at least two strings repeatedly throughout. The sliding melodies snake around this chordal texture, graceful and free as water in zero gravity. "Steamboat 'Gwine Around The Bend" picks up the tempo somewhat, high-pitched, immaculately formed, bending melodic blues sounding over muted, percussive low tones. Again, the slide is used to great effect, notes unfurling like the springs of clocks, unearthly, alien. The tempo slows once more for "The Death of the Clayton Peacock", which begins with one of those blues phrases that makes me almost wince on certain notes, my eyes narrowing, because of the pain embodied in them. But the mood quickly becomes more contended, the slide drawing arcs as elegant as ice-sculpture, glacial, dazzlingly frozen tones. The title intrigues me, with its contrast of beauty and death, and the music has a slightly vain stateliness, a beauty too aware of itself that evokes the peacock well. This symphony for one guitar comes to a close with "How Green Was My Valley", the fastest of the four pieces. It is rustic and frantic, a good speedy rhythm that makes me want to move, a happy, innocent piece with all the enthusiasm of a foraging mouse.

The last track is quite simply a joy, overflowing with an exuberant love of life. This medley has only two tracks, and most of it is taken up by the first, "Sandy On Earth". It is hard-hit, percussive, startling, beating out with great strength, an affirmation of life. The guitar is being attacked as though with a hammer, but between the raining blows Fahey, whose mastery of dynamics is like that of no other musician I have ever heard, coaxes tones as soft as silk, in that way accenting and emphasising the force of his attack. The notes cascade eccentrically, fidgetting, a spiky, unpredictable waterfall. Every chord progression is unusual and unexpected, yet works so well that with hindsight it seems that there was no other place that the music could possibly have gone. The tones are rich and a celebratory and a restless spirit blows through this piece. This music is AWAKE. It is conscious, aware. Oblivion is its enemy. Clarity and focus are its joy. It has an unshakeable strength of confidence. After a time discordancy starts to lurk within it, undermining, unbalancing, and the high level of energy begins to border on nervous tension. A violence begins to well up in it, flashing like lightning, as it whirls off into a flamenco raga, hot and passionate, mystic (a sound that reminds me of the Ozric Tentacles, of all people). It becomes percussive, exploding into violent discords, then cycles around to the Spanish sound again. The melodies come thick and fast, dancing and intertwining around one another, textured, shifting. There is a wholeness (and wholesomeness) in these tunes, a completeness, as though they had spent centuries being sculpted in the ether, Fahey grasping them one after another, giving voice to them at lightning speed.

And before you know it "I'll See You In My Dreams" has begun, beautiful, melodic and yearning whilst remaining happy. You just know the end of the album is near - the piece has an air of loose ends being tied, like a bow on a present. The delicacy of feeling pouring from this hulking, intense, slightly scary-looking giant has me breathless, amazed at his wonderful tenderness. This music is deeply human, leaving me grinning goofily like some cartoon character that's just fell in love. The music ends, but I retain an unconquerable feeling of well-being. John Fahey understands the human heart, explaining and soothing it without uttering a word. For all it's he who has been making the music I never fail to come away from this album feeling as though I've been listened to, my innermost core perfectly communicated and compassionately understood. He is a healer, washing my soul in the waters of perfect, unending love, a love that binds all together, a love that knows the most secret centre of what it is that makes a human being, a love that sees through all of our imperfections to the living beauty at the core, the only thing that really matters.

Reviews Index