“Revenant: The Weirdest, Coolest Reissue Label in the World.” - Rolling Stone, 1998

“John Fahey’s Revenant Label Bestows the Breath of Life.” - Spin, 1998

“Best Record Label in America.” - GQ Magazine, 2002

3-Time Grammy Winner, 5-Time Nominee

 

Out of Their Anonymous Dark

Scott Blackwood

I

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious…whoever does not know it can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.
-Einstein, Ideas and Opinions

In 1996, I was in Chicago with my brother Dean to hear John Fahey play at the Empty Bottle with Tony Conrad and Jim O’ Rourke. At the time, Dean was both Fahey’s business partner and manager, but he was tied up that afternoon. Since Fahey often had trouble getting around in cities, my brother had asked me to pick him up at his hotel, the lobby of which looked like a nine-year-old’s version of elegance, with its garish red carpet and life-size faux Roman statues.1 John had insisted on this place, saying that Blind Lemon Jefferson was found frozen to death just outside its doors after a snowstorm in 1929.2 His pockets emptied.

Dean had told me that Fahey was hardly ever comfortable on the road—there was always a too-loud hotel guest, a noisy elevator, or a fight with a manager over his painting canvasses on the bed—so Dean had reserved, at extra expense, the same agreeable room in this hotel where Fahey said he’d stayed years before, one floor above the street where Blind Lemon had curled up in a snow drift and gone to sleep forever.

When I climbed the stairs and found Fahey’s room, his door was ajar. Inside, I could hear a roaring, like rushing water. I knocked and the door eased open on its own. Inside, lying on his stomach in the bed, was a large, naked man. Pale and shapeless, like an animal out of its shell. “Oh, hi there,” John said, in a breathless voice, or maybe “stay there,” I couldn’t tell which. On the dresser, a boom box roared white noise, which, I found out later, John needed to sleep. John rose off the bed and struggled to get his pants on. I stared helplessly from the hall. Along his belly and thighs were dozens of shiny round tattoos. And then, as he wriggled into his pants, the tattoos began to fall from him and clatter on the floor. They rolled under the bed and dresser, around John’s feet. I realized they were coins, loose change that had pressed into his flesh while he slept. But John, bleary-eyed and still only half in the world, gazed at the floor in amazement.

II

The Metaphysicians of Tlön are not looking for truth, or even an approximation of it; they are after a kind of amazement.
-Borges, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”

On the way to the Empty Bottle, John wanted to stop off at a thrift store to insert some of the recent 78′s he’d made with Dean—”Evening (Not Night)” and the limited pressing of “We, Amnesiacs All (Sonnabend’s Dream)”3 —into their record bins. A kind of reverse paleontology. Musical relics from the future joining with the past. He’d even scratched and dulled them, he said, for the complete effect. Some future collecting someone would stumble on them—maybe even as I write this—and their eyes would round with wonder. Sure, it was a prank, Fahey said, but it also kindled a little doubt under the facts of the world.

“But they’ll know it’s not a rare 78, right?” I asked.

He looked at me but didn’t answer. As if to confuse you about his own facts, John wore sunglasses all the time, it seemed. I remember thinking you’d probably laugh more readily at what he said if you could see his eyes. “It’s like Transubstantiation,” John said, finally. “The wine and wafer isn’t real blood and real flesh, right? But people allow themselves to fall for it anyway because they need it, or think they do.” John went silent for awhile and busied himself with a bag of barbecue Fritos. Then he mentioned some recordings that seemed to come out of the ether, musicians about whom virtually nothing was known. Homer Quincy Smith’s seismic lungs and pipe organ, the Nugrape Twins’s harmonic epiphanies. “They have no history of their own anymore,” he explained, “so they insinuate themselves into ours.”

I wondered if Fahey was bullshitting me. Wasn’t there a Borges’ story about a fictional planet that becomes part of real planet’s history?

We rode in silence for awhile, potholes bumping us along.

