Thursday 6 December 2012

The Great John Fahey Debacle: A Cautionary Tale

John Fahey's ill-fated UK tour of 1999 virtually defines the word 'debacle'. With its sorry mixture of self-delusion, malevolence, naivety and depravity, it is probably the archetypal rock 'n' roll horror story. This account, from an inside perspective, has been revised from original publication in the December 1999 issue of the Worpt Wire Service (the Newsletter of the Friends of Abner Burnett). 

I don’t understand what you are worrying about. I have been touring this year in Japan, Germany, Holland, and there hasn’t been any kind of trouble anywhere. I’m not a “no-show”. Three months ago I decided I like touring and hate staying home  and am going to tour the rest of my life. I don’t drink anymore, don’t take non-prescription drugs. I’m trusting you to do a good job, why not trust me to do a good job? - John Fahey to Paul Kelly and Mike Butler, July 24, 1999  

Fahey is freaking out about his new love. The travel agent says that from what she has seen when they show up to confuse the travel logistics, the romance is much more heated on his side of the stove. If Hitomi abandons our artist, we may be conductors on the dark diesel blinds that ride mighty John Fahey into storied oblivion. He may deliver a series of performances so despondent that Worpt is remembered as the promotion company upon whose mount the Grim Reaper rode to extinguish all enthusiasm for all time for “Roots Americana”, If so, and he is depressing, I will outdo him measure for measure: macabre, lurid, sordid, self-absorbed negativity - Abner Burnett to Mike Butler and Paul Kelly, August 31, 1999  

[Mike Butler writes] I was (still am) a music writer and back in the day I promoted the occasional UK tour by Abner Burnett. I was Abner's agent, sort of, and it was my life's goal to raise the public profile of the Texas attorney, Mexican tree nursery proprietor, and - most relevant for our purposes - the most gifted songwriter ever to toil in obscurity. My vehicle to achieve this was Worpt UK, a branch of Abner’s little agency in the USA, Worpt. 

To extend the dramatis personae of our story, Paul Kelly was a psychiatric nurse (now retired) with a responsibility for the criminally insane. I knew him as a face, sometimes the only other face, from free jazz (improvised) concerts in our hometown of Manchester. When Paul Kelly proposed that Worpt sponsor a tour jointly headlined by John Fahey and Derek Bailey, I willingly listened. Fahey’s music had been a passion since schooldays, and Derek Bailey was a radical sexagenarian who had carved a new language for the guitar. The pairing of these maverick musicians was an inspired idea, and I resolved to do all in my power to make it happen. 

From the go, a question-mark hung over Kelly’s integrity. In 1998 Helter Skelter published Like The Night by CP Lee, which centred around Bob Dylan’s historic concert at Manchester Free Trade Hall on May 17, 1966. The book contained photographs of the gig by Paul Kelly (then 16 years old). Indeed, these photographs were deemed such a selling point that Kelly claimed co-authorship with Lee. Alas, another photographer emerged, Kelly's school companion, who was merrily snapping away on the next seat. The attribution of the images became the subject of litigation. Kelly gave me his side of the story, and I naively believed him. Anyway, he soon proved his worth as a promoter, finding venues across the UK, contacting regional promoters and booking accommodation. An itinerary was soon sketched out. All that was needed was an investor to back the venture. The phrase "seed money" now became Kelly's mantra, often mentioned in conjunction with the name Abner Burnett. 

Abner Burnett is a lawyer by day who occasionally represents widows when their husbands are killed in the oilfields. Drilling crews often drop heavy objects on each other or just blow each other up. Having recently settled a case and picked up his usual exorbitant fee, Burnett is eager to piss it away on a musical mystery tour called ‘Guitar Excursions into the Unknown’ - from 'Henry's Take on the Tour', an unpublished account of the tour by Henry McCarty (aka Abner Burnett). 

