John Fahey’s Last Days In Salem, Oregon

26 Aug

John Fahey’s Last Days In Salem, Oregon

By: Bob Gersztyn

John Fahey handcolored Postcard093

John Fahey on street091

Union Gospel Mission

John Fahey was an enigmatic artist that I met in the summer of 1997 by chance. I read in the local newspaper that he was having a comeback after going down the tubes with mental, physical and alcohol related issues. he had lived on the streets in the gutter, under the bridge and finally in Union Gospel Mission. It was hard to believe that he was a world famous guitarist that collected royalties from all the albums that he produced since the late 1950’s. However, he was also married and divorced three times which cost some of his money. Nevertheless by the 1990’s John had purchased a car, that he sometimes lived in and began renting a room on a monthly basis at the “Oregon Capital Inn.”

Oregon Capital Inn057

In 1997 Fahey made a comeback, which all the major music magazines praised and a few new records albums that took him in a completely different direction. He was no longer the melodic acoustic steel stringed guitar virtuoso that mesmerized audiences in the 1960’s and 1970’s by turning his single instrument into an entire symphony orchestra. Now he was a completely transformed human being, who had gone through hell and his music now reflected it. The “Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death” was complete. John was now using an electric guitar and amplifier to create a new sound using feedback and distortion, which Rolling Stone, Spin and Entertainment Weekly praised.

John Fahey Solo066

I met John shortly after his industrial noise ambient music album, “City of Refuge” was first released. I was hired to photograph him and his band mates who began playing ambient music compositions with him. The two other musicians were, Tim Knight and Rob Scrivner, a couple of local musicians that John met as a result of frequenting “Guitar Castle” on Court Street in downtown Salem, Oregon. At the time it was sandwiched between “Ranch Records” and “Casey’s Coney Island. Today only Ranch Records exists and it’s in its third location on High Street since that summer eighteen years ago.

John Fahey Train #1049

John Fahey Train #1050John Goofy #1

The group that he formed with Knight and Scrivner was called “The John Fahey Trio.” Scrivner was the one who came up with the name, since they were trying to decide what to call themselves as they practiced together. He told this writer that the name choice was obvious, since Fahey was famous and already had an audience. They were recording an album, using John’s DAT recorder as well as Knight’s analog recording studio and Scrivner’s digital studio. They needed some photos for the album and promotion, so they hired me. John would pay me for film and processing and then all three signed model releases allowing me to use the images for any projects that I chose.

TK and Guitar Castle

Tim Knight owned “Guitar Castle” and handled all of John’s local gigs by acting as his de facto road manager and secretary to connect with Fahey. Knight had connections to all the big rock stars because he was in the business of buying and selling classic guitars. If Neil Young wanted to play a guitar that Hank Williams used, he would have Larry Cragg his guitar tech call Knight to arrange it. “Guitar Castle” was one of the venues that John would have me meet him at. Other times it was “Casey’s Coney Island” or in his room at the infamous “Oregon Capital Inn.”

John at Casey's Cafe

After I photographed John and the band, both on the streets of Salem, and performing a gig, in Portland, at “Berbatti’s Pan,” an alternative music club, we began to connect on a regular basis. The reason why John wanted to talk with me was because of my fascination with religion, which paralleled his. I was raised a Roman Catholic and after 100 LSD trips became a born again Protestant Jesus Freak, ultimately graduating from Bible College and becoming an ordained and licensed minister of the Foursquare Gospel, who served at an inner city church in Los Angeles, California. At first he ridiculed me for defecting from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism, because, even though he was an atheist at the time, he felt that the Roman Catholic Church was the true church, if there was any, because of apostolic succession. After a while we settled into comparing notes on our conclusions about why religion even existed and at the same time connected it with his research of early Blues masters like Skip James, Bukka White and Sun House.

John Fahey Trio Concert089

John Fahey Trio060

John Fahey Trio062

John would talk for hours about his days in the South canvassing for forgotten Blues 78 rpm recordings on his own and with Bob Hite, a future singer and harmonica play for Blues Rock band, “Canned Heat.” John talked about his early days in Tacoma Park, Maryland, when he was friends with Henry Vestine, the future lead guitarist of “Canned Heat” and his early days of playing at coffee houses, when he connected with Al Wilson another singer guitarist for “Canned Heat.” John told me about how he put together what became “Canned Heat” as a side project in L.A. but refused to be part of the group. He even claimed that Jimi Hendrix would come to their jam sessions to listen.

