Monday, August 10, 2009

Crate Dig: John Fahey/Peter Lang/Leo Kottke (1974)

Somewhere in the endless stream of Liza Minnelli albums and worn-out Camelot soundtracks at Park Slope's venerated Record and Tape Shop, I came across this totemic countercultural gem. Rugged, paunchy -- and, in Fahey and Lang's case, already balding when this album was released in 1974 -- these cats were the unlikeliest of hippie idols (the rising sun and pliant birds of the cover completely notwithstanding, of course). Aside from their atypically self-reliant spirit (Fahey owned the independent Takoma Records long before creative control was fashionable) and dexterous mastery of fingerpicked blues stylings, what tied these musicians together was a commitment to virtuosity that exploited the spectrum of diffidence -- thus obviating any appearance of "virtuosity" in the textbook sense. For Fahey and his fellow "American Primitives", the unclassifiable and nebulous was a signpost to such genres as protean noise rock (Fahey's final recordings), New Age (Kottke's 80s output), and traditional blues (the motif that recurs throughout Lang's career).

Released five years after Takoma's greatest success (Kottke's debut, 6 and 12-String Guitar), this compilation was released with the consumer in mind; indeed, Kottke appears courtesy of Capitol Records. Listening to the bluesy "Cripple Creak" and "Red & White" today, it's difficult to fathom the guitarist's eventual retrenchment into Windham Hill somnambulance, although he probably was always the closest to Leon Redbone of the lot. Lang is even more of an anomaly, having eschewed music for a career as an animator throughout much of the 80s and 90s, and his playing is characterized by a certain hesitance here. While "St. Charles Shuffle" and "When Kings Come Home" are shamelessly derivative of Fahey and Kottke to the point where they come off as rote exercises, those strands converge into a highly individual style on the culminating "Thoth Song", a laconic melange of psychedelia, whitewashed folk, and traditional blues.

Although he never attained the relative commercial prominence of Kottke, Fahey -- a garrulous academic (he held a graduate degree in folklore studies from UCLA) and cult hero whose musical interests dovetailed more with the Velvet Underground than whatever the fellow adherents of Swami Satchidananda (his guru of circumstance) were listening to at the time -- emerges as the most commercially-oriented of the three on this release. "Revolt of the Dyke Brigade" is the guitarist at his effusive best, mixing front-porch bluesiness with caustic humor, but "On the Sunny Side of the Ocean" and "In Christ There is No East or West" constitute the dirgelike pap that necessitated the punk revolution. It's a marvel that Fahey couldn't carry a tune, or else these songs would have been indistinguishable from the products of the L.A. hit machine of the epoch. (Fahey would soon rebound with 1975's Old Fashioned Love, a bloozy collection of ragtime and jazzy pop that may be his best effort.)

All in all, John Fahey... is a satisfactory introduction to the American folk vanguard of the 1970s. Whether this is anybody's cup of tea amid the bravado of 2009 is anyone's guess, but the enduring popularity of Fahey amid younger listeners and Kottke's relentless touring schedule (he's playing the Hamptons soon) suggests that fingerpicking guitar is here to stay.

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