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  John Fahey 
  Vampire Vultures  
  (Drag City) 

   review by Kurt Gottschalk
  2003-12-15

John Fahey's life was an open book. True enough, even during his life that book was at least as much a novel as it was a memoir, but it was there for all to read, its chapters doled out in liner notes, interviews and the occasionally published essay.

Fahey's influence as a guitarist cannot be understated. As far back as the early 1960s, he was taking folk and blues styles and extracting them from the limits of song form. The mass of musicians that came in his wake, from Leo Kottke and Michael Hedges to Jim O'Rourke and Loren Connors and countless others, only eclipsed his significance. His contributions to solo guitar music are lost without context, in the way that Billie Holiday or Hank Williams might now be seen as just singers. If an artist truly revolutionizes a form, their impact can be overshadowed by their influence.

Along the way, Fahey imagined his old age, his death and his posthumous reputation in the lengthy notes that came with the recordings he released on his own Tacoma record label. And just as he labelled his music "American primitive," his writing carried an unschooled honesty. His first book, How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life was largely a catalogue of romantic relationships and yearning for acceptance. Vampire Vultures follows in that vein, but expands his fanciful imaginings into a story of a childhood that could be licensed to Steven Spielberg.

In short, young Fahey - innocent, outcast and above reproach in his actions - is chosen by the Great Koonaklaster (who also has concerns about land use issues) to lead the Cat People in a battle against a plot by the Krell to eat all of the earth's people in a single sitting. It's a ridiculous story, and one that probably requires a love of Fahey's music to be bought into, but somehow it relates a moral vision and, probably more important to those likely to read it, an insight into the strange mind of a seminal and under appreciated musician.

The fabrications are hard to ignore, but they aren't the whole of the book. As soon as the evil plot of the lizard-like Krell is revealed, a darker revelation is made. At age 40, twelve years before his death in 2001, Fahey came to realize that he was sexually abused as a child. It was a time when he was lost in the world. His records during that period bordered on New Age and he was deep in psychoanalysis. His revelation - and he seemed to want people to know about it, was ugly and muddled. He often repeated a story of seeing a turtle in the yard and recognizing it as a symbol he'd adopted for a penis, in particular his father's. But the story was always a bit uncomfortable and vague, told so briefly that it felt like troubled ramblings: true, perhaps, but certainly no one's business. Here, in eight brief and painful pages, he makes the story real, and concludes that: "The church, the school, the supermarket - all institutions - all teach that it is a far greater sin to talk about incest than to commit it. Or condone it. 'Remember the Fourth Commandment.'"

Fahey's prose isn't great, but it is entertaining, and he knew how to spin a yarn. Some of the dialogues are so stilted and self-praising that they could only be tongue-in-cheek, but at other points he does a nice job of creating a tale. He brings the reader in midstream and hints at what's going on in a scene, slowly providing concrete details and leaving the reader wondering if he's really writing about the absurdities he seem to be (and generally is). Other times he mixes folk vernacular with his biting and cynical intelligence, creating parodies that carry with them a strange verity:

"One day in the sweltering summer N.W. Washington, D.C. Ecozone, har har, while Grandma was sitting beside her pet terrestrial hammerhead shark reading a copy of Animal Farm, Grandpa rose his demeanor from the book he was reading, Black Beauty, and opened his mouth and spake unto me saying, "John, I think it's about time we loaded up the car with our surf poles and tackle, and yes, yes, yes, let's go out to West Virginia and do some fishing. I hear the stripers are running in the Ohio River. And I have to go to the Moundsville Agricultural Experimental Station and make a survey."

"That's a great idea, Gramps," I offered. "I'm fer it."

"John, Jane, Catherine, Suzie, Rover, George, Al, Jane, what do you think?" He posed there in the midst of time, exposing his Aufhenen, and thus opening the matter up for all to peer. Such courage.

Then John, Jane, Catherine, Suzie, Rover, George, Al, and Jane said in conglomerate mastiglian association,

"AFFIRMATIVE."

Some passages seem genuinely autobiographical, if we are to believe the reprinted letters he penned to women for whom he pined. But his penchant for self-contradiction was never more blatant than in these pages. In another reprinted letter he writes (and apparently later editorialized) of the John Fahey Trio, the group he recorded with in his final years. "Playing in a band is a new experience for me. We have recorded some great stuff. (All enclosed.) But it is inhuman music. It contains no emotions. (7/17: Not true.)"

The prose leapfrogs from letters to dialogue to memoir, from fiction to likely fiction to passages so human that if they're not autobiographical then there's so much wool over eyes toss it in and join forces with the Krell. Of which Fahey was one, at least by upbringing. Fahey's father was a factory and his mother was a river, but he was raised by Krell, who can of course block people's thoughts so he never saw them in their true lizard form. The Krells are Christian. They've always been at war with the Jews. The Cat People (who may or may not be Jewish) fight the Krell with the promise of being rewarded in an afterlife where they can maim and pillage and rape and kill every day. And that's not even getting into Garrison Keillor's role in the plot.

It's a complicated world Fahey imagined, but then it's a complicated world in which he lived. The book is published by the Chicago record label Drag City, and it's just as well it didn't go to a proper publishing house. An editor might have missed the point of the clutter.





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