Lost Notes: Unpacking John Fahey's artistic and murky legacy

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John Fahey Photos courtesy of: Stefan Grossman

On this week's excellent episode of Lost Notes, KCRW Producer Carla Green explores the intriguing and occasionally cruel realm of artistic genius. The emotional dark waters where the roles of artist, fan and muse become hard to discern through desire and intimacy. Carla delves into the world of American Guitar legend John Fahey, by virtue of his problematic relationships with the women he loved and who loved him, both as a man and an artist.

Considering we live in a time where questions of propriety and male entitlement, and what as a culture we're willing to accept from our artists, Fahey's story is an interesting case study. The incidences of outrage, grace and understanding (if not always forgiveness) can help us wade through these dark waters.

I asked Carla about how this episode came to be and a how she felt about the process and her discoveries.

KCRW: Firstly, if I may, what was the impetus for choosing John Fahey as the figure for this piece initially? Was he an artist you grew up listening to? Or a discovery later in life? Did your listening to him coincide with an awareness of his being problematic?

CG: The impetus was actually much more boring, at its heart – Nick [White], the big boss of Lost Notes, asked me to look into Fahey. I had never listened to his music before, so I listened and fell in love with it. And then I Googled him, and found this website, johnfahey.com. At that time, if you looked up the website registration on WHOIS, the name, email address and phone number for Melissa Stephenson were listed there. So I called her up, and she told me she’d once dated Fahey, and we talked for about an hour and a half that first time. That was in the fall of 2017. And then, finally, in the summer of 2018, I went up to Salem, Oregon to meet Melissa and Fahey’s ex-wife, Melody Fahey, who also lives up there.

But yes, as I’ve reported this story I’ve listened to a lot of Fahey, which is obviously a confusing place to be in. Particularly as we were driving around Oregon, before and after speaking to Melody and Melissa, my boyfriend/chauffeur and I were pretty much listening to Fahey nonstop. The thing is – none of the women in this piece say that you should never listen to his music. I think they all probably listen to it, at least sometimes. This story is a lot more difficult than “John Fahey is cancelled.” It’s a complicated story about a complicated guy who did a lot of stuff that’s complicated to untangle. So I think that we owe it to Melody, and Melissa, and Janet to respond to their stories with the full complexity that they deserve.

KCRW: The concept behind this episode is bold not only because of its timeliness but also because it feels like a real risk emotionally for the interviewees and the listener. There are some really gnarly upsetting moments. Did you worry at all about potentially uncovering some experiences or incidences that would be unforgivable?

CG: I don’t know if I worried about what I would uncover per se. I definitely worried about being fair to the women I was interviewing, and making sure that I told their stories in a way that was truthful to their experience. Some of the stuff in this episode is pretty upsetting, yeah. But I think I was always just more worried about telling the truth of the women who experienced it, wherever that took me and whatever that truth was. It’s a subtle story at times and hard to get right. I hope I did an okay job.

KCRW: Do you think that as fans of artists we have a duty to the collective consciousness and history to forgive or challenge the artist's legacy? Can one separate the art from the artist?

CG: That’s the eternal question, isn’t it – can we separate the art from the artist? My personal opinion is that we can’t separate the art from the artist. And I do think that we should look into artists’ legacies, and understand the origin of art that’s important to us, and get a full picture of the person who created it. 

The thing about separating the art from the artist is – I guess maybe it’s a flawed question at its core, because it offers these two possibilities, both of which are imperfect. Either we act like the art and the artist are unrelated – which just doesn’t feel true to me – or we accept that the art and the artist are intertwined – and the implication is, if the artist is problematic, they’re “cancelled.” I certainly think there are some times where an artist should be “cancelled,” or at least have their position of power and influence stripped of them. Especially when artists have used that position of power and influence to hurt people.

But in the case of an artist like Fahey, where everything is so much murkier (not least because he’s no longer alive), neither of those options seem to make sense. I don’t think we can or should separate the art from the artist, but I also don’t think we should stop listening to his music. I think there’s the more complicated, third option, which is – these problematic things that he’s done are a part of him, and a part of his art. And that we have to know that and carry it with us as people who are fans of his work.

KCRW: Re: the art...what are a couple of John Fahey cuts for the uninitiated listener? What's your favorite Fahey track?

CG: It’s really hard for me to choose a favorite track! When I listen to Fahey, I usually just listen to all his songs in an uninterrupted stream – they flow together, and make sense together. One that’s really stuck with me, though, for whatever reason, is “Sunflower River Blues.” I also love “The Siege of Sevastopol.” If you wanna listen to some weird shit, there’s his later album – Womblife. I’m into that, too, in a totally different way than I’m into his earlier music. Definitely a different mood.

KCRW: Lastly, BONUS MILLION DOLLAR EVERY CONTRIBUTOR GETS ASKED Question... What is an album that saved your life?

CG: I have this weird complex about my own music taste because I somehow didn’t discover music in high school or college the way other people did. So I’m discovering all of these really mainstream musicians in my 20’s. Like – I’ve recently been listening to The Cure for the first time. They’re great! 

Anyway, I’m always self-conscious about talking about my own music taste because I feel like I’m light years behind everyone else. But one album I did discover in college that has really stuck with me is by a québécois artist named Coeur de pirate. The album’s her first one, I think, and it’s self-titled. Coeur de pirate got me through some confusing times in college. So, if I had to pick one, it’d definitely be that.