In the mid 1970s I was a big fan of guitarist John Fahey and Robbie Basho. I had written to Basho and asked to visit him and we set a date. In those days hitchhiking down from Vancouver to Berkeley was pretty easy. He lived in a rather suburban part of Berkeley in a lovely old house full of Asian knick-knacks. We spent a day together talking about music and he sang and played for me. I can’t remember if I played for him, but probably did as I had my dulcimer with me. We had quite an intense deep conversation about music and the business of music. He was not happy that people didn’t accept his singing as much as he wanted. Yet, he was a delightful person, very warm and welcoming. The heart that is heard in his music was definitely a large part of him.
Both Fahey and Basho were leading proponents of the American guitar raga style, which later became to be known as American Primitivism. Leo Kottke and Sandy Bull were well known names of this style. Basho was perhaps the most influenced by Indian raga, whereas Fahey embraced more Old Timey and Bluegrass elements into his long rambling pieces.
Basho mentioned that Fahey was performing in a small theatre in a town close to San Francisco, so I decided to catch the show. I arrived at a funky theatre out in the middle of nowhere quite early and there was no one there, but a poster told me I was in the right place. I remember sitting in the sun eating a fresh avocado with fresh lemon on it, thinking how wonderful California was. I found a place to store my pack, but kept my dulcimer with me.
After awhile the audience started to arrive and the doors opened, I got my ticket in the front row and was pretty excited. The show was a bit delayed, and then a cartoon came on and then another and the crowd was getting a bit restless. I saw what I thought was the organizer in the wings in a panic. I went by the side of the stage and heard that Fahey had not arrived yet, that he had gone to the wrong airport and he wouldn’t arrive for another 50 minutes or so. So I went up to the organizer and asked if I could help as I had my instrument. He looked at me in surprise and said, “I don’t know who the hell you are or what the freak that instrument is, but get onstage now!”
So I opened for Fahey. I played for almost an hour and as my style on the dulcimer was not that different to what Fahey did on the guitar, the audience ate it up. I had a huge standing ovation. Coming off stage the organizer asked me what I wanted for saving his butt. I simply asked to meet Fahey. So after the show he took me up to the dressing room. Fahey was in the middle of a heated discussion with another guy, who was arguing that that Basho was playing American Indian modes. Fahey was saying that there were no such thing as proper modes in American Indian music, and asked me what I thought. Answering carefully, I told him that as far as I knew, American Indians didn’t play Greek Modes. Fahey interpreted that as confirmation of his argument, and we became instant friends. We talked for a while and he invited my down to stay at his house in Santa Monica a week later. I went down and we spent about three days mostly talking and eating.
I kept in regular touch with Fahey and a few years later he came to Vancouver for a fundraiser, playing the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, the largest theatre in town. I went to meet him first at his hotel room and then to dinner at a Chinese Restaurant in Chinatown. The charity had provided a stretch limo for him, so we rode in style. Arriving at the restaurant, the owners looked at my long hair and Fahey’s ragged blue jeans and put us at a table away from the other customers. We ordered and they served us in the worst of the abrupt Chinese manner. But the food was good and we didn’t care. Because of the service we didn’t tip as we left and climbed back into our limo. As we were leaving I drew everyone’s attention to the window of the restaurant where the whole staff were lined up staring at us in obvious shock, probably horrified that they didn’t treat us well enough to get a big tip.
Arriving at the theatre, Fahey asked me to join him backstage, and watch the show from the wings. He pulled out his guitars and then cut the strings off with wire clippers, put new strings on and played for about an hour to warm up the strings. We talked very little, and I sat listening to the most amazing music I had ever heard him play. It was pure improvisation and he flew across the fretboard, just doing amazing things. I was in a state of bliss and awe by the time he was ready to walk on stage.. It was a good concert, but lacked to brilliance I had just heard, as he played all the pieces on his albums almost note for note.
After the show he complained about the audience, saying that they wouldn’t let him improvise, that all they wanted to hear were his hits. He said this was old music and he wanted to show them new material, but his audiences just weren’t open to that. In some shows he had started to curse and insult his audiences for shouting out names of old pieces, as he was deeply frustrated. Over the years he struggled with his audiences, his music, his relationship and with life in general. Yet, I knew a deeply passionate, warm-hearted man who bordered on genius and just wanted to be supported to fly.
© R. Raine-Reusch 2014