The day that one of America’s most celebrated recluses broke his silence, it was a family dog that suffered the consequences. So thrown, so surprised, was writer David Hajdu at the fax spilling on to his floor that he had to take off, dog in tow, to catch his breath, settle his mind, and drink in the excitement of it all. And the domestic drama didn’t end there. Hajdu fastened his dog’s lead to a post in a nearby park, and wandered off, almost oblivious. It was some time later that the New York police turned up with his pet, address tag around its neck, announcing that the poor creature had apparently been abandoned.
This wasn’t everyday behaviour for Hajdu but then this wasn’t an everyday message pumping down the phone lines. Thomas Pynchon, just like fellow novelist J. D. Salinger, a notorious literary hermit, had broken a long-term vow to keep himself strictly to himself. “I was just so unnerved that he had contacted me; I had this need to move and keep moving,” Hajdu explains.
The response from Pynchon, the man behind such modern classics as V and Gravity’s Rainbow, had arisen from research Hajdu pronounced “Hay-do” had been conducting for his recently published account of the US folk scene in the first half of the 1960s. Positively 4th Street provides a vivid account of an America fraught by social dislocation youth rebellion, racial tensions and foreign wars. But the book’s prime focus is a four-cornered relationship that both mirrored and helped to shape those transