There are plenty of performers who rock critics describe by using the label "primitive," but few if any can hold a candle to the greatest American rock primitive, Jad Fair. With his wildly influential band Half Japanese or as a solo performer, Fair has constructed a prolific and extremely interesting career. He writes and records songs that display an uncomplicated emotional directness, unselfconscious (almost hokey) charm and warmth, and a genial simplicity that is beyond words. Although Fair's later recordings are certainly more accessible -- in some ways resembling those of another great American primitive, Jonathan Richman -- his stock-in-trade is still the ability to compose and play music without conventional command of an instrument. Although he has "played" guitar since the mid-'70s, Fair, according to past and present members of Half Japanese, still can't name a chord, plays riffs almost by accident, never tunes his instrument, and wouldn't have it any other way.
Fair's career as a solo artist began in 1980, when his prolific output of songs was more than Half Japanese could handle. Early efforts such as Zombies of Mora-Tau and Everybody Knew...But Me were tentative and, in terms of the noise-versus-music factor, more noise than music, akin to early Half Japanese records. But by the mid- to late '80s, Fair's solo records were becoming more accessible as he began collaborating with mutual admirers such as Terry Adams of NRBQ, J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., Don Fleming of Gumball, Kramer of Bongwater, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, and Maureen Tucker of the Velvet Underground; later on, Fair would cut full albums with Yo La Tengo (1998's Strange But True), Teenage Fanclub (2002's Words of Wisdom and Hope), the Pastels (1991's This Could Be the Night), and the Danielson Famile (2014's Solid Gold Heart). If the records got a little more polished, they certainly never lost a bit of Fair's childlike view of the world, nor his explosive, giddy belief in rock's liberating potential and endless possibilities. (Fair's more spontaneous and less refined impulses continued to make themselves heard on his work with fellow primitive songwriter Daniel Johnston, who briefly worked with Fair in a band called the Lucky Sperms).
Given Fair's prolific output as a solo artist, in collaboration with other musicians, and with Half Japanese, keeping track of his discography is a challenge, though 2011's Beautiful Songs: The Best of Jad Fair, a three-CD set compiled by Fair himself, is a thorough introduction to his body of work, and a testament to his idiosyncratic passion for life, love, and music. (Though it's worth noting that within a year of the collection's release, Fair had already released four more albums, and he'll write a song on the theme of your choice for a commission of $300.) In addition to his work as a musician, Fair is also a visual artist, who works in paint, digital graphics, and most notably paper cuttings; his art graces the cover of most of Half Japanese's albums and nearly all his solo efforts, and he's created artwork for recordings by Yo La Tengo, the Residents, Dorothy Wiggin, and the National Jazz Trio of Scotland. ~ John Dougan & Mark Deming