I asked him about the paintings he was working on. One was of the Coelacanth, he said, a prehistoric fish with fins that moved like proto-arms and legs. John said that the Coelacanth predated the dinosaurs and were thought to be extinct until one day back in 1938, after a tsunami emptied out a bay, an Indonesian man found one the size of a 10-year old child.

We were running late. Above the buildings, the sky was a dusky copper color. I kept driving, though I had a feeling that I’d taken a wrong turn.

John sighed heavily. I asked what was wrong. He craned his neck to see behind us. “I guess I misremembered it,” he said, in his breathless voice. He fidgeted in the seat. In the rearview, in the last light, I could see several boarded up buildings near a small park. “That empty space between those two buildings back there was the hotel I stayed in before,” he said. “The one where Blind Lemon Jefferson died.”

III

An absence of meaning opens a rift in time.
- Michel de Certeau

Improbably enough, three years later, I heard the Nugrape Twins in a little open-air bar near the Mayan ruins in Pelenque, Mexico. Jesper Eftergøre, the Dane who ran the bar, played a stew of Afro-Cuban jazz, Hindi folk, blues and gospel over his plywood box speakers. He was especially fond of Anton Karas’ zither theme from “The Third Man,” which I heard a dozen times over the several days I was there. He seemed to enjoy the disorienting effects the music had on tourists, set as it was against the high-pitched din of the jungle cicadas.4

When the Nugrape Twins started up, I was watching Jesper perform card tricks for some German backpackers. (“Sleight of hand,” he would scold. “Tricks are for charlatans.”) Jesper slapped the cards on their table, hard, with the flat of his hand. “For potency,” he said.

I got a Nugrape nice and fine
The rings around the bottle is a-genuine
I got your ice cold Nugrape

The Twins’ “I Got Your Ice-Cold Nugrape” seems, at first listen, jingle-familiar, a sales pitch for soda. But then, listening closer, there’s that ecstasy-tinged harmony, the lower voice (Matthew? Mark?) loping gracefully behind, as if for emphasis. Then the otherworldly humming starts. Out of their anonymous dark, the Twins say, “drink this and all will be made right.” And the more you listen, the more the song seems to touch the hem of some other garment:

Way down yonder in the promised land
Run and tell your momma here the Nugrape man
I got your ice-cold Nugrape

On the road in front of the bar, a group of Mayan men wearing traditional body-length white shirts were wandering back from hawking hammocks in the campground or working in the museum concession stand behind the ruins. They were sharing a bottle of something among them. As they passed the bar, one of the men made a pistol with his fingers, drew it expertly from his side, and pretended to shoot me. I played along. I winced in mock pain. Clutched my chest. My beer bottle tumbled from the table and shattered on the concrete floor. The man stiffened and for a moment his face seized with fear and wonder. What had he done? His companions laughed. He came out of his daze and moved on.

Jesper had said that the Mayans, who still lived apart5 in thatch-roof houses a half-dozen kilometers back into the jungle, would often show up at the town’s movie theater in their linen “night shirts,” as he called them. They were very taken with dubbed American westerns, in particular, though they rarely knew much Spanish. I thought of Fahey that time saying how things without a history of their own anymore insinuate themselves into ours.

From the jungle, the insects began their high-pitched whine.

At the German’s table, Jesper, his hands girlish and pale, performed a card trick he called the Royal Confidant and another called Luckhoo’s Surprise.6 The Germans smiled politely but drank their beers and left before he was finished. Jesper, unfazed, gathered up their tip of peso coins, wandered over to my table, and pretended to pull coins from my mouth and ears.

I remember Jesper telling me that he’d once seen, on the pine straw covered floor of a Mayan church in Chumula, a woman baptizing her small children with a bottle of Pepsi Cola. No lie, he said.

