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COVER STORYJuly 7, 2006

The Cosmos Club

Turtle sex, chiropractic death, and peyote under the pillow:a year-by-year account of American primitive guitar

By David Dunlap Jr.

(Illustrations by Max Kornell)

From harmless service organizations to election-rigging worldwide conspiracies, every secret society worth its shadowy rep cultivates an air not only of exclusivity but also of mysticism. Record collectors are typically thought of as irascible loners, but in the Washington of the ’50s and early ’60s, there existed a group of scruffy young blues and folk fans who could’ve given the Illuminati a run for their all-seeing eyes. They thought of themselves as the guardians of a tradition the rest of the world had either forgotten or misinterpreted. They adopted fake names. They invented strange mythologies. They hatched plans to bring their favorite historical figures back from the dead—or at least back from the commercial oblivion to which the music biz had consigned them.

But most of all, they inspired admiration and awe. Though they never used the term themselves, this bunch of vintage-78 obsessives was known by others as the East Coast Blues Mafia. “There was a loose collective among the enthusiasts and collectors known as the Thong Club,” recalls Gene Rosenthal, founder of Silver Spring’s Adelphi Records. “We would wear these leather thongs around a finger and our wrists. To be a member, another member would have to put a leather thong on you. [John] Fahey put mine on. We would wear them until they were stinky and scuzzy.”

Fahey remains the most well-known member of the club: the great, tragic player whose elegant fusion of blues, country, and folk he called “American primitive guitar.” If the style has a defining moment, it might be when the Takoma Park resident and his friend and fellow 78 collector Dick Spottswood returned from a 1956 record-hunting trip to Baltimore with a copy of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Praise God I’m Satisfied.” Having grown up listening to bluegrass, Fahey was freaked out by the intensity of the blues—and couldn’t get it out of his head. Later that day, after the 17-year-old guitarist and his friend parted, a haunted Fahey called Spottswood and insisted that he play Johnson’s song for him over the phone.

In 1959, Fahey went to the Frederick, Md., home of Joe Bussard, another collector who ran his own label, Fonotone. There, singing and playing into a single microphone, he recorded some tracks under the bluesy pseudonym of Blind Thomas. Bussard recalls that the session “was recorded between 2 and 4 a.m.—it took him that time to get a little loose, get the booze in him.” That same year, Fahey made his first full album, Blind Joe Death. He pressed up 100, maybe 150, copies himself and sold them from the Langley Park gas station where he worked. The set was reissued on his own Takoma Records in 1964, just in time for such exploratory tracks as “In Christ There Is No East or West” and “The Transcendental Waterfall” to seem pre-psychedelic.

It’s hard to imagine that these pranksterish fanboys had any idea of the impact they would eventually have. Spottswood became one of the world’s preeminent musicologists and hosts a long-running American-music show on WAMU FM. Bussard has seen his collection of 25,000 records mined for compilations and box sets. Fahey has influenced guitarists of several generations and styles, from ’60s folkies to ’90s postrockers to ’00s freak-folkers. These days, even Takoma’s more obscure artists are big names: Harry Taussig, who released only two tracks on the label, in 1966; Max Ochs, who shared a compilation with Taussig but never actively sought out a musical career; and Robbie Basho, who put out several albums of “esoteric doctrine of color & mood for 12 & 6 string guitar” but was largely uncelebrated at the time of his death in 1986.

The last two were friends at the University of Maryland, College Park, which Fahey also attended. College kids expanding their minds while listening to American roots music? If it sounds mundane on paper, it certainly doesn’t on disc. There was something not only fanatical but also strange and spiritual about the way these guys went about their folk revivalism, which goes a long way toward explaining their music’s enduring appeal and global influence. OK, maybe the Thong Club and their buddies didn’t pull the world’s strings—but they sure could pluck ’em.

