I love everything about this album.
The almost-fuzzy closeness of the lowest guitar tones, as recorded, in my speakers.
The T A K O M A printed on the label.
The cover art and layout. The color orange.
The no words.
There are no words.
Constant underpinning of the bass note, thumbplucked (or plucked with whichever finger Fahey chooses; I think he has about 42). I don’t know how he recorded this, and I’m not going to look it up on the internet right now. I’m not going to read his famously poetic and rambly liner notes until after I write this.
There is something precise in the combination of the tuning, the playing, the room or the mix or the tape, that makes this record slide. I can hear the pieces of fingerskin hit the metal strings, it’s all so crisply voiced. Yet. It sounds blurry. No, not blurry – it sounds like how it feels to lie on the floor in an echoey room. Say that room is your room before you moved in your furniture, or after you’ve moved everything out and your life’s in the truck double parked outside.
If you were in that room and you were beginning or ending or transitioning, this is what it would sound like. You’d not have had lunch; potentially sore of muscle and slight of headache. There is nothing but sound in the room, the soundtrack to the experience you had here; or will have. In your closed eyes plays a film with actual film in the projector, the negative saying “flip-flip-flip-flip” at the end of the reel.
The next reel is the soundtrack to a few too many drinks and then a walk by yourself through landscapes, pick whichever landscape you want but it should be green – new bushes blooming into roses in a suburban Northwest springtime, or dark moist smell of California redwoods when it’s hot everywhere else. The pumping assault of the Pacific Ocean wind on your lips and eyelids. There are movements here.
It’s not blurry; it sounds like the record is warped. I don’t think it is, though.
It lies flat; I lie flat out on the living room floor.
Wasn’t this what the 60s were about in some ways? The potential implied in a transition phase. the hope in new horizons eventually tempered by the in-between-apartments moment of actually moving from one context to another? From one place to another. With the one place still resonating, and the other place resonating on top of it, and there is John Fahey’s way of writing the history of the world in a widescreen opera for one instrument.
You’ll learn soon, listeners of the Internet, that I don’t really know anything about classical music. (I welcome recommendations; that’s the one area of popular music I haven’t yet deeply delved into.) But this is a work in movements, no? Song titles like “The Downfall of the Adelphi Rolling Grist Mill” and “America” speak to grand works, visions of historical folly, “folk” en masse–cinematic, epic works that are too bloated to get under your thumb but nonetheless do, and they’re “great.”
There is little wankery here, as you might expect there would be in solo guitar. It’s not hokey-folksy. It’s not even just the blues ripoff/evolution that Fahey often claimed it to be. It’s operatic. It’s Real American Classical Music, to me. I know Fahey thought in classical terms a lot, in terms of both structure and narrative style: a lot of Takoma’s notes on his songs and his own quoted quotes reference classical works by which he was influenced. Shit, he even brings a flute in there a couple of times (which was unusual for him–usually it was all guitar, all night long).
Fahey on “Dance Of The Inhabitants Of The Palace Of King Phillip XIV”:
“Another strange tuning – a low C, then two Cs an octave above that, then G, E, and a high C. I played it lap-style on a triple resonator National. I kept changing the title – originally it was Dance Of The Inhabitants Of The Invisible City Of Bladensburg, inspired by Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Legend Of The Invisible City Of Kitezh.”
This is an opera for guitar and… guitar? Ridiculous! It’s folk music, popular culture tells me. It’s the 60s in Berkeley, this odd and brilliant guy who later had a big beard and wrote long liner-note opus poems and played guitar like a genius who’s maybe done a bit of acid. That’s what I’m often told John Fahey is. That’s what I often tell others when introducing them to his music. But that’s not what I hear.
I hear death chants, military waltzes, and breakdowns. I hear boys in broken boots marching, the comical dressing room antics of the scene in which the power doesn’t hear the swelling verses of the times outside. I hear us still doing this. I hear prodigious talent, sure, I hear the remarkable era that produced this, but I also hear the reality of its not really being all that unique, as eras go. (Every generation thinks it’s the One, no?) There’s a million ways I can describe this music but mostly there’s just this: sweet simplicity.
Drawing the true sound from one thing, and being happy exploring that until it’s done.
And it’s never done.
Sometime, maybe, I’ll do a side-by-side listening of the original 1964 issue of Death Chants…. with the 1967 and the 1998 issues. The one I talk about here, “Volume 2”, was a reissue/rerecording done in 1967 because of the outstanding popularity of the first. And because Fahey never plays the same song twice. There have been a lot of Death Chants.
Record collectors: My pressing of this album has “Side A” mislabeled as “Side B” and vice versa. Or maybe it’s the album sleeve that’s wrong; either way, they don’t correspond. Is that a known thing about this pressing?