Daily Tedium

The Late-Career Recovery

The art of getting rediscovered late in life—including how legendary acoustic guitarist John Fahey bounced back thanks to a 1994 Spin magazine feature.

By Ernie Smith

Recently, I re-watched the movie Hugo, a truly dazzling 2011 Martin Scorsese film about a young boy who, in the process of running the clocks inside a 1930s-era train station, helps an old shop owner realize that he’s not a failure, but a living legend.

It’s a story, based on a book, that’s rooted in pure fantasy—I mean, obviously it’s unlikely that a young child could get away with the scheme suggested in the film—but Georges Méliès is a real guy, best known for his inventive early films, most notably A Trip to the Moon. He was rediscovered late in life, if not by a boy living in a clock.

In some ways Tedium is all about retelling stories like Méliès’. But what’s great is that there are stories like his in real life, and sometimes they’re uncovered in awesome ways.

Perhaps the best such story is that of John Fahey, the avant-garde acoustic guitarist who helped push the instrument into new directions in the 1960s and 1970s by melding diverse musical styles into the language of folk and the blues. He even had a Hugo moment of his own, helping to rediscover bluesman Bukka White in the early 1960s.

But later in his life, he had drifted away from his musical career due to marital and health issues, and was basically living off his wide, eclectic knowledge of music—specifically, by selling his vintage guitars and flipping old records that he knew were far more valuable than the list price. He was certainly not living well, and he faded in and out of homelessness.

Meanwhile, his innovative thinking around the guitar was starting to earn major notice from ‘90s rockers and avant-gardists like Jim O’Rourke and Sonic Youth.

That notice earned Fahey a rediscovery of his own—a 1994 profile in Spin written by Byron Coley, that highlighted the contrast between Fahey’s underground fame and his day-to-day struggles. The contrast was strong.

“Fahey’s weirder tunings, were a real secret influence on early Sonic Youth,” that band’s Thurston Moore told Coley.

“I could feel when it entered me, and I could feel it when it left,” Fahey told Coley of his long-running battle with the Epstein-Barr virus. “That’s when I was at my apex of drinking. I had to drink a lot of beer for the energy. I didn’t play nearly as much. I talked most of the time. It was horrible.”

The article, mostly for the better, helped revive Fahey’s career among the kind of freaks and experimenters that could appreciate it. He made more music and ended his career properly admired and respected at the time of his 2001 death.

Like Scorsese’s imagined last years of Georges Méliès, John Fahey got his second chance.

If you’d love to learn more, there’s a documentary—of course, there has to be.

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

Find me on: Website Twitter