When you’re feeling kinda blue
Do not know what’s ailing you
Get a Nugrape from the store
Then you’ll have the blues no more
I got your ice-cold Nugrape
Hmmm Hmmm Hmmm Hmmm

+ + +
Scott Blackwood’s 2001 collection of short stories, In the Shadow of Our House, was called “acute and nimble…an impressive, accomplished debut” by the New York Times Book Review. His fiction and essays have appeared in the Boston Review, Southwest Review, and Austin Chronicle, and his novel We Have Agreed To Meet Just Here was awarded the 2009 AWP Prize for the Novel and was a finalist for the 2010 PEN USA Award for best work of fiction. He has also been the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Dobie-Paisano Literary Fellowship, and two Texas Commission on the Arts Fellowships.

 

The Revenant

Dean Blackwood

I

Two men who might be brothers sit together in a small room, staring into the bell of a large horn. There is a piano opposite the men, a woman seated behind it who looks like she just came from church. Another man in a white coat stands over a machine that is connected to the horn, winding a small handle in the machine’s side. A platen at the base of the machine has a flat wax disc on it. The man releases a lever and the disc starts to spin. A fourth man stands by a switch on the wall, looking at the watch in his hand.

It seems to the two seated men that they might hear something coming at them out of the horn, but they know this isn’t right. Nothing comes out of this horn—it just goes in. When the man in the coat likes the way the wax disc is spinning, he lowers something into place and with his other hand silently points to the man by the wall, who flips a switch. A light goes on over the door. The woman begins to play the piano. The two seated men begin to sing into the horn, their voices weaving, buzzing. A sharp wire connected to the narrow end of the horn traces out a circular pattern in the spinning wax surface, vibrating all the while, etching a code of tiny zig-zags within each groove. The singing men can see little wax shavings falling like snow onto the floor.

Once, while they are singing, the man in the coat has to gesture at them to move back a bit from the horn. Before they had started, he had cautioned them about mistakes. Mistakes could not be fixed and they would have to start over, use another disc. Which would cost money. After three minutes of singing, the man by the wall flips his switch and the light goes on again. The singers know they have 15, 20 seconds, tops, to finish.

When they stop singing, the man in the coat presses something and the disc stops spinning. He turns a tiny dial on a device in his hand and stamps it into the wax disc near the center. The man writes something in a notebook and places another wax disc onto the platen.

Later, the wax disc is packed in sawdust and ice and placed on a truck. A metal reverse image is made of the wax disc, which in turn is placed on a high pressure plate and forced into a disc made of shellac, clay and ground up pieces of old tires. Three thousand copies of the shellac disc are pressed up and labels applied to them. Less than 600 are sold and the rest are destroyed within six months.

II

From Science News, week of May 29, 2004; Vol. 165, No. 22, p. 339:

Particle physicist Carl H. Haber of Lawrence Berkeley (Calif.) Laboratory heard on the radio that archivists needed ways to nondestructively extract sound from old recordings. He makes arrays of sensors for tracking minute particles in powerful accelerators. To align their arrays, they scan sensor surfaces by using a microscope with submicrometer resolution.

The scientist used his microscope to make a two-dimensional map of the grooves on a 78-revolutions-per-minute shellac disc. He also wrote software that calculates the velocity with which a stylus would move in the mapped grooves. A sound clip from the virtual disc sounded better than the same section played back from the original disc with a stylus did, Haber reported in the December 2003 Journal of the Audio Engineering Society.

The new mapping technique could enable archivists to retrieve recordings from worn, damaged or broken records and discs. The method could also solve the looming problem of playing archived recordings after old types of playback equipment become unavailable, he adds.

III

In 1969, 29-year-old John Fahey studied for one tumultuous semester at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.

He had completed his masters degree several years before,7 culminating in his monograph on Charley Patton.8 Fahey had fallen under the spell of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, convinced that it held keys which would unlock some of his own deeply submerged personal demons9 as well as provide important insights into the work of many of the artists he admired, including Patton, whose “fire musics” he believed could only be explained by deep-seated, repressed emotions. Connections provided by a friend10 enabled Fahey to secure a research fellowship providing access to many of Freud’s personal papers which were housed at Clark, including Freud’s decade-long, sporadic correspondence with G. Stanley Hall, Clark’s founder and longtime president.

