How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life, by John Fahey (Review)

 

http://www.amazon.com/How-Bluegrass-Music-Destroyed-Life/dp/0965618323/grokthis-20/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1419991728&sr=8-1&keywords=how+bluegrass+music+destroyed+my+life

this book is pure joy. I finished it today after spending a good number of hours of the past few days down at the dock, with a fishing line in the water and this book in my hand. I simply could not put it down.

The book is 290 pages, and only at page 245 does he begin to describe how bluegrass music destroyed his life. I won’t spoil it, except for saying that it was from hearing Bill Monroe’s version of “Blue Yodel Number 7” for the first time. That much is on Fahey’s Wikipedia page. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I asked for this book. I knew John Fahey from the lore. Knew that he was a phenomenal fingerstyle guitar player. Knew that he was an outsider, but was also responsible for “rediscovering” some of the important blues players during the 60s folk/blues “revival.” Knowing this was not enough to know what to expect from this book.

This book is not a factual memoir in the traditional sense. It’s more of a documentary of the things that happened to John, during his childhood in Takoma Park and later in life. As all of us know this, that not everything that “happens” to us will seem real or believable to others during the retelling. But as much as I can, I understand and “believe” these things that happened. Our musical education does not always revolve around an instrument or its practice. It is also influenced heavily by the things that happen to us, the people thrown into our path by the universe, and the strange reactions that can occur internally and externally. This book is about those sorts of things. Things that happen to people, and how they are processed by each unique individual, based on the other experiences in that person’s life.

Some of the things that happened to him, happened in places that I recognize and can visually conjure, in places that my friends live to this day. This makes it all the more real to me. Even the most fantastic of stories. Real. I recommend this book to anyone with music in their lives and in their hearts, and anyone who has ever lived in Takoma Park, and anyone who has spent any amount of time exploring country blues, bluegrass and old time music. I wish Fahey was still with us.

One of the stories involves him and a buddy getting to know a blues player in Takoma Park, while basically going door-to-door searching for old records to consume.  This blues player probably changed his life, and turned out to be Elmer Williams, brother of Warner Williams, who I used to see at Taliano’s open mic nights in Takoma Park during those years in the early 90s when I lived there, and who is still playing in the area to this day (Warner, at least).

Elmer takes him to Ritchie Avenue (one of the “colored” areas of Takoma Park, at least in the mid-1950s) in the middle of the night, sits on the hood of the car and starts playing the blues.  People start emerging from houses and dancing in the street.  At some point, Fahey’s current obsession makes an appearance, and Elmer gives him the guitar so that he can win her affection through his playing.

A Eulogy for the Living, Part 1

I recently visited my father in Florida. My father is a retired police officer from Montgomery County, Maryland. He turned seventy in 2014, and pointed out during the visit that the average life span for a cop was fifty-five.

He has had his share of health problems over the years – sleep apnea, weight-related leg problems, pulmonary embolism, near-fatal appendicitis, things like that. He’s a very large man. He gets winded walking from the dining room table to his easy chair. He’s on multiple meds, including Warfarin (blood thinner), blood pressure meds, water pills, and probably more. He often says, “If I’d known I’d last this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.” I take that to heart, and I think that’s why I took up running and gym workouts – to avoid being in his shape at his age… or any age.

By all accounts, he should have been dead years ago. He smoked for decades, almost died from that. He drank for decades, could have easily died from that. Ate badly, kept horrible hours and stress levels from his years as a cop. Most of the guys he worked with over the years are dead. Most? Nearly all.

Charm Offensive, King Mixer, Delarcos at Iota, 2014-12-01

Tonight was one of those nights that help me put getting older into some sort of perspective. For the second time in a week, I reconnected with an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. And weirdly, some other lines reconnected as well. The bands that played tonight (Charm Offensive, King Mixer and the Delarcos) are populated by people who played in DC bands that helped shape my (misspent?) youth – Teen Idles and Youth Brigade in particular. And in the crowd was someone I knew from a different world back in the day (online/pre-online), but found out tonight was one of the geniuses behind Bloody Mannequin Orchestra. At least I think I found out tonight.

I own vinyl from all three of these bands, and vividly remember getting to see Bloody Mannequin Orchestra back in the day.

That’s the weird thing about being this age and having so many odd stacks of experiences and memories. I find it hard to imagine that I DIDN’T know he was with that band back then, but I don’t remember knowing. SO maybe it’s a new discovery, or maybe it’s a rediscovery. If ever there was an argument for the simulation hypothesis, tonight would be it. Too many things came together for it to seem believable.

Thanks to Mike Lastort, sax player for The Delarcos, for making that timely connection that allowed me to enjoy tonight’s show and all the memories it triggered.

I welcome further visits from the Cosmic Coincidence Control Center. Gnite all.

putting more of myself out there