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John Fancher, Musician

April 21, 2010

John Fancher (left) and Perry Marshall perform. (Photo courtesy of Jay Fancher.)

If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all. –William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Everyone has a different story. Everyone has a different dream. Everyone has a different idea of heaven. Everyone has creativity inside of them that they don’t even know is there. A person can live decades and not even know a part of who she is. There are discoveries waiting to crack open that require a specific fertile environment before they can become alive. Like an ice age man frozen in a blue glacier, just waiting for some more global warming.

The most fascinating thing about artists can be how and why and when they became artists—how something clicked in their brains and they began to move forward with purpose in one specific direction—how they found some particular medium that works to express what they need to express, what they were meant to say.

I always regret that I wasn’t forced to start playing the violin at age three, because I would be so good at it now. I feel that way about a lot of things—skateboarding, surfing, piano, dance, etc. The truth is, though, that being encouraged to practice with discipline from an early age is not the way anyone becomes an artist. It helps to be exposed to things young, and if you are ever so lucky, you may become some sort of iconoclastic savant in the random activity your parents shoved you into before you were potty-trained. And obviously, if you aren’t exposed to certain things, you will never have the chance to be ridiculously successful at them. Case in point: Why aren’t there Olympic figure skaters from Central America?

For the most part, however, art is something else. It doesn’t necessarily come hand-in-hand with years of dedication. Those artists—the ones who don’t spend agonizing years perfecting the craft, but instead unexpectedly find within themselves some strange and bewildering and beautiful something—are the most interesting. Which brings us to John Fancher.

John is–ummm–a rock star. No, a poet. No, a performer. No, a singer-songwriter. I don’t know the best word to describe him, but let’s say that his idea of heaven is performing music in front of people. And as luck (or grace) would have it, he is very good at this thing he loves, even though he has spent but a fraction of his life doing it. Did I emphasize that he is good?

All ya can do is do what you must. You do what you must do and ya do it well. –Bob Dylan, “Buckets of Rain”

John explains, “The only reason I ever learned guitar was to play in front of people.” Most of those opportunities did not present themselves to him until recently. The idea of only playing in order to perform seemed weird to me at first. By weird I mean egocentric. The more I think about it, though, the more self-aware of a comment it becomes. Sharing something with people through performance, exhibition, publication, or production is the most natural reason to create any sort of art: it creates human connections.

John played piano starting in the fourth grade, but he did not buy his first guitar until college. He then wrote his first song, his only song for many years, as a sophomore. He didn’t even play guitar much until after college, and he did not join a band until finishing grad school a while later. At that point, he was good friends with the members of a band with the lovely moniker Catgut, and they let him be an “auxiliary” guitar player and bassist. Part of the band, he began to write songs again, and the band would let him play lead and sing on those he wrote.

Sometime not long after that, in his mid to late twenties, John married Jay and began having kids, one thing right after the other. And around when they had their first child, a son named Dylan, and John became busy with his job and family, the guitar playing and performing fizzled out, naturally, as creating art for pleasure often does. Opportunities to perform and write songs to perform were not presenting themselves, and they became difficult activities to make time for along with his other commitments. Furthermore, the other Catgut members were not as motivated to get gigs, which was John’s primary purpose for being in a band. On top of that, much of the time they dedicated to practicing was couched in hours of hanging out, which John had limited time to do.

John’s music-making was put on hold for a decade or so, until about five or six years ago when he began to play songs at the weekly open mic nights at Fitzgerald’s. He wanted to have new material to perform at the bar, so songs again began to be conceived inside of John’s head. He explains, “When I look at my times of writing songs, it comes when I can sing in front of people.” Since beginning to play at Fitzgerald’s, he regularly journals in stream-of-consciousness until some sort of hook or chorus or melody line or little lick begins to form. He knows if he can hear a lyric in his head, it will be a decent song. If the music never comes like it should, the would-be song is a poem.

Feel like my soul is beginning to expand. Look into my heart, and you will sort of understand. –Bob Dylan, “Thunder on the Mountain”

A number of John’s songs were recently recorded with a band of musicians he respects immensely. They call themselves “Johnny and the Beloveds.” Even though John loves playing on stage, it’s not something he wants to do alone. “I don’t see myself as just myself and a guitar, I see myself as me and a band. I’ll write a song and wonder how it will sound with other people and learn things I didn’t know from them. The ideas they have make it better.”