The name of the John Fahey tour, Guitar Excursions into the Unknown, derives from a track on his rare 1966 LP, The Great San Bernadino Birthday Party and Other Excursions. A company, Worpt UK Ltd, is formed to oversee the operation. Abner Burnett, Paul Kelly and Mike Butler become the legal directors of Worpt UK Ltd. The wheels are now ready to roll, or, more accurately, ready to fall off the wagon. 

First, Derek Bailey withdraws after a fee dispute. This may only have been a handy excuse. Bailey, a cultivated fellow with a lifetime’s experience of playing to empty halls, may have had a presentiment of trouble ahead. Then the drafting of a contract with Fahey’s Nashville-based agent, Mark Linn of Do Easy Booking, proved to be an exceptionally arduous business, and made the company name seem a dark, ironic joke. 

We are on the edge, which is where all courageous rock ’n’ roll lunatics should hang. Everybody get tense. If you’re feeling at ease, find and take some poorly manufactured speed, something with that strychnine veneer - Abner Burnett to Mike Butler and Paul Kelly, August 25, 1999 

The hunt for passport details uncovers the fact that Fahey’s middle name is Aloysious. His mysterious ‘assistant’, whose airfare Worpt UK Ltd is contractually obligated to provide, is eventually identified as one Hitomi, a young girlfriend Fahey acquired during his recent tour of Japan. The course of this Winter/Spring romance is not running smoothly. 

“I got past the saddest music in the world, and I decided to do the angriest music in the world,” declares Fahey during the course of our phone interview, intended for pre-tour publicity . The date: Monday, September 6, 1999. Fahey is speaking from the hotel where he lives in Salem, Oregon. Standard questions receive standard replies. The conversation isn't sparking. Fahey seems preoccupied and distant. Then, with no warning, his fluting voice cracks with emotion. “I’m sorry to tell you, but my Japanese girlfriend broke up with me.” I offer words of consolation, but, to be honest, I'm more the Concerned Impresario than Good Samaritan. “How will it affect your playing?” I ask. “I play better when I’m mad,” Fahey replies. “And I’m as mad as hell. It should be excellent.” 

Could I call up Hitomi in Tokyo? “I don’t want her to think she’s going to get away with this,” said Fahey, the whine replaced with menace. “And tell all your friends to phone,” he growls. Now, at last, the ringing of the alarm bells could not be ignored. Curiously, alarm bells failed to jangle when I read Fahey's quote about the recently deceased Jerry Garcia in Mojo # 39: “The more people like that who die the better.” Somewhat insensitively, l enjoyed the outrageous nature of this remark. Sociopathology, however, is more disquieting at close range. 

Mike’s Tour Diary, written from the thick of it

Tuesday, September 14, 1999 

Our Guitar Excursions immediately plunge into the Unknown. The travel agent in Oregon (or Fahey himself?) makes a blunder with the ticket. Fahey arrives at Glasgow Airport 24 hours early. I accept reverse charges on a series of increasingly desperate phone calls. The guitarist is homeless, tired and hungry. To cap it all, his wallet has been stolen on the flight, so he is also penniless. “You gotta rescue me, man!” he whines in a pitiful falsetto. He is calling from The Post House Hotel at Glasgow Airport. On my third attempt I manage to circumvent the automated switchboard and talk to a real human being. Fahey, a diabetic, is given food and care. Paul Kelly, already on the road in a hired VW carriage, picks up the stranded artiste some three hours after his premature arrival. 

Wednesday, September 15, 1999 

How quickly gratitude turns to enmity. I meet John Fahey for the first time in the foyer of our hotel, the Ibis (or ‘the Abyss’, as Abner prefers), in Edinburgh. The guitar legend is due to play at the Queen’s Hall, a medium sized venue in the city, on the following night. I notice Fahey through the glass frontage. He is wearing dark glasses, and there is no mistaking his obese form. He has two companions with him. There is Paul Kelly, sure enough, who cuts a distinct figure himself, with his bald pate, little round glasses, extravagant walrus moustache, and portly build. But who is the little fellow in the shell suit, buzzing around Fahey like an anxious fly? I enter. 

