Cult Musician Bill Fay Provides a Voice For Today’s World

Bill Fay. Photo Steve Gullick Bill Fay. Photo Steve Gullick

I often wonder what old people think about. Thousands of what-ifs and buts, decades of happy memories, regrets, missed boats. What’s on their minds as they sit on park benches and watch skateboarders whizz by while they try to hang on to their newspapers in the Montreal winds? The travesty isn’t that we will never find out, but that we don’t reach out and start that conversation. Yet, it’s somehow more palatable for the young to listen to the old when it’s not at a family reunion but in a postal office queue or church. It’s okay to listen to Young, Simon, and Dylan. It’s actually cool to bring up a Cohen or Waits record.

In the case of Bill Fay and Sixto Rodriguez however, they never were afforded that sense of dialogue continuity. Both made music in the early ’70s and then faded to obscurity only to be plucked out of the thin musical air again to prominence. Unlike Rodriguez however, Fay released another album to accompany his cult ’70s releases in 2012, Life Is People. Surrounding that album was that aura of hope, accentuated by the lyrics’ optimism. Who knows what he went through in the years between? Point was he still had it, and you soared along to his mini-symphonic orchestras about healing and finding peace with yourself. Couple his clear sunken voice with an album cover of him hunkering over a piano, singing into a mic, and you sensed that words were coming from the gut, the heart, the cave of a cob-webbed guitar, and some stranger’s photograph album in the 1980s.

On his latest album, Who Is The Sender, Fay turns into a frank observer, asking “What on earth is happening? What have we done?” Ominous marching concludes ‘Underneath The Sun’, a song questioning the actions of humankind. War — both those financed by the government and our internal ones — is at the forefront of Fay’s preoccupations. Here, albeit its depressing subject matter, it’s refreshing to hear someone with more wisdom and experience voice our generation’s concerns, the same way it’s nice to know your parents read the paper with the same cynicism as yours. Fay’s take of war is confronting, equating our paying of taxes to killing. The guitar arpeggios circle around the song like the hawk that Fay refers to, who at the very least is born with a killing nature. All in all, you wonder if you’re not better off as the “fishes in a pond / ain’t got a clue / don’t know a thing / about the world in which we live” in ‘Something Else Ahead’.

So where do we go from here? It’s nice to hear that Fay isn’t back bent in the midst of carnage. He expounds hope in ‘A Frail And Broken One’: “Though the world has done what it’s done / there’s a light that shines on a frail and broken one”. Of course, Fay’s idea of redemption and salvation is rooted in Christianity. The “unknown sender, far away” in the album’s title song doesn’t exactly do it through the post. Repetition of “who is the sender, I’d really like to know” over light, uplifting strings makes it seem as if Fay looks forward to the stage after life. So it’s easy to think of Fay as a proselytiser when he sings about the return of Jesus Christ. Yet, it’s not so much the message than his fierce hope that shines through. Similar to how it’s impossible not to be uplifted by gospel music of the south, Fay’s faith is infectious. It’s an injection of purpose and don’t we all need that in what seems like a dead-end world.

Bill Fay’s album Who is the Sender? is out now.

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