Monday, March 23, 2020

The John Fahey Half Hour

c) 1983 Sally Cruikshank used by permission
Elliott Swanson  is a madman, perhaps the best kind of madman. A mad scientist, a mad musician and a teller of mad tales. He's the kind of madman that Kerouac wrote about admiringly "...the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles..." We met by chance, introduced by Chuck Reinsch at the KRAB archives. I was researching tribute radio programs. These are ongoing radio shows dedicated to the recorded works of a single band or musician. There are very few in the whole history of radio, so perhaps Swanson was the progenitor of it all. Back in 1971 he created a radio program dedicated to the works of the brilliant, iconoclast guitarist John Fahey. After several months Swanson abandoned the program, like an impatient genius moving on to his next invention in the laboratory.

There are parts of his career that for reasons of national security we cannot discuss. There are parts of his career that we cannot discuss because he cannot remember. Let's not read into that. Mr. Swanson was kind enough to give me some of his time for an interview and numerous follow up questions by email. The questions were obvious: How did this come to be? Why KRAB? Why at that time and why at that place.  Above all, perhaps 'Why John Fahey?' is the biggest question of all. In the pursuit of those answers our conversation wandered across time, space, endless digressions and the near infinite permutations of possibility. It was the most fun I had with an interview in a long time. So for the sake of brevity I've taken some liberties with the text. I've also added material where he's answered follow up questions via email. A compete interview transcript will go to the KRAB archive.

JF: Can you tell me how you first discovered the music of John Fahey?

ES:  I heard things on the radio. I know I bought some records. I was in the army 1962 through '65 and so when I got out I was then in school for 6 years. I did hang around radio stations some. I did a little bit of work then, but I just was not on the air.  I listened to a lot of FM. We had kind of a little Fahey cult going in early in the game, not back in the black and white label days but just after that. So that's probably where I first heard about him.

The first time I met him was kind of interesting. He had to have already been out of U.C. Berkeley, so he must have come back for some reason, and this had to have been sixty something...  I was living around the Haight Ashbury in 1968 and I used to go over to Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue. I would also go over to the U.C. Berkeley campus. I was walking along and I heard this guitar music and, wow that sounds really familiar.  So there's this guy sitting on a bench with a guitar out playing --nobody listening to him at all, just people walking around. So I sat down, sure this is John Fahey. I got a half an hour concert live sometime in the mid sixties at U.C. Berkeley.

Then I kind of moved around, ended up in the Seattle area which of course is where KRAB is. Let's see I moved up to Seattle probably in '69 and there was some guy that wanted me to get some records down in Venice, California. We must have known each other socially from somewhere or other. But like I said I don't have super clear memories of all that time for various reasons. I think it was George [Bigley] and I think the company might have been Orwaka [Distributing] that was in the Northwest area in Seattle or Tacoma or somewhere like that. Anyway I had access to a car. So I borrowed the car and said well sure I'll go down to Venice and pick up a couple cases of records for you. You know I like the guy's music. That'll be interesting.

So I steamed down to L.A., to Venice California and I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't what I found. Fahey was living in this little cheesy place in Venice. I think it was stucco and it was a little tiny house.  You always have this vision of your heroes, artists and icons living palatially well. That wasn't the case here. He was living on the low end of Venice in kind of a tough area.  I found it kind of fascinating. Anyway I went up and knocked on the door and Fahey opened it and we sat down and talked.

The pathway through his living room  was an interesting trip because there were turtles everywhere, walking all over the floor, shitting everywhere. You had to be very careful not to step on the turtles or in turtle shit because it was like free range turtles and tortoises, just a bunch of them.

Anyway he got me the records and we continued talking for a while. Again I have no idea what we talked about. We found a few things in common as I recall. I loaded up the records and headed back on a high speed run to Seattle and dropped off a couple cases of Takoma records up there. Chuck can verify the operation, but like I said they went to a guy named George. I think he owned a record shop or was a distributor or whatever.That's the second time I met John Fahey.

JF: And not the last?

ES: Not the last. I got in at University of Washington in Library and Information Science, a masters degree program. On the campus was the KCTS studio-- the PBS affiliate in Seattle. I started working for them, about 1970 would be by guess. It was perfect because I just had to walk across Red Square between the Library classes and the studio because they were on campus at the time. They aren't now. So that's where I had access to all this hardware and recording gear. At KCTS I was running camera, the audio board --whatever they needed--  lighting sets, floor directing, yadda yadda.

JF: So that was KCTS-TV?

ES:  KCTS-TV, yeah.  I had a whole bunch of these Fonotone Records that were individually cut and I recognized the technique. When I was a little kid, I grew up about the same time period as John Fahey did. He was born in '39 and I was born in '44. So we kinda went through the fifties in much the same way. At home we had this radio record player thing that if you lift up the secret lid on the top there was a record cutter. You could buy these blanks set it to cut mode, and it would create this big pile of curly black thread as it transcribed whatever you wanted on to the disc. Fonotone must have had a very similar system because their were identical...I'm kind of guessing, maybe 7-inch roughly?

JF: Wasn't' Fonotone owned by Joe Brussard in Maryland?