The little fellow vanishes before I clear the door. I gather myself and offer Fahey a handshake and my most ingratiatingly smile, doubtless a bit strained because of my nervousness. My hand is left dangling, and my smile is left to wither and die. “Sit down!” barks Fahey, pointing to a chair. Kelly smirks and excuses himself, pleading an appointment elsewhere. Fahey betrays unease. 

“I thought you were going to stay, man." And, in a quieter undertone, "I’m not sure of the figures.” 

“Oh, you can take care of it, John,” says Kelly, and exits. 

I sit down with mounting apprehension, alone with my hero of old. Fahey removes his dark glasses. Oh horror! His gaze is dead and his eyes are pure yellow, streaked with blood. He delivers an ultimatum. 

He has, he explains, no faith in Worpt UK or our ability to manage the tour. If the money for the first four gigs is not immediately forthcoming - he glances at some hastily scribbled figures, and mentions the sum of £4,400 - the tour is off. This behaviour is more than just unprofessional. 

In the past months, Abner had conferred with travel agents about the feasibility of a round-trip for Fahey and his fiancée - from the USA to Japan, thence to Scotland and back to the USA. Fahey's calls became such a nuisance that Susan, Abner’s partner, finally refused to take them. 

“Let me put it like this,” Abner wrote. “If you look up professional in the dictionary, Fahey is not even mentioned in the footnotes. Whereas if you looked up flaky as shit, it might have his picture.” 

In life, Fahey doesn't look in the least bit flaky. His flesh, so gross and abundant everywhere else, seems to run out at the neck. His skull is clearly visible beneath the pallid skin. Grey whiskers sprout from his jowls in haphazard clumps and his grey beard is dirty and unkempt. His t-shirt and baggy shorts, an unchanging uniform, are permanently stained with spilled juice and body fluids. The omnipresent sunglasses sit oddly, like some accessory of a calavera in a Posada cartoon for Día de los Muertos. And this death's head is scowling at me

"You better check in," he says, by way of dismissal, having relieved me of £250 (all the money I have on me and all the money available until the bank opens in the morning). I retreat to the sterility of the hotel double-room, and recline on the bed and brood, and readjust my image of John Fahey from old-time hero to horrible old man.    

Thursday, September 16, 1999 
Abner Burnett is providing support for the first four dates of the tour. He has other places to be - in fact, he's marrying Susan in Texas in ten days' time - but he also has a professional and financial interest in the success of the tour. When Abner steps off the plane at Glasgow Airport to be greeted by Paul Kelly, he is approximately $10,000 "in the grease" (oh, hire of halls, the considerable cut taken by DFEE, hire of instruments and equipment, touring van, hotels etc etc). 

Kelly had fallen prey to the delusion of self-importance. He had somehow gotten hold of the businessman's earring, a cellular phone. It clashed however with his work shirt and baggy green corduroys. Burnett had a cell phone also, but hadn't thought to haul it out for the occasion - from 'Henry's Take on the Tour', ibid. 

John Aloysious Fahey is no friendlier when Abner and I visit his hotel room in the afternoon. The old misanthrope is sitting up in bed eating his breakfast. Also in attendance are a couple who trade under the name of the House of Dubois (dubbed by Abner the House of Doodoo), and promote concerts in the Glasgow region. I recognise the little fellow in the shell suit from the foyer. He introduces himself as Bob Mills. Actually, we've spoken over the telephone. Bob has been Worpt's man on the ground, an intermediate with the venue. His motivation was unclear to me. "What's in this for you, Bob?" I asked. "Oh, I'm happy to work for love of the music alone,"  replied Bob, his tone suggesting that he was hurt by the question. Right now, he and his business partner, Chris (a female Chris), are cowering under Fahey's scan as he finishes demolishing a pizza and proceeds to frozen dessert. 

Abner goes over the terms so painstakingly negotiated with Do Easy Booking. Fahey pauses between scoops of ice cream. "I don't have a contract with you. I'm talking about what that fucker over there promised me." This, with a gesture to me. Abner walks out of the room in disgust, and I follow. Chris runs after us with a compromise solution: Fahey will take £1,400 as an advance. He insists on payment in cash. The figure represents all the money in the Worpt coffers. 

Ratfarts are probably seldom heard or identified by smell. They waft around the back doors and hallway exits. They mix in the kitchen with the better odours of well-planned dinners. It may have been that each player in the game had been pure hearted and intent upon a successful tour up to the point of confrontation in Fahey's room. Maybe the bad smell was only ratfarts. More probably though, it was a rank stew of fear that would do anything, worship gone sweaty and stale, 'ornery pride that denied its own odour and the bad breath of one pissed-off jet-lagged Texas lawyer - from 'Henry's Take on the Tour', ibid. 

Upon our return from the bank - it entailed a tramp down the Royal Mile in the rain - Abner fails in his first attempt to give Fahey the advance fee. We meet in the foyer, but before the transaction can be concluded the guitarist turns tail and runs. 'I can't take the money now," he wails, "I'm going to vomit!" 

And so the exchange is deferred until after Fahey's appearance on the Brian Morton Radio Show. He cuts an imposing figure in the foyer (oh, that Abyss foyer), hitching up his baggy shorts, dangling a bare leg over a chair arm, and fingering an unplugged solid-body guitar. Fahey announces his displeasure at Brian Morton's producer, who has had the temerity to request short pieces. He's not so much flexing his fingers by way of warm-up, more hammering out a single note obsessively, whilst muttering: "They're imposing a compositional form on me, and I don't like that. You'll be sorry. You'll be sorry." 

The troupe take identical positions in the foyer a few hours later, after the live broadcast  of the Brian Morton Radio Show. Fares are organised to take the company to the Queen's Hall, where crowds are already beginning to gather. Fahey seems in no hurry, as he counts, re-counts and arranges his Scottish pound notes on top of his guitar-case according to denomination. Kelly, in full Albert Grossman mode, is lobbying a harried BBC producer to get John Fahey onto Later with Jools Holland. He drops the phrase "a force of nature" and Fahey nods approvingly. Emboldened, he takes another dig at Abner. "I don't have a contract with anyone," he taunts. Abner seethes with impotent rage, to Fahey's visible satisfaction.

Half an hour later Abner Burnett carries his first drink of the evening onto the stage of the Queen's Hall; a double shot of Bell's with ice. Bugs are already all over the project. Stray dogs languish by the fly-covered carcass panting and staring idiotically - from 'Henry's Take on the Tour', ibid. 

If Abner is lacklustre in performance, then Fahey is lamentable. Turgid single-line licks are strung together to be resolved, or not, with crushing banality. 'Juana', a pretty tune, is stretched beyond its natural length, and an attempt at 'Samba de Orfeo' is fumbled and abandoned. The Fender Strat, carried across the Atlantic by Abner as stipulated by the contract, is ignored in preference for a cheap model hired for the radio session. It's difficult to tell the difference between the incessant tuning and the desultory improvisation that follows. 

"God-damn," says Abner beside me in the back row. The walk-outs grow in number until a trickle swells into a stampede. "Absolute mince," says one defector. "God-damn," says Abner again, before joining the flow. 

I stay until the end, which is not long in coming. Fahey stops in mid-tune, suddenly deciding that the performance has exceeded the one and a quarter hours so painstakingly negotiated with Do Easy Booking. "I'll quit while I'm ahead," he announces. This is asking for it. "Ahead of what?" rejoins a heckler from the crowd. The remark has the effect of unnerving the artist, who, unsure of his exit, becomes entangled in the stage curtain. Patrons file out stupefied and mildly dazed.  

Abner meanwhile, is consoling himself in the Queen's Hall bar with a beer chased by double whiskey. "You're not Derek Bailey," says someone. (The names 'John Fahey' and 'Derek Bailey', are printed on the tickets: just another cock-up.) "You're in big trouble." 

"Buy me a drink and tell me about it," says Abner. 

All around, the recent concert is the subject of conversation. 