John Fahey

Fahey was one of the most acclaimed fingerpickers of his generation, with a love of the blues so intense he was driven to track down several of his musical idols in various forgotten corners of the country. Shortly after Fahey’s birth, his family moved from Washington, D.C., to Takoma Park, Md., which figured prominently in the personal mythology he detailed in the liner notes to his albums. The turtles the 11-year-old and his friends threw at the windshields of passing cars on Piney Branch Road and Philadelphia Avenue would reappear as a theme in his work, possibly representing memories of childhood sexual abuse. As a teenager, Fahey often played alongside Sligo Creek, which he commemorated in song as the Sligo River. His unique style was influenced not only by the records that he and his Thong Club friends doggedly tracked down but also by a fishing-trip meeting with Frank Hovington, a black singer and guitarist whose playing inspired Fahey to buy his own guitar from the Sears-Roebuck catalog for $17.

Robbie Basho

Born in 1940, the man who would eventually become Robbie Basho was adopted at a young age by Baltimore resident Dr. Daniel Robinson and named Daniel Robinson Jr. Once enrolled at the University of Maryland, he made a rapid transition from barrel-chested jock to cosmic beatnik to 12-string innovator self-styled in honor of a 17th-century Japanese poet. Though Basho didn’t start playing guitar until college, he proved to be a natural. Max Ochs recalls that he was “eager, anxious, intense, and had a bit of an inferiority complex,” adding that “he sweated.” Over a two-decade career, his songs morphed from raga-style instrumentals to Native American tributes that featured Basho’s distinctively challenging vocal style. He found moderate success on genre-defining New Age label Windham Hill in the late ’70s, but his final album, 1984’s Twilight Peaks, was rather ignominiously distributed by a company called the Art of Relaxation.

Max Ochs

Ochs might be the least-celebrated artist in the entire Takoma catalog. Indeed, he can hardly be mentioned without a reference to the more well-known Phil Ochs, a distant cousin. Yet he represents something the East Coast Blues Mafia and its ilk have always appreciated: a man more dedicated to music than the Faustian bargains of the music business. He taught himself to play guitar while growing up in Annapolis, Md., but, like Fahey, he changed his style after a chance encounter with a black musician, a hitchhiker who showed him how to open-tune. Though Ochs was a vital member of the early College Park scene that birthed the Takoma label—he even helped Basho begin reworking the Indian raga for guitar in the early ’60s—he never sought fame or critical praise. In fact, he’s released only 23 songs over the past 30 years, 18 of them quickly recorded to help promote a concert in Japan. For the past several decades, he’s essentially pursued a life of social activism and quiet contemplation punctuated by the occasional live show at a local crab shack.

1960

Twenty-one-year-old John Fahey meets fellow folk-blues guitarist Max Ochs, 19, at the Unicorn, a Dupont Circle coffeehouse. Another guitar player, Daniel “Robbie” Robinson Jr. also meets Ochs around this time, at the University of Maryland, College Park. The pair participate frequently in campus hootenannies, which are also attended by Fahey and his girlfriend, Pat Sullivan, herself an accomplished guitarist. “She had a spell on Fahey,” Ochs recalls.

At the University of Maryland, Ochs meets ED Denson in a class called Mystical Creative Writing, taught by Ezra Pound collaborator Rudd Fleming. Ochs says that he and Denson, who already knew Fahey from attending hootenannies at the Cabin John Recreation Center, “engaged in a friendly rivalry. It was blatant that we two were Dr. Fleming’s favorite students. ED was Beckett and I was Joyce. I was more into the musicality of words.”

1961

(Illustrations by Max Kornell)

Denson moves to Berkeley, Calif., to become a music critic for the Berkeley Barb, an alternative newspaper. He’s accompanied by his future wife: Pat Sullivan. As a goodbye present, Denson leaves a peyote button under Ochs’ pillow. “There was a place in Texas called Lawson’s Cactus Farm where peyote was still legal,” Denson says.

1962

Fahey follows Sullivan and Denson to Berkeley, where he enrolls in a graduate program in philosophy at the University of California.

Robinson listens to Ravi Shankar for the first time—for hours on end in a darkened room. As a result, he switches from blues guitar to raga guitar.

1963

Robinson also moves to Berkeley and soon changes his name to Robbie Basho in honor of haikuist Matsuo Bashoÿ. He and Fahey play frequently at local coffeehouses. Denson, meanwhile, gets so involved with the Free Speech Movement that he fails to graduate. “I was only one credit away, too,” he says.

Though Fahey’s self-released first album was ostensibly on Takoma Records, the label didn’t properly exist until this year, when Fahey and Denson formed a partnership with record distributor Norman Pierce to re-release some of Fahey’s old material.

Denson and Fahey travel back and forth between California and Maryland. Fahey records some sessions at engineer/blues enthusiast Gene Rosenthal’s studio in Silver Spring. They’re released on Takoma as The Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites. Rosenthal claims that “unused tracks from those sessions were used uncredited on the three subsequent Fahey releases.”

1964

After hearing a recording of Bukka White’s “Aberdeen Mississippi Blues,” Fahey sends a postcard to “Booker T. Washington White, Old Blues Singer, Aberdeen, Mississippi.” Denson recalls that Fahey “made sure to write the words ‘You could make $100’ in big letters on the back to get his attention.” The card is forwarded to White’s new address in Memphis, Tenn. Fahey and Denson convince him to move to Berkeley, setting him up with a room, some coffeehouse gigs, and a release on Takoma, Mississippi Blues.

1965

Basho releases his debut album, The Seal of the Blue Lotus, on Takoma.

1966

Fahey visits Ochs in New York, where Ochs is living near Tompkins Square Park with his girlfriend, Turtle. Ochs remembers that she “had freckles on her nose and was great at meditation.” Ochs plays Fahey “Imaginational Anthem,” a piece he’s written as a tribute to his guest.

1967

(Illustrations by Max Kornell)

Denson puts together a folk-rock band called Country Joe and the Fish. According to Ochs, the impresario “originally offered to build a band around me, but I was busy in New York.” Denson devotes so much time and energy to his “rock projects” that Fahey buys him out of his share of Takoma. “Jan [Lebow], his first wife,” Rosenthal says, “was controlling his alcohol, Valium, and Seconal intake so that he was functioning enough to run the label.”

Fahey visits a Buddhist temple in California, where a monk suggests that he hire schoolteacher/guru Charlie Mitchell to help run Takoma.

(Illustrations by Max Kornell)

1968

Inspired by Takoma, Rosenthal founds Adelphi Records. “I named it after a Fahey song, ‘The Downfall of the Adelphi Rolling Grist Mill,’ ” he says. The label releases music by East Coast Blues Mafia member Backwards Sam Firk and Fahey-esque guitarist Harry “Suni” McGrath.

Fahey visits Mitchell at the meditation-based First Liberty Church, where Mitchell leads the congregation. Fahey expresses an interest in recording the church’s choir. When Mitchell goes to the Takoma office, he finds it in such a state of disarray that he refuses Fahey’s offer to run the label.

Hyattsville resident Kerry Fahey introduces himself to Fahey after the guitarist plays a show in Adelphi. Despite no genealogical evidence, John “sort of decides that we had to be cousins,” Kerry recalls.

Fahey releases The Voice of the Turtle on Takoma. It features “A Raga Called Pat, Part III & IV” and effusive, obtuse liner notes that refer to Sullivan as the “Evil Devil Woman.”

Takoma releases Leo Kottke’s debut studio album, 6- and 12-String Guitar. The Minneapolis guitarist’s playing is more dexterous and less dissonant than Fahey’s. The release eventually sells more than 500,000 copies, making it the most popular in the label’s catalog and helping Kottke earn a major-label deal.

1969

Mitchell finally agrees to run Takoma and is named president of the company. He tells the First Liberty congregation to follow Swami Prabhavananda, founder or the Vedanta Society of Southern California, and starts going after past-due invoices in Takoma’s accounts receivable.

Fahey agrees to release Kerry Fahey’s Jefferson Street Jug Band on Takoma, but changes his mind after listening to the demo Kerry hand-delivers to him in California. Instead, he offers Kerry a job at the label, which he accepts, doing everything from shipping to record-producing.

(Illustrations by Max Kornell)

Director Michelangelo Antonioni flies Fahey to Rome to record some music for a love scene in his film Zabriskie Point. Fed up with the “orgy scenes” and Antonioni’s anti-Americanism, Fahey punches the filmmaker, knocking him out.

1970

Takoma releases Leo Kottke’s debut studio album, 6- and 12-String Guitar. The Minneapolis guitarist’s playing is more dexterous and less dissonant than Fahey’s. The release eventually sells more than 500,000 copies, making it the most popular in the label’s catalog and helping Kottke earn a major-label deal.