When you listen to John perform in an appropriately noisy, old-school bar, you feel taken away. And it’s almost better when you hear him perform one of his favorite songs (covers or his own), in exactly the same rich, wild, guitar-driven style, but within a stain glass-windowed, high-ceilinged house of worship, knowing there are probably angelic hosts around you. It’s surprising that this guy has not been playing music his whole life, and it seems sublimely lucky that he has found something on earth that gives him so much unadulterated pleasure.

John’s music is full, twangy, soulful, and imaginative. It makes you feel like you are on a raft with Huck Finn, maybe taking the Des Plaines River by what is now Maywood a long time ago, hearing the strains of a troubadour and his traveling band playing through the trees and wishing you could dock and go catch the tail-end of the show. Or that you are in an old, cabin-like music hall in the lush green hills of the mountainy south somewhere where people are just enjoying life on a warm night in the backwoods. (You should be aware that Fitzgerald’s is the closest you will get to that feeling in Chicagoland, so it is only natural that that is where John performs most—location always influences things.)

Forced to put John’s music into a category, I would say it’s rock—more specifically, it falls somewhere between folk rock and alternative country. The tunes are catchy in that country way, while somehow they avoid being cheesy, not so much in that country way. His melodies stick in your head, and the band behind him is fully featured, complete with lingering honey of female back-up vocals. Each song on his album is different, but it’s not like one is good and the rest suck, the sort of album where you just listen to the first song. Each song is individual and complete, with its own melody, story, and mystery. The album is fun to listen to, but you can’t be sure you have plunged all of the richness in the layers of meaning in the lyrics even after listening many times.

In fact, John doesn’t think of himself as a great guitar player. He just knows how to rock out with his friends to the rollicking songs that come out of his head, along with fantastic covers of pretty much any Bob Dylan song you could ask for. And the joy he feels playing his favorite music in front of an audience is thick in the air—it’s palpable. “It feels good to play in front of people—nothing gives me more energy. The times I played with this band are some of the most joyful experiences of my life. When I am up there I feel like I go to this different place. I feel like there is nowhere else I’d rather be. I am doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing at that moment… When I play poker, I feel like I am naked. When I am on stage, I feel like everyone else is naked.”

If you know John outside of his role as a musician and if you have ever seen him perform, you have seen two different people. He is not especially outgoing off the stage. “During small talk I am worried about saying something awkward. On stage, I am not afraid of a train wreck.” In fact, he sometimes suggests to Jen, one of the members of his band, that they go attempt to have a train wreck of a performance, just to see what will happen.

And I’m still carrying the gift you gave. It’s a part of me now, it’s been cherished and saved. It’ll be with me unto the grave, and then unto eternity. –Bob Dylan, “In the Summertime”

So how did he end up at our church? John grew up in a mainline Christian church in southern Illinois. His family rarely talked about it at home, but they did pray before meals. By high school, church had become optional, and John “opted out”, choosing a more hedonistic path through college. Then, after college, John worked at an insurance agency where he met a “really nice guy,” Dick Riffle, who went to the Urbana Vineyard: “This guy talked about crazy stuff like having a disease and then praying and having it go away.” He was “not hypocritical at all. He was way more interested in you as a friend than making you into a Christian.” John even went to House Group (group Bible studies in a home) with this man, which he explained, “would have seemed bizarre if it wasn’t for him.” And this man was never judgmental, only loving, even when John went to church with him after obviously rough nights. And thus began John’s curiosity about Jesus.

John acknowledges Bob Dylan and Neil Young, among others, as inspirational, but he notes that U2, in particular, was a “huge influence musically and spiritually.” John once played U2’s song “40” as the opening song on Sunday morning at church. He explains, “I love the way they did that song… It’s called ‘40’ and not ‘Psalm 40’ and Bono mumbled the words. He sucked me in.” John explains how he listened to a live recording of Bono introducing the song and explaining it without explaining it, “It doesn’t mean 40 seconds, it doesn’t mean 40 lines…” Later, “I read in Rolling Stone that it was from Psalm 40, and I went and looked it up. I started looking for little Christian hints and they were all over the place.” John sums up the impression they left: “I didn’t know you could sing about God and it could be cool.” The uncool Christian music stereotype was probably related to some unfortunate heavy metal Christian music videos he had come across in the past.