"The most puerile guitar playing I have ever heard," says one dissenter. "My seven year old grandson can play better and put more feeling into the music." "Perhaps he was drunk," replies his companion, obviously a charitable soul. "Either he was drunk or he couldn't be bothered to play coherently." Another speaker volunteers: "John Fahey is on another planet, I think." 

Paul Kelly is present, and as the tenor of the discussion becomes clear, he gets redder and redder, and madder and madder. A reformed alcoholic and strict abstinence man himself, Kelly has a pathological intolerance of drink, and the widely-held belief that his star is drunk is more than he can bear. He looks around for a drunk to abuse and spots Abner Burnett. "He's not even a real drunk, he's just posturing as a drunk," fumes Kelly, and advances menacingly.      

It transpires that Abner's new acquaintance is Tim Hardin's road manager, and the two, along with a party of friends, are getting along famously. Abner is theorising that John Kennedy was shot by the retired football coach of his high-school in Midland, Texas, when all merriment dies at the approach of a mean-looking Kelly. He obtrudes his bulk between Abner and his companions, and out pours a jet of abuse, at close enough range to douse Abner with spittle. 

This is too much. Abner grabs Kelly's collar. Tim Hardin's road manager pulls the two men apart. Kelly's bellicose ranting subsides in a moment. Spluttering hysteria is replaced by a smirk. He has what he came for. 

Meanwhile, I have to go back to the hotel for a cheque-book to pay the sound-crew. On my return, the Hall is deserted except for these same technicians, busy packing up for the night, and one other: a figure is stretched out on the stage. It is the original American Primitive, snatching a moment of peace from the chaos all around. He is belly-up as I enter. I duly pay Alex the Soundman. At the sound of my voice the living bulk on the stage stirs. 

The Malodorous Plenipotentiary of Takoma now settles on his side and props his head on his elbow. He stares directly at me, and, hemmed in by aisles on either side, there is no escape from the penetrating intensity of that horrid gaze, undimmed by his sunglasses. I search for words, but am struck dumb. What can I say? "You were marvellous, John"? I calculate the distance to the exit. I manage the words, "'Ello John," and make a dash for it. 

And so the official part of the stormy opening night of Guitar Excursions into the Unknown is over. It only remains for Abner, the bogus drunk, to get drunk for real. The two of us head for Whistlebinkies, an after-hours bar with live music on South Bridge, to drown our sorrows. During the course of the night, a honky-tonk band play 'Pancho and Lefty' three times. Abner claims he sung it from stage once, but I have no recollection of this. It might be true. The scene got slightly fuzzy. 

I do remember that Abner's conversation touched upon the case of a sheriff in a small Texas community who had lately been exposed as a paedophile. Apparently the bad sheriff had been dragged out of his office weeping and howling, and shouting, "Jesus Christ! I'm a Christian!" Thereafter, the music of the honky-tonk band at Whistlebinkies is periodically interrupted by cries of "Jesus Christ! I'm a Christian!" These come from Abner. 

"Every silly son of a bitch who contributed to this debacle is going to get shovelled into the furnace for a long time," he continues. "Myself included." 

After several more beers and whiskey chasers and a turn at reading the palms of our hands, his thoughts return to religion. "Luckily, I'm a Buddhist. A little mound of particles which disperses into oblivion where more little mounds are being made." 

At 3am, we return to the Abyss, with the stated intention of taking advantage of the residents' all-night bar. Abner's voice is slurred but he is still sensible. "Going up in smoke is my stock-in-trade," he says, before collapsing on the floor, with his final beer and double whiskey chaser unfinished. I and a hotel employee carry him to our room. 

On the one hand I've never seen a man so determined to relive the day he refused to eat his supper. On the other hand there's a man who knows he's dead no matter what, but keeps waiting around trying to get heard - from 'Henry's Take on the Tour', ibid. 

"When a situation is really, really ugly," I had earlier asked Tim Hardin's road manager, "what do you do?" (I imagine life on the road with Tim Hardin wasn't all Misty Roses.) "Get out at once," he replied, without hesitation. 

And now I'm looking at an envelope which has 'WORPT' written in pencil on the front, and, in another hand, a message in block letters in ink on the back. It reads: 


This reassuring note came from the partner of Tim Hardin's road manager. 

