Gimmer Nicholson – Christopher Idylls (1968 / 2016)
Here’s a fun fact – for a substantial chunk of my life, I held the guitar in deep disdain, avoiding it every chance I could. I’m lead by ideas, and the idea of the guitar, with its ubiquity, and associated machismo and bravado, turned me off. I spent years searching out music where it was absent. This was partially responsible to my early forays into Free-Jazz and the avant-garde. It was a strange surprise to find myself picking up the instrument in my mid-twenties. Even more surprising was the love affair that followed.
It all changed with John Fahey – but not where you might think. I grew up with the guitarist on my parents’ turntable. His music was always present in my life, but it wasn’t until 1997, when I was in the throws of a completest obsession with Jim O’rourke, that I encountered him on my own terms. During that year Table of the Elements released Womblife, a strange electric guitar album produced by O’rourke. I fell in love, and began to question what I knew about the guitarist who had permeated my childhood. As I began to readdress Fahey’s catalog, my attitude toward his instrument changed. Slowly albums of solo guitar began to enter my collection. As my interest and curiosity grew, I became obsessed with figures like Robbie Basho, Sandy Bull, and Peter Walker. With their catalogs thoroughly digested, I delved into the private press world of Guitar Soli, uncovering figures like George Cromarty, William Eaton, and Richard Crandell, among dozens of others – collecting their LPs one by one. Over the years I developed an extensive knowledge of this music. My collection is sprawling, with only a few lingering absences nagging at my soul. Imagine my surprise when I found Light in the Attic issuing an obscure album that I had been previously unaware of.
Gimmer Nicholson’s Christopher Idylls absence from my consciousness has a simple explanation. Though recorded in 1968, it did not reach audiences until 1994, after which the CD went quickly out of print. Because my hunt has been focused in the vinyl bins, our paths never crossed. It’s always a happy occurrence when a wonderful lost album is placed into your hands. This is one such case.
One of the great minefields in Fahey’s legacy, and within those who followed his lead, is a tenancy to misinterpret his efforts. Fahey was an avant-gardist. His understanding of advanced compositional techniques rivaled his knowledge of so called “American Primitive” guitar. His sound was rarely what it appeared to be. The players who joined him on Vanguard Records – Basho, Bull, and Walker, followed very different paths, but their playing was progressive in nature, and filled with experiment. Many others, despite what they brought to the instrument, misheard Fahey as a traditionalist, and followed that path. This is what is so refreshing and welcome about Gimmer Nicholson’s Christopher Idylls. It bravely ventures out onto a limb, and despite initial impressions, is experimental in nature. Like Fahey, Nicholson used the guitar as a Trojan Horse.
Christopher Idylls was recorded by the legendary producer Terry Manning, and slated to be the first LP issued by Ardent Records – most well know for releasing Big Star. Nicholson seems to have been one of those enigmatic figures who musicians loved to work with, and who wanted recognition, but was unwilling to make the compromises that it took to achieve it – always a good brew for great records. The fact that the album was never released seems to have been Nicholson’s doing. It’s very difficult to nail down. I can think of no other like it – partially due to its reference points. Where most unaccompanied guitar records from this period owe a dept to either Fahey, Bluegrass, Country Blues, and in some cases Indian Classical music, Nicholson’s references and chordal arrangements are drawn largely from Rock and Roll. Though there are plenty of crossovers between other guitar soli albums, and folk music at large, the hybridity of source makes it very unique. He allows himself to strums more than most. The rhythms in his finger-picking drive forward, creating a thick ambience, often sounding like a slowed down Robbie Basho, while his sense of melody flirts with the territory occupied by Nick Drake. A pretty incredible place to rest. The album as a whole is stunningly beautiful – making it’s obscurity that much more tragic. Its singularity adds much needed diversity to the history of unaccompanied guitar music. Importantly, there’s a mysterious clue to it’s character – Charon’s Crossing. The track is a brilliant experimental gesture, laced with delay and backwards tape – anticipating the efforts many players from the 1990’s, not the least of whom was Fahey himself. The fact that it rests where it does helps us understand the nature of the album as a whole. Christopher Idylls out now. You can have a listen bellow, then pick it up directly from Light in the Attic or from your local record shop.
Gimmer Nicholson – Hermetic Waltz
Gimmer Nicholson – Charon’s Crossing
Gimmer Nicholson – Millenial Harbinger