ES: Yeah, and you know I associate Ed Denson as the person I bought them from, but again I am mis-remembering because I know the name Joe Brussard. It must have been him that I got them from, because I bought them all.  And that will digress the digression because when I found out that they existed I said I have got to have 'em, they're too nuts. There were a lot of Blind Thomas recordings. Blind Thomas was John Fahey. I can even give you a little bit of dialog. He'd do things in the songs like this "Here come Blind Thomas, he got the blues again."  Then after that he'd go "Here come Big Fydor Dostoevsky, he got the blues too." Shit like that all the way through. What Fahey told me at one point, when we talked the last time, was that Denson or Broussard or whoever was faking old Blues recordings. That's what these things were. At our final meeting we discussed the Fonotone sessions a little bit and he called them two things. One of them was his "wages of sin" and the other one was "that Fonotone shit." Those are direct quotes.

JF: They don't talk about that in Joe Broussard's documentary.

ES: I bet not!  Anyway I got all these Fahey things and nobody has heard a lot of it, so I called up people at KRAB. I said I know you do a lot of weird stuff on this station and I like it; I could add to it and they said well sure. So I fired up the 10-inch deck at KCTS, the editing turntable there, and I started doing a little bit of jabbering and playing records. Between the liner notes and the music you've probably got a years worth of material that you can play with. I rolled off half an hour of reel-to-reel tape. I don't have any of the recorded shows anymore. I gave Chuck all the rest of the Fahey LPs my son hasn't taken. I think there were timing notes on one of the sleeves. That's in Chuck's archive, he's got that stuff. That is as close as we're going to come to a reel-to-reel recording because I don't have any of those 10-inch tape recordings and they evidently don't at KRAB either.  None of that stuff was saved.

JF: What format did you deliver your show in since you were pre-recording it?

ES: Specifically, metal 10" reel-to-reel tapes. I think it was a quarter-inch Maxell tape. I did it all in mono. If I remember correctly, KCTS at that time was pretty primitive. I don't think they had the ability to record in stereo. It didn't make any difference you know, for what I was doing and actually the quality of the Fonotone records was dreadful. It wasn't essential to have this show in super high fidelity, although I did clean recording. I mean I used studio mics and I tried to sound reasonable on the air. Anyway that's what they were on and I can't remember the recording speed. It was whatever I could fit the half hour show on. They had compatible gear at KRAB. I'd just get on my bicycle and go over there, or take the bus sometimes and drop off the tapes. They'd give them back and I think I'd record over the top of them when I was doing the next show-- with a low-paying job and GI Bill to live on, money for things like blank tapes was very scarce.

JF: Do you know how long you did the show? When did it start?

ES: [Chuck Reinsch] sent me the program guide with what he thinks is the first show. He thinks it's Friday June the 11th, at 5:00 PM, 1971. It aired right before "Krumhorns and Kings, with Dick Palm, with early Western music." He means really early, because a krumhorn is a renaissance instrument.

JF: We know it to the hour?

ES: We know when it started, I don't know how long I did it. I can't remember when the last went out. It probably didn't go exceptionally long because after I got out of library school it would have been '71.[Note: Charles Reinsch puts the final airdate as January 9th, 1972.]  I had a job so I left the area to go work. It had to be less than 6 months on the air.  I remember being really saddened when I heard what happened to KRAB and the sale of the license and all the rest of it. It was a radical station, and people did freeform things.

JF: There were other stations founded by Lorenzo Miliam... but KRAB was unique.

ES: Anyway, I met John Fahey one more time.

JF: How'd that happen?

ES:  I can't remember precise details, but it was in Oregon somewhere.  I heard through the grapevine he was around and looked him up. We hung out in his hotel room for a while and talked. That's when he told me the Fonotone stories I mentioned earlier. He’d changed hugely. He had a big scraggly beard. It looked like... kind of a low end hotel that he was in. I was just thinking you know this is not right...  you deserve more than this.

JF: When you mentioned the army, 1962-1965, you said that you were involved in radio? Was that AFRTS?

ES: No, I have to be careful about this. I was working for the Army Security Agency in Germany. It involved huge antenna fields and Warsaw Pact countries, and I really can't talk about it. I'll get in trouble. They get very tense about ELINT communications and SIGINT stuff.  Anyway I don't know that anybody cares, or that it makes a difference anymore but that it probably something I should not go over in huge detail. I didn't have access to a radio station until I got out of the army.

In 1967 when I was going to Santa Rosa Junior College I worked as a clerk at a mall record and musical instrument store, and may be misremembering studio info. The events took place but the station data is hazy. [Highly likely this was 1350 KSRO-AM.] I used to hang out at a Santa Rosa, CA AM transmitter every now and then.  The transmitter was also where the disc jockey was located, in the middle of nowhere. That was early radio exposure, then came radio KRAB. Then, when I was Library Director down in Astoria at Clatsop Community College, I did children's bedtime stories.

JF: What radio station was that?

ES: KMUN.

JF: When you were recording your show did you play only recordings of Fahey or was there other material?

ES: Only Fahey. Fahey, and me talking —and that was it. I wanted to be true to the concept. I didn't play anything else by anybody else. I didn't play [Robbie Basho], I didn't play [Leo] Kottke, none of that —just John Fahey.  I think once in a while I would get erudite and talk about how something sounded like something else, where the root of it came from, but I never played the root recordings. I just played Fahey.

JF: Do you have a favorite song and/or a favorite album?

ES: Favorite song is easy to pick, "In Christ there is no East or West" and I'm not a religious person. The version I most like came from the Blind Joe Death LP that has the old woodcut. That song sounds best to me rough and without polish.

JF: What about that song does it for you?

ES: It's so emotionally powerful. I don't know that Fahey was hugely religious, I definitely wasn't. But there is a spirituality factor. It's just stunning. Literally stunning. It knocks me out every time I hear it. It catches something I don't know how to describe. I don't have the words for it.

No comments:

Post a Comment