Friday, September 17, 1999, early morning 

Abner is whirling around the room like a dervish and hurling half-empty bottles of alcohol and mineral water to the four corners. "God-damn!" he yells, "I'm on tour with two assholes!" For the first time, I begin to understand the rock 'n' roll ritual of hotel-room demolition. "Don't do it!" I plead, as Abner's attention turns to the merchandise and several scattered boxes of CDs. In the absence of the John Fahey reissues, kindly provided by Ace Records on a sale or return basis, he directs his ire on a box of his latest, Calavera. He shows every sign of wanting to propel the box through the window. "Don't do it! It's Calavera, it's a masterpiece!" This only provokes him all the more. And then, in an instant, he flops on top of the nearest bed, out like a light, and proceeds to snore very loudly.  

Friday, September 17, 1999

It's the lobby of the Abyss again, at mid-day, and Paul Kelly is loudly proclaiming to everyone in earshot, including several bystanders not directly involved with the tour, that he is not prepared to do further business with a violent, drunken, dangerous… He searches for the worst possible insult he can think of. "…bar room singer!"  

Deaf to entreaty, Kelly refuses to let Abner ride in the van. This is particularly hard as the hire of the van has been paid with Abner's visa card.

I try to assimilate the latest bit of bad news. Worpt UK Ltd, I was informed by the management of the Queen's Hall that morning, cannot receive a penny of the takings of the previous night's concert because Bob Mills signed for the Hall on behalf of the House of Doodoo. 

Now the scene divides into a chaos of overlapping altercations. I demand the money from the ticket sales from Bob Mills. Abner is roaring, "Ring the police! Ring the police!" If he can't ride the van when he hired it, then he will report it as stolen. Mills loses his nerve and produces a wad of bank-notes. "Ring the police!" reiterates Abner. But this is not a simple operation, because Abner left his mobile phone in the States, and the public phones at Abyss only operate with a WorldCom Global Phone Card. We finally manage to get through to Edinburgh's finest. A disembodied voice sweetly explains that an authorised person cannot be prevented from driving a hired vehicle. In reasonable tones, it explains the difference between a civil and a criminal offence. 

Fraud and deception and bad faith, it seems, are civil rather than criminal offences. Actually, Kelly at this point had passed into criminality. Abner had been asked to provide a DAT recorder - along with the guitar that Fahey never used - to capture the concerts for posterity. He bought one with his own money and duly put it to use. I remember Alex the Soundman returning the DAT recorder to Abner in the Queen's Hall bar. There was some bantering talk about blackmail. 

The DAT recorder had been left in the changing-room, along with guitars, CD merchandise, a camera and other odds and ends, waiting to be loaded into the van. Every item is accounted for, with the exception of the DAT recorder. Now, as patrons and staff of the Abyss stare in incredulous dismay, the two factions divide their possessions jealously. The amplifier - another item paid with Abner's visa - goes Kelly's way, and we get the merchandise. Kelly makes an offer to carry the CDs to Manchester (the next stop of the tour). I have to decline. "Have you got your DAT recorder?" Kelly sweetly inquires, with a smirk.   

John Fahey? He doesn't take a role in any of the preceding unpleasantness. He just sits to one side, looking inscrutable in his shades. I never see him again. Indeed, it's a couple of years before I see Paul Kelly again. With the exit of Fahey and Kelly, driving to the borderlands in a hired van, the most sensational part of our story draws to a close. But back to the tour diary, which is now a non-existent tour diary… 

Abner hires a car to take us to Manchester. The sun sets in the Lakes as we drive. The fate of Guitar Excursions is more than unknown, but it feels like freedom not be sharing a carriage with the odious F and K. Abner talks me through Beethoven's String Quartet #13, playing on the car hi-fi. Later, we arrive at my Manchester pad and pick up my voice-mail messages. 