1972

Basho releases Voice of the Eagle, an album that shifts his focus from Asian mysticism to Native American mysticism.

Reprise Records releases Of Rivers and Religion, Fahey’s first LP for a major label. Future Cul de Sac member Glenn Jones hears Fahey’s music for the first time when his high-school art teacher plays him the album’s medley of Harry T. Burleigh’s “Deep River” and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Ol’ Man River.”

1973

Reprise releases the Dixieland-flavored After the Ball, Fahey’s last album for a major label. “I don’t understand why [the Reprise albums] got bad reviews,” the guitarist despaired to music-geek mag The Wire years later. “It’s like every time I wanted to do something other than play guitar I got castigated.”

(Illustrations by Max Kornell)

1974

Fahey briefly serves on the advisory board for Guitar Player magazine.

1976

Will Ackerman, a young guitarist from Palo Alto, Calif., founds Windham Hill Records to release his Fahey-influenced first recording, In Search of the Turtle’s Navel. Over the next several years, the label becomes synonymous with New Age music.

1978

Fahey and Mitchell decide to sell Takoma to Chrysalis Records. “It was a tough time in the record business,” Mitchell recalls. “Fahey wanted to do it, and I gave him no argument.” Mitchell enrolls in law school, because, he says, “lawyers are the people who make all the money in the music industry.”

1979

After a recording hiatus of several years, Basho releases Visions of the Country, the first of two albums he made for Windham Hill.

George Winston releases the platinum-selling December on Windham Hill, a company well on its way to becoming the world’s “preeminent lifestyle music label.” In 1972, Winston had released his debut, Ballads and Blues, on Takoma, but sluggish sales led to its quick deletion from the label’s catalog.

(Illustrations by Max Kornell)

1986

On Feb. 28, Basho dies on a chiropractor’s table in Berkeley after an “intentional whiplash” procedure causes several blood vessels in his neck to burst.Thirty-three-year-old guitarist Steffen Junghans first hears Basho’s music while living in East Berlin. “I discovered it with a German-licensed release of the first Windham Hill guitar sampler from 1981,” he says. “About five or six months later, I got a message that Robbie died nearly at the same time that I was discovering him.”

Fahey contracts Epstein-Barr virus and divorces his third wife.

1982

George Winston releases the platinum-selling December on Windham Hill, a company well on its way to becoming the world’s “preeminent lifestyle music label.” In 1972, Winston had released his debut, Ballads and Blues, on Takoma, but sluggish sales led to its quick deletion from the label’s catalog.

1990

Fahey “retires.” Despite or because of his ailment, he is on and off the wagon. He takes up residence in a series of shelters and welfare motels and subsists by pawning his guitars and selling valuable records he finds in thrift stores.

(Illustrations by Max Kornell)

1992

Jones’ Boston-based art-rock band, Cul de Sac, covers Fahey’s “The Portland Cement Factory at Monolith, California” on its debut album, ECIM.

1994

Junghans changes his name to Steffen Basho-Junghans in tribute to his favorite guitarist. “I saw something of a direction from Matsuo Bashoÿ, the 17th-century haiku poet, Robbie Basho, and myself,” he says. “I couldn’t forget that [Robbie Basho’s] name came into my life just when his own ended.”

Massachusetts-based music critic Byron Coley writes a feature on Fahey for Spin. The story prompts Dean Blackwood, a 24-year-old record collector from Arlington, Texas, to track down the destitute guitarist at a Salem, Ore., boardinghouse.

(Illustrations by Max Kornell)

1995

Fantasy Records buys Takoma and begins reissuing Fahey’s out-of-print LPs. Geffen Records plans a Fahey project to be produced by Jones and Coley, but the album is never completed.

Fahey’s father dies and leaves him a $250,000 inheritance. He decides to invest the money in another label and co-founds Revenant Records with Blackwood.

Fahey returns to Takoma Park for the last time to collect possessions from his father’s house. Real-estate developer Art McMurdie, who buys and remodels the property for resale, finds a loaded gun by the back door. He accidentally shoots a vacuum cleaner. Fahey’s childhood home, he says, is the “smelliest and most in a state of disarray” of any he’s worked on.