While rooting around in the basement of the Clark University library, Fahey discovered thirteen letters Freud had written to Hall, seemingly haphazardly stuffed into a file box of Hall’s non-catalogued personal papers. Within a week of his discovery, Fahey was embroiled in a tempest. While it was known that Carl Jung and Freud had gone their separate ways around 1913, details were largely a mystery until Fahey’s 1969 find.11

In the Fahey-recovered stash of letters to Hall, Freud dwelt angrily on Jung’s motives for leaving him, suggesting simple personal and professional jealousies got the best of Jung.12

Public exposure of these letters by Clark University did not sit well with many Jungians,13 who rallied in the way that perhaps only they can. They picketed the University and led a vociferous campaign on campus and in the press to discredit Freud, to cast doubt on both his scholarship and ethical fitness, and to have his books and papers burned.14

Battle lines were drawn, and somehow, Fahey got the worst of it. Whether you supported Jung or Freud, some part of you blamed John Fahey for stirring the pot. “[Fahey] felt he had an important duty to bring this to light,” one protester said, after his release. “But these were not the problems of ordinary men. These were beyond his grasping. In the end, the letters should have remained lost.”15

Fahey could not stay in New England.

IV

Here I am working not with the strictly Freudian understanding of the uncanny as the return of the repressed of castration but rather with what Freud singles out in his essay as an important subset of the uncanny—instances where life and death exist in an ambiguous mixture. Such instances include “doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate”; the figure of the double, which is both “an energetic denial of the power of death” and a harbinger of death and above all the revenant, the dead who return to living space as ghosts. In each case the sense of the uncanny is produced by something familiar which takes on an alien aspect and stalks or haunts the subject.
- Catherine Waldby

John whispered the name to me—Revenant—like it was a powerful, secret thing. I had to look it up: “a spirit who returns after a long absence.” John liked its Freudian connotations but told me that mostly he thought it sounded cool. I did, too. I liked ghosts as much as anybody.

Ornette, Beefheart, Dock Boggs. The names seemed incantatory, like if you said them to yourself enough times something big might happen. They were a few of the archetypal figures around which the whole Revenant “raw musics” concept coalesced. Charley Patton, too, of course. Undiluted work from uncompromising artists, un-meddled-with, unexpurgated, un–.

Crucial to the Revenant ethos is the notion of the neglected gem. Our Revenant empire, such as it is, is founded upon the proposition that if the masses reject or ignore it, it just may be worth looking into. Neglected artists may be those ahead of their time, too uncompromising for their own good, whose sense of timing and often decorum was not quite the equal of their imagination. Charlie Feathers, Albert Ayler… .

A special category for neglect is the phantom.

The time between roughly 1925 and World War II is often referred to as the Golden Age of Recording for old time music geeks: a brief span of overlap between the last gasps of indigenous artistic expression in terms of purity and intensity, as yet undiluted by the influence of radio and other mass media, and the first years of decent, comparatively inexpensive (and even marginally portable) recording equipment.

The notion of the one-off recording is remarkably quaint today. But in, say, 1928, largely clueless record executives were recording anything and everything: street vendor chants, anemic cowboy songs, unintelligible sermons, kazoo ensembles, a guy playing his nose—all were equal under the law. Particularly with regard to black audiences, record execs had no clue what qualities of a record made it a popular seller and were willing to try anything—once. This impulse led to unprecedented access to recording studios and issued records by many whom, for one reason or another, would never be heard from again. Some of these phantoms left behind music of such an otherwordly character that it genuinely retains the power to shock, confound, inspire and sustain today.

Some names:
Geeshie Wiley
Elvie Thomas
NuGrape Twins
Homer Quincy Smith
Blues Birdhead

Names too obscure even for Harry Smith. But each a possessor of both a very real generative power and the power to animate our ongoing dialogue about what it is in some art that lasts and transcends. The power to generate not leagues of imitators and devotees of style, but to inspire one to greater heights in one’s own endeavors by brute force of example.

