Miles Davis once pointed to the plaques hung behind his piano and told some houseguests: "Do you see those awards? I got them because my memory is so damn bad."
John Fahey is similarly unsentimental about his old work, and would much rather talk about his next project than try to remember details about something that he recorded over three decades ago. The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party holds a special place in the hearts of many Fahey fans, but the first words out of his mouth when I called up to ask him about the album were a resigned-sounding "Oh, dear." The last thing he said about it before he hung up was more explicitly dismissive: "I'm not really very fond of that record. It's come back to haunt me - everybody makes mistakes."
But the same things that make Fahey recoil from The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party are integral to its appeal. He's never recorded an album that was more thoroughly of its moment. From the groovy flute and twangy sitar accompaniment to the backwards guitar, this Birthday Party is a charmingly trippy 60s time capsule. But it isn't a two dimen-sional one-.-the album gains immense depth from the tension between his sweeping, fingerpicked melodies and discordant string-battery. It's the audible battle between yearned-for rose-coloured luminescence and ankle-blistering hellhound darkness that enables this record to transcend its hippie dreaminess.
Fahey and co-producers Ed Denson and Barry "Dr Demento" Hansen assembled the record in 1966 but parts of it had been on tape for years. It stands in stark contrast to The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, even though they were produced only a few months apart. "Transfiguration is more Traditional American Folk Music, while this one is more of an excursion into the unknown," says Fahey with a chuckle. The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party's side-long title track, which chronicles the abrupt end of a love affair, was one foray onto virgin turf. Fahey edited it together from a series of improvisations. "I flew up to Berkeley several times and recorded at Chris Strachwitz's house. I was trying to write a symphony, but I think it was overdramatic and overemotional. I need the royalty money, but some things come back to haunt you."
Two more performances tread still further into terra incognita. Fahey remains kindly disposed towards the record's other offspring of the editor's razor. Knott's Berry Farm Molly. "That was fun, I put that one together myself on a tape recorder. I played it backwards and thought it sounded beautiful - I still think it's really pretty." And speaking of haunting, the discordant Guitar Excursions Into The Unknown emanates a crushing black-hole gravity so all-consuming that Fahey hesitated to release it. "I don't remember the tuning. I was kind of afraid of it, but Al Wilson, who was my roommate, heard it and said I should issue it."
Wilson, who later played with Canned Heat, contributes quaint, banjo-like sitar twanging to Sail Away Ladies. 900 Miles and Will The Circle Be Unbroken are murky-sounding but vibrantly played live recordings. They date back to Fahey's time in Washington DC, which also yielded Volume 2's The Downfall Of The Adelphi Rolling Grist Mill. Like that song, 900 Miles features Nancy McLean's airy flute, while Circle pairs Fahey's strident, string-snapping attack with Church organ played by Anthony Lea. It ends with a drop-dead recreation of Derek Bailey's hacking harmonics. Or should I say precreation? The two guitarists couldn't possibly have heard each other in 1962. Like most of Fahey's early discs this one ends with a hymn, Oh Come, Oh Come Emanuel. "I used to be interested in religion and learned that in church. It was in the Episcopalin hymn book."
The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party is like a jewel whose myriad facets tell a Rashomon-like story: peer into one face and you gaze nostalgically back into the 60s-.-tilt it another way and you see Fahey walking down the road towards lengthy epics like Fare Forward Voyagers and City Of Refuge. Flip it up and it radiates yearned-for transcendence-.-turn it down and you see him standing terrified at the darkness-enshrouded crossroads. No wonder Fahey doesn't like this record-.-it's full of memories, not all of them pleasant, and this artist is too busy looking ahead to let them bog him down. But if Godard, Picasso and Coltrane had spent all their time contemplating their accomplishments, they wouldn't have made so much great art. Appreciating the master's work isn't his job, it's ours.
Bv Bill Meyer