Denson receives a law degree from distance-learning institution William Howard Taft University. He passes the California State Bar exam and begins specializing in defending cases involving marijuana possession. “Being in Humboldt County,” he says, “I am kept pretty busy.”

1996

Basho-Junghans co-writes the liner notes for Fantasy’s best-of-Basho collection, Guitar Soli.

1997

Twenty-seven-year-old musician Jack Rose hears Fahey’s 1974 LP Fare Forward Voyagers (Soldier’s Choice) on WUVT FM in Blacksburg, Va. “Basically that record was the blueprint for me on how to merge Asian and American country blues into a raga form,” he says. “When I first heard it I thought the entire record was improvised. Later I found out ‘Thus Krishna on the Battlefield’ was improvised, but that the…title track was completely composed.

Thirsty Ear Recordings arranges for Fahey to record with Cul de Sac, which the guitarist refers to as a “retro lounge act.” The acrimonious proceedings were chronicled extensively by Jones and ultimately became the liner notes for the resulting album, The Epiphany of Glenn Jones. “John and I hadn’t talked since the sessions,” Jones recalls. “The day he got the notes, he called me, and in a sweet, quiet voice, said, ‘These have to be the notes to the album.’ ”

Fahey records a song titled “On the Death and Disembowelment of the New Age.”

1999

A disappointed Rose heckles Fahey at a show in Dublin, Ireland, where the guitarist plays his more dissonant, postrockish work. “I’m not proud of it,” Rose admits. “But it was an honest reaction to his ’90s music, which a couple of years later I grew to love and respect.”

2001

On Feb. 22, a few days shy of his 62nd birthday, Fahey dies after undergoing a sextuple-bypass surgery. On the inside of his funeral program is an inscription from the Song of Solomon: “For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”

Rose releases his first solo album, Red Horse, White Mule. Rose had previously been a member of Pelt, which made a transition from minimal drone rock to serene acoustic folk. His solo work is marked by a strong Fahey influence.

(Illustrations by Max Kornell)

2003

James Blackshaw, a young musician from Kent, England, puts out his debut, Celeste, a CD-R of pastoral acoustic-guitar numbers with an initial run of 80 copies. “Discovering Robbie Basho was a real turning point for me,” Blackshaw says, “and to call him influential with regard to my own work is an understatement. Much more so than Fahey, even.”

Revenant’s Charley Patton compilation, Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues, wins three Grammy Awards.

2004

Ackerman releases Returning: Pieces for Guitar 1970–2004, which wins a Grammy for Best New Age Album.

2005

Former Sony Music executive Josh Rosenthal (no relation to Gene) releases a compilation of instrumental guitar music, Imaginational Anthem, on his Tompkins Square Records. It’s named after Ochs’ song, which appears on the album twice. Rosenthal believes that the disc “requires attention and meditative listening to be fully appreciated.”

National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition does a feature on the contemporary freak-folk movement and its roots in the early Takoma Records discography. Rose and Jones are both interviewed. When asked about the resurgence of American primitivism, the latter says, “It may have something to do with the music’s handmade feel in a digital age.”

Atlanta label Dust-to-Digital releases a box set that features some of Fahey’s Blind Thomas recordings, made for Thong Club member Joe Bussard’s Fonotone label in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The package includes “Blind Blues,” “Paint Brush Blues,” “Poor Boy Blues,” “Wanda Russell’s Blues,” and “Weissman Blues,” but not the contemporaneous “Pat Sullivan Blues.”

2006

Vanguard Records releases I Am the Resurrection: A Tribute to John Fahey. Though Pelt is one of the contributors, Rose thinks that the disc “is a real piece of crap. I don’t see what Sufjan Stevens, Devendra Banhart, Currituck Co., or M. Ward have to do with his legacy.” The tribute, he says, “should have featured artists who are “inquisitive about music…not the rehashed mid-’70s soft rock and whiny singer-songwriters that seem to dominate the current musical landscape.”

Blackshaw’s fourth album, O True Believers, comes out on Feb. 28—“exactly 20 years to the day since Basho’s death,” Josh Rosenthal notes. “Very odd.” CP