The tour is off, says a short message from Kelly. Fahey has flown back to the States. He, Kelly, has disassociated himself from Worpt UK Ltd and resigned his directorship. We are to notify the tour venues and cancel existing hotel bookings. Calls to Kelly's home for clarification are in vain. Once when we ring, Kelly picks  the phone up and resorts to mimicking an answer-machine to avoid discussion.     
Saturday, September 18, 1999 

Playing the part of an itinerant with some conviction, Abner Burnett busks outside the Royal Northern College of Music to a few disappointed music-lovers expecting to see John Fahey. An elderly woman of middle-European heritage declares her love for the singer. She tries a variety of dance-steps, and abandons the polka for some wayward gyrations she calls "the Elvis Presley". She is mad in a refreshingly benign way. 

Sunday, September 19, 1999 

Taking advantage of the unexpected downtime, Abner and I visit Blackpool. The Lancashire resort has been a source of fascination for Abner since he chanced to see the Lee Evans film, Funny Bones. The first sight of Blackpool Tower from the road draws an excited response. "God-damn! This is it!" he says, slapping his thigh with one hand and holding the wheel with the other. 

We brave the wet and cold in the cheerful way special to day-trippers. Alas, Abner's enthusiasm wears down and expires completely in a cowboy theme-bar on the seafront. Upon entering, he is told to remove his freshly purchased jester's cap. This rankles, but the Confederate flag finally does for him. "Don't these idiots realise they're glorifying a culture that sanctioned slavery?" he moans.

A Tammy Wynette tear-jerker plays on the jukebox. "Should I confess," says Abner, "that my real interest in music lately is composition through use of fractals and chaos? Or just write a fucking country song about it?" 

In the evening, friends, singers, musicians and a bull terrier gather for an impromptu singaround in honour of Abner at the Temple of Convenience, an old public lavatory converted into a bar, just off Oxford Road. The raw stench of failure is dispelled by the deodorant of camaraderie and song. Thank you for the support, Helen Pendry, Marcus Hickman, Clive Mellor, Mark Greer, Kirsty McGee, Scott Alexander, Kaisa Jokinen, Juha Halinen, Sheila Seal, Al Parry and Oscar the bull terrier.     
Monday, September 20, 1999

More information trickles through about the real state of affairs. Contrary to Kelly's message, it seems that Fahey and Kelly are still at large, honouring some dates and cancelling others. [Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds are "no-shows". Fahey fulfils his engagements in Newcastle, Belfast, Stamford and London, mostly co-promotions with established promoters, with Fahey on a flat-fee. The London show is promoted by Serious.] A live radio session for Andy Kershaw is cancelled at short notice. The broadcaster drops a pointed remark about enigmatic guitarists between record plays. 

Abner, with a true lawyer's instinct, inserted a clause in the contract to state that all disputes are to come under the jurisdiction of Ector County, Texas. He derives some satisfaction from picturing John Aloysious in front of a jury of common folk from Ector County, Texas. [The legal action is derailed when Fahey dispenses with the services of Mark Linn of Do Easy Booking and replaces him with… Paul Kelly.] 

The management of the Queen's Hall consult their legal team and opt to pay the local promoter. [Bob Mills, if one is to believe his subsequent bleating and whining, sincerely desires to reimburse Worpt UK Ltd, but events kept conspiring to prevent him: oh, postal strikes, post-dated cheques that bounce when the day arrives, an entire street burnt to the ground, including the venue where his Casper Brotzmann gig was taking place, etc etc.) 

Over a meal at Yang Sing Restaurant in Chinatown, I brood over Kelly's duplicity. The tour has been the cause of great pain and produced small gain and, with the best intentions, I succeeded only in introducing a terrible pestilence into the world. I am inconsolable, and Abner isn't going to let me off the hook. 

"It couldn't be worse," he is saying. "It's worse than going to jail." He casts around for comparable misfortunes. "It's worse than standing at a crap table where you can't get more credit because you've just pissed away 3000 dollars." He refills his cup of shushi. "It's worse than your girlfriend playing mattress slam dunk with your best friend." A graceful manoeuvre with the chopsticks. "It's worse than picking a fight and getting the shit kicked out of you." 

