John Fahey’s Rehearsal After Henry Vestine Died

28 Jul

John Fahey Solo066

By: Bob Gersztyn

One October evening in 1997, John Fahey scheduled a rehearsal for his new industrial noise project with two local musicians, from Salem, Oregon, where he had been living since the early1980’s. He and his wife Melody were living in Los Angeles during the heyday of his career, where they met after John and his second wife were divorced. Melody had a degree in Cinematography from UCLA, where she took classes with Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek before they formed the “Doors.” She was also a painter and inspired John to begin painting, but unfortunately he wanted to be free of all encumbrances, so he walked out of the house one day never to return. Instead he lived on the street with the homeless, out of a car that he bought and eventually the sleazy Oregon Capital Inn. He had royalty checks regularly coming in, but they just kept him at the poverty level. He said it was by choice, because if he had too much money, he’d spend it on prostitutes.


At the same time that he was living on the streets of Salem, Oregon, and he stayed at “Union Rescue Mission,” on occasion, but he disliked the place and said that he’d rather sleep on the street. He befriended the homeless and indigent while he was continuing to create. His prowess in playing a steel stringed acoustic guitar with finger picks earned him Rolling Stones #35 position as the Greatest Guitar Player of the 20th Century, in 2001. In 1997 he won a Grammy Award, not for music but writing, when he wrote the liner notes of the Smithsonian Institute’s Anthology of Early Blues musicians. At the same time he released “City of Refuge,” an “Industrial Noise” project thatΒ  was completely antithetical to his previous work. It was called a comeback album by Rolling Stone, Spin and Entertainment Weekly.

The album presented a completely different side of Fahey than anything else he had ever done. He discarded the acoustic guitar and finger picks for a Fender electric guitar that he translated the pain and suffering of street life through. By changing, he alienated many of his old fans, but made new ones, as a cult godfather figure to alternative Avant-garde musicians like Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. When you contrast that with the time that Country Joe McDonald told this writer that he and his wife walked out in the middle of a Fahey Christmas concert in the late 1990’s because it was so dissonant. John and Joe, shared a room in Berkeley and even the same girlfriend, when the former first moved there from Takoma Park, Maryland in the early 1960’s. McDonald said that when Fahey played at the “Jabberwock,” he was mesmerizing and he was musically influenced by Fahey’sΒ  guitar playing style, which is evident in his guitar playing on “Country Joe and the Fish,” albums.

It was Wednesday night, October 22, 1997, and when the rehearsal began in Tim Knight’s basement recording studio, as a member of the “John Fahey Trio” he sensed an uneasiness in John that seemed to translate itself into a more dissonant sound in Fahey’s guitar, if that was possible. Soon after they began to follow John’s lead and were jamming together, John stopped and began to talk about Henry Vestine. He and Henry grew up together in Takoma Park, Maryland and although John was a few years his senior they both had a passion for the guitar, and connected through the limited music scene that was happening there at the time.Β  Vestine played electric, while Fahey stayed acoustic, but they experimented with guitar techniques together and even listened to old 78 RPM recordings of seminal blues musicians. Vestine preferred electric artists “like B. B. King, Hound Dog Taylor, T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulson, and John Lee Hooker,” while Fahey liked finger pickers, like “John Hurt, Charley Patton, Blind Willie Johnson, Sam McGhee.”

John continued to reminisce, but now he began to play his guitar again, by periodically striking a dissonant chord, which Knight and Scrivner followed as Fahey continued to narrate. He spoke of how all the kids who were into music would go to get guitar lessons from one of the only Black families in the area, by the name of Williams. There were two brothers and if you were lucky old man Williams would come out with his fiddle, five string banjo and guitar. Then Vestine who was in Jr. High moved to Southern California with his parents, but Fahey corresponded with him by mail. Fahey was also corresponding with California record collectors Bob and Richard Hite and in 1964/65 and when he moved to Los Angeles to study for a Masters degree at UCLA he introduced Vestine and Bob Hite to Alan Wilson, who he met in Boston and even lived with for 6 months, at a jazz and record show.

At the time Henry Vestine was one of the hottest electric guitar players in L.A. and had his own band called the “Henry Vestine Trio.” They were playing at a small club in West L.A. by the San Diego Freeway , on Sepulveda Blvd., where Fahey, Hite and Wilson began to hang out at and eventually jam with Vestine’s band. The result was “Canned Heat,” named after an old blues song about winos drinking “Sterno,” a wood alcohol based cooking fuel. While all this was going on John would sit with some of Henry’s friends, who included a well dressed black man who introduced himself as Jimi Hendrix. John said that Hendrix’s eyes would follow every move that Vestine made when playing his guitar. Soon after that “On The Road Again,” was released and the band became pop stars. By 1969 Henry (The Sunflower) Vestine left the band and then so did a disillusioned Al Wilson who died of a brain aneurism in 1970.

Over the decades Vestine floated in and out of Canned heat, for which he is primarily known, until his death in Paris, France October 20, 1997. Although Fahey felt that Vestine’s true boogie style was never completely manifested in “Canned Heat,” he did feel that the best thing that Henry contributed to “Canned Heat,” was his guitar duets with Alan Wilson. In the early 1980’s, around the same time that Fahey migrated to Oregon, so did Vestine, who did it to be with a woman and to escape the insanity of L.A.. He was living in Eugene, Oregon, about 70 miles South on the I-5 Freeway from Salem. About two months before Henry died he invited John to come see his aquarium filled with Coelecant fish, just like he told Fahey that he would one day have, back in the 1950’s when they were teenagers in Takoma Park, Maryland. A few weeks later Henry called John and told him that he had a dream about Alan Wilson, who told him that they would soon see each other again and he wanted John to have his Coelecants. When Fahey took possession of Vestine’s Coelecants he declared his union with them to be symbolic of Henry’s Union with Alan.

All information in this article is based on a combination of firsthand experience with John Fahey, recorded interviews by this writer, “How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life”Β and a tape of the “Henry Vestine Memorial Rehearsal,”Β Β Β  dated 10/22/97

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