John Fahey solo Concert090

At the time that we were hanging out together, he was writing a book and painting. He was an artist and music was only one of his expressions. He wrote papers in college like every student does and his Master’s thesis at UCLA was on the music of Charley Patton. He wrote articles for music publications, since he was a musician as well as a writer and could delve into the depths of description concerning whatever subject he wrote about. One day he might be writing an argument about the primacy of the Roman Catholic traditions and its impact resulting in the fact that there was no Cajun gospel music, while the next he would write an expose about how the early gospel artists moonlighted on Saturday night as blues musicians.

John Fahey solo Concert092

Many of the early gospel artists were ministers or Holiness gospel artists when they weren’t playing the blues and John would point out their inconsistencies and hypocrisy, but then he would humbly include himself and begin rambling about some childhood incident that impressed him. “Spank” he told me was going to be the name of his book that was going to be published in the next year. He said that it was going to be about the adventures that he had as a kid in Tacoma Park, Maryland with his childhood friends. It was also going to be about his experiences during his early years when he searched for blues musicians like Skip James and Bukka White.

John Fahey Solob&w065

John liked to live at the Oregon Capital Inn because it put him in direct contact with all the local sleaze, scumbags, prostitutes, drug dealers and lowlifes that lived in Salem, Oregon, that he felt inspired his music, but he also liked the fact that it was centrally located in downtown. He could walk a couple of blocks South to White’s Restaurant or East a few blocks to Casey’s Cafe where he would order a hot dog with ice tea. Sometimes when we would meet, one of his friends would accompany him. To say that John identified with the despondent underdog would be an understatement.


Oregon Capital Inn055

Two of his friends that I would sometimes find him with were Blind Terry and Tom, a former outlaw biker from San Francisco. One day when I came to John’s room at the Oregon Capital Inn Tom was bouncing on the bed while Blind Terry bobbed his head to the beat of Marilyn Manson’s album that John was playing. John said that he didn’t personally like the music, but thought that there were some interesting arrangements.

John Fahey Solo059

John left his beautiful wife and a house to go live on the streets of Salem, which is where I found him. I didn’t know then what I do today, but I knew enough to realize that John was on the same trip that I was on, only he was a famous guitar player and I was a struggling photographer and writer trying to make sense of this adventure that we call life. We spent many hours in his room at the” Oregon Capital Inn” talking about God, life and eternity. Then there were the days that we sat in Casey’s Cafe with Blind Terry. One time John thought that he had his ice tea and added about 10 teaspoons of sugar to it and after tasting it realized that it was Terry’s Diet Pepsi.

John at Casey's

“He won’t notice the difference,” John said as he traded cups, before Terry sat down at the table.

John at Casey's071

One day he started to show me a painting that he just finished and then told me that his last wife was a painter and he learned from her. She went to UCLA as well, but studied cinematography and I later found out that she actually had classes with Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek of the Doors. I was being bombarded by so much information that I was going in information overload, so I began to use my tape recorder and every so often I’d tape my conversation with John, or his former wife Melody and even his former band mates. One day, if I live long enough, I’ll turn these hours of tapes into a book, titled, “Conversations With and About John Fahey.” Maybe they’ll reveal a side of John that people are unaware of. After all I am a historian and historians are supposed to preserve their observations by reducing them to written form for posterity.

Fahey painting #1

In 2003, Rolling Stone included John Fahey in the top 100 guitar players of all time, at #35. In 2000, a year before John died, “Drag City” published “Spank,” which was re- titled “How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life, stories by John Fahey”. Then in 2003 a second book of his scribbling was published by “Drag City,” titled “Vampire Vultures.” I never thought to ask John to give me one of his paintings as payment for my services, rather than buying me lunch at Casey’s Coney Island, but if I did, today I would have a priceless masterpiece hanging on my wall.

TK guitar and paintings

John Fahey Solo067

John's Grave077


2 Responses to “John Fahey’s Last Days In Salem, Oregon”

  1. avocadosmith August 30, 2015 at 4:10 PM #

    This is a grear piece! I think you mean Scrivner, not Srivner.

  2. Dawn Jenkins January 25, 2018 at 10:06 AM #

    Hello, I saw John at a small bar in Portland Or. I believe the date to be August 14, 1999. I did purchase one of his paintings and have had it ever since. It is not in mint condition. I knew what I had then was special but was young and tacked it to my wall. I am looking to have it appraised. I am wondering if you would be able to help me with this? I appreciate your time. Thank you!

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