An unworthy thought about the relaxed standards of the Ector County Bar Council flits across my mind. 

We're trying to get through this with enough of our asses left over to be able to grab with both hands. I know that each of you has worked hard to get this rolling. I believe we can pull it off. Woe to whomever wrongfully takes advantage of the situation. I don't exactly understand the nature of it, but time's revenge seems to flow justly over the carcasses of the unrighteous - Abner Burnett to Mike Butler and Paul Kelly, August 27, 1999. 

Where are they now? 

Derek Bailey RIP, December 25, 2005. It was an inspired idea (credit where it's due), to pair Bailey and Fahey. Both were outsiders and both grew more radical with age. Which is not to say they were compatible. Bailey's style, astringent and flinty, was surprisingly elegant in his late period, and he even started using conventional jazz harmonics, doubtless as a valedictory and affectionate nod to his youth.

John Fahey RIP, February 22, 2001, after undergoing a sextuple bypass at Salem Hospital, Massachusetts. Poor sod. He had his reasons. Not least a sexually abusive father. The beauty of his American Primitive guitar always had a compensatory function. His late music - he told me so himself in that publicity interview - was more faithful to the bitter, damaged fuck-up he always had been. Roughly speaking, the change from transcendentalism to inchoate barbarism came with his adoption of the electric guitar. 

Abner Burnett gave up ambulance-chasing for human rights, and since 2007 has enjoyed the position of Chief Public Defender in Willacy County, Texas, for Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid. He still sings and performs and his most recent album, which he threatens is his last, is It Ought to Be Enough, on Worpt Records (2008). His motto is still "All Merit for Freedom".   

Paul Kelly relocated to Newcastle, where he helped jazz promoter Paul Bream with On The Outside, then an annual festival of improvised music. He started Music Stuff, a booking and management agency. The great NY 'New Thing' drummer, Sonny Murray, was a client. But it seems that all business relationships end in bitter recrimination, and all promotions end in black farce. Horror stories filter down to me from time to time.  

Bob Mills. Current whereabouts unknown.  

Mike Butler lives and works in Manchester, and is writing a book about legendary folk producer Bill Leader. Many years after the Fahey debacle he turned on the radio and, by chance, 'The Death of the Clayton Peacock' was playing. It was his first exposure to Fahey's music since 1999. He steeled himself to listen, for the shock therapy value as much as anything, and found himself strangely enjoying it, to his surprise. "That was 'The Death of the Clayton Peacock' by Leo Kottke," said Verity Sharp, the announcer. Ah, that explains it then. 


  1. I'd forgotten what a great story this is. Deserves wider circulation with the Institute of Tour Promoters (there will be such a thing) as well as lovers (or haters) of American Primativism...


  2. And this was Abner's response:


    A nice bit. You left a few things out that would have portrayed me as even more depraved than what you’ve got in there: for instance when you found me pissing in the corner of the room. And, my little song about inbreeding that I wrote while in the bar in Blackpool. But, it is a nice piece. Don’t change it.

    For better or worse for me, the lawsuit was not derailed by naming Paul Kelly as manager. It went on to produce a default judgment in my favor for the amount I lost. I was trying to collect it when Fahey pitched over on his nose. He had written some pathetically whining pleas to the court to make me leave him alone. They are probably still in the Ector County District Clerk’s records from the case. I hounded him until he died and even went after some fucking lawyer who according to rumour had inherited whatever the fuck Fahey had in order to perpetuate some record company. But, I finally gave it up. I’ll pay for my meanness: then, before then, and since then. I wish the tour would have succeeded. It’s not the only time one of my adventures has ultimately gone up in flames. But, I’ve had a few successes, I think. I’d like not to try seriously to identify where, when, and what they have been until I’m so senile that Susan has me in an adult day care center and I believe I’m on the beach in the Caribbean. Or better yet, on the boat, anchored near the beach.

    I miss y’all. Su does, too. I’m having my first drink of the day as I write, a martini. Believe it or not, shaken, not stirred.

    Abner Burnett


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