The phantom, the revenant, has a special allure. In an age of complete media saturation, where we must, unavoidably, reckon with our artist’s personal minutiae, there is something so wonderfully, perversely compelling about art that must stand completely on its own, sans biographical context, since absolutely nothing of any consequence is known about the artist behind the work. It has the quality of cave painting, except we arguably know more about the personal habits of the creatures who conjured them than we do about our friends Geeshie and Homer. The recordings are simply there: like those computer models of the double helix strands of DNA, twisting disembodied before us, discrete, immaculate. Recognizable as human stuff, sure, yet utterly alien.

These recordings are the province of high pressure systems, magnetic fields, locust swarms, tectonic shifts. Objects of such moment that, to paraphrase Greil Marcus, like black gravity they absorb and annihilate every other piece of music brought near for comparison. Hailing from no place, Geeshie and Elvie quickly went back. But, hallelujah, we have the music.

Outside of recording ledgers they can’t definitively be said to have existed. But there’s the work, gleaming and spotless. Incontrovertible.

Show 15 footnotes

  1. Interestingly, one of the statues in the lobby of Fahey’s hotel is of Acteon, the hunter in Ovid’s Metamorphoses who is turned into a stag by the Goddess Diana as punishment for Acteon seeing her nude. Acteon’s hounds eventually tear him to pieces and eat him. Fahey was particularly drawn to Acteon as an image of the artist as accidental voyeur, stumbling on forbidden knowledge. In the limited Perfect 78 pressing “We, Amnesiacs All (Sonnabend’s Dream), he furiously reworks Charley Patton’s “Jesus Was a Dying-Bed Maker” into an even more elemental and dangerous work to which the Acteon Myth is central.
  2. This is somewhat apocryphal, since no death certificate has been found to date. Several of Jefferson’s Chicago friends claimed that he had complained of a pain “in his liver area” the week before he died, while others said he’d had chest pains. Fahey, however, mentioned several times that he thought Jefferson was murdered because of debts he accrued while moonlighting as a novelty wrestler (it seems Jefferson was a particular draw because of his size and blindness), though there is little evidence to support Fahey’s claim. Stranger still were some of the claims that Jefferson was not who he said he was. A female cousin of Josh White (White sometimes served as Jefferson’s eyes while on the road) told a black Dallas newspaper in 1926 that Jefferson was not blind since birth but used the elaborate ruse to sell records (this was vehemently denied by White). When Jefferson’s grave marker was replaced in honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1997, the researchers found themselves facing another mystery: there was no record of his birth in 1897. They discovered through county records that he was actually born in September 1893..
  3. Originally intended as an experimental lark, this 78 pressing seemed to fluctuate in Fahey’s estimation. He claimed in one interview with the Austin Chronicle that the record was “ill-conceived, pretentious shit,” but before the interview went to print, he retracted the statement, saying that he wanted listeners to “make up their own minds” (personal correspondence with interviewer, Ted E. Bunn). By his last appearance in Austin, at the Ritz Theater (1999), he said he felt he’d hit his stride on the 78, particularly in his ethereal version of Blind Mamie and A.C. Forehand’s “Honey in the Rock,” complete with bicycle bell chimes.
    Renowned early 20th century neurophysiologist Geoffrey Sonnabend’s three volume treatise Obliscence: Theories of Forgetting and the Problem of Matter (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1946) had a peculiar hold on Fahey for a time. A fellow insomniac, Sonnabend claimed that memory was an illusion that buffers us from the “intolerable knowledge of the irreversible passage of time and irretrievability of its moments and events” (16). Sonnabend’s work has been elaborated on in Lawrence Weschler’s equally extraordinary Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder (New York: Pantheon: 1995) and in various monographs and “encapsulations” produced by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Information in cooperation with Los Angeles’ Museum of Jurassic Technology.
  4. This unnerving sound is produced in the Cicada’s abdomen and is meant as an enticement to love. Collectively, the decibel level can approach that of a jet engine.
  5. Lacandon Maya lived anonymously and alone here until their relatively late “discovery” by Mexican officials in the 1950s.
  6. Sir Lionel Luckhoo (1914-1997) was known as the Perry Mason of the Caribbean—245 murder acquittals, 1940-1985—and later, in retirement, became an accomplished magician and evangelist. In the late 1960′s, Luckhoo represented Jonestown Cult Leader Jim Jones—himself a fan of sleight of hand—in several child custody cases. His greatest regret, he told a Georgetown, Guyana newspaper, was that he once dissuaded Jones from committing suicide. Luckhoo was on his way to Jonestown the day of the mass suicide but had car trouble and arrived late—thus his surprise. Luckhoo, greatly moved by the tragedy and his narrow escape, became a born again Christian and traveled the U.S., performing magic and preaching the gospel.
    Curiously, Luckhoo is also the model for “The Simpson’s” TV show character Lionel Hutz, who, in contrast, has never won a legal case.
  7. UCLA, Folklore and Mythology. A curriculum by one, for one.
  8. Later published in hardcover form by Studio Vista (London, 1970) in its Blues Paperbacks Series edited by Paul Oliver, and even later revived as a pocket-part in Revenant’s Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton (RVN 212, 2001, 7 CDs).
  9. Recounted in some detail in “Fish,” among other stories, in Fahey’s How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life (Drag City Press, 2000). A later book, Vampire Vultures (Drag City, 2003), further chronicling some of the same themes, is also credited to Fahey, though it’s been suggested that sometime Fahey compatriot Charles Schmidt may have authored significant portions of the book (and, indeed, performed in Fahey’s place at certain recording sessions credited to Fahey during the same period). These accounts are unsubstantiated. Schmidt was interviewed on this topic by Bananafish’s Seymour Glass, but insisted on conducting the interview as a Tuvan throat-singing exercise, and it was never published (personal correspondence with the interviewer).
  10. Al “Blind Owl” Wilson, co-founder of blues-boogie outfit Canned Heat, who had worked in Clark’s Registrar’s Office during periods of busking in the Boston area.
  11. Interested parties already knew of Freud’s previously published letter to Hall from November, 1913, which had dictated: “The only unfavorable developments within the psychoanalytical movement concern personal relationships. Jung, with whom I shared my visit to you at that time, is no longer my friend, and our collaboration is approaching complete dissolution.” As for Jung, it was known that he had split from Freud because he felt Freud placed too much emphasis on the role sex played in life energy. Speaking of Freud’s theories, Jung had said, “The brain is viewed as an appendage of the genital glands.”
  12. Freud: “If the real facts were more familiar to you, you would very likely not have thought that there was again a case where a father did not let his sons develop, but you would have seen that the sons wished to eliminate their father, as in ancient times.”
  13. Particularly John M. Billinsky, a psychologist and professor at nearby Andover Newton Theological School. Billinsky, who had studied under Jung in Zurich a dozen years earlier, determined to let the world know more of the reasons behind Jung’s defection from Freud. In January, 1970, Billinsky made public a private fact that Jung had told him about Freud: he had carried on a love affair with his sister-in-law, who lived with him and his family in Vienna, under the very noses of Freud’s wife and children, for nearly forty years. Upset by Freud’s hidden life, his lack of openness, Jung had confronted the master. He suggested to Freud that he be analyzed by someone else, and Jung offered himself as the analyst. Irked, Freud flatly rejected the suggestion. “It was my knowledge of Freud’s triangle,” said Jung, “that became a very important factor in my break. And then I could not accept Freud’s authority above the truth. This led to further problems…”
  14. Go to www.freudvsjung.org/clarkuniversity for details about the near riot on Clark University’s campus.
  15. Personal correspondence with protester, name withheld by request.