John emphasizes, “U2 is a rock band.” John’s issue, it seems, is with people emphasizing the Christian-ness of their art before making sure it is truly art. Why would anyone want to make bad “Christian” art? Is it somehow morally superior to excellent secular art? If you know much about Bob Dylan, you know he became a Christian in the seventies, after which he recorded a few excellent gospel albums, including one of the best worship songs of all time, “I Believe in You,” and attended a Vineyard church in California. John believes the reason Dylan ended that Christian-music phase is because he didn’t want to be put in a box. John interprets what Dylan was thinking after being pigeon-holed as a Christian artist: “No, I’m not an evangelist–I’m a musician. I’m not a protest singer, folk singer, voice of a nation–I’m a musician.”

I see my light come shining, from the west unto the east. Any day now, any day now, I shall be released. –Bob Dylan, “I Shall Be Released”

In fact, John believes Dylan continues to be a Christian. Dylan just does not like being labeled. John explained, “If you want to know what Bob believes, you listen to what he sings.” According to John, there is only one lyric Dylan wrote before becoming a Christian that you couldn’t sing as a Christian–“not even Jesus would forgive what you do” [from “Masters of War”]. And John pointed out that it is meaningful that Dylan has sung that particular song only very rarely since “becoming a Christian” (including one time after the confusing tragedy and aftermath of 9/11). On the other hand, he still sings the overtly honest song about Jesus rising from the dead, “I am the Man, Thomas,” with relative regularity (check out the lyrics here), and he often even begins his sets with old hymns and gospel tunes.

Now, I still don’t know the answer to a lot of questions about John. I can’t find the perfect label for his box, so that I can shelve it in on the correct aisle in the massive warehouse of people and artists I have met in my life. I don’t know if he knew he had the capacity to write these soulful songs and put on these entertaining shows for all these years, he was just waiting, or if he would not have been as good as he is now if his talent had not been on hold until the right moment. I don’t know if he knew he had this gift the whole time, or if he was as fascinated to discover his music abilities and love of performing as I am to hear about the course his life took to lead him to now. I don’t know how John feels about his long hiatus as a musician—if he wishes he could have made music a career, or if he is totally satisfied with the way things are playing out.

However, I do know a couple things. Like Bob Dylan, John doesn’t generally write or sing “Christian songs.” I don’t think he would call himself a “Christian artist.” John is a musician, poet, song-writer, etc. But all creativity comes from the Creator. The gift of creating lyrics and melodies was written into the mitochondria of John’s cells. It is part of who he is. John’s music and poetry is honest and beautiful and it is about what he believes, faith-wise and otherwise, but, perhaps more importantly, it is an expression of his creative nature. So I know that this particular road John has taken has led him to the place where he is able to provide joy for himself and others doing something true and something that is part of the elemental foundation of his being. This intangible, creative thing—this melted-free Neanderthal man—was inside of him, and it’s come forth. And it’s crazy good.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2010 1:38 pm

    Great article, Erica! Well written, you definitely “captured John” and I loved the part about music being art first, Christian second. Absolutely. Nice work.

  2. April 23, 2010 11:52 pm

    Thank you for the feedback, Perry. It’s helpful and interesting to hear people’s responses. This blog has been fun for me, and it was not hard to write about John.

    • Jay permalink
      April 26, 2010 1:34 am

      Great job Erica!!! I love it! You are such an amazing writer! I enjoyed every word and loved reading about my husband from another artists point of view. Wonderful work!

      • May 6, 2010 3:24 pm

        Thanks, Jay!

        Also, wanted to share something my sister just sent me from an interview Bob Dylan did about his seemingly tongue-in-cheek 2009 Christmas album, Christmas in the Heart:

        Interviewer: There’s something almost defiant in the way you sing, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” I don’t want to put you on the spot, but you sure deliver that song like a true believer.

        BD: Well, I am a true believer.

  3. May 6, 2010 3:53 pm

    The entire interview is amazing, and I highly recommend it. Here’s a link: http://www.bobdylan.com/#/cith-conversation

    All of the people who seem to think Dylan has drifted away from Christianity aren’t paying much attention to the music he’s actually singing. And Erica, I loved your post, also. I can’t wait to see John perform. Will he be playing anywhere the week that Peter and I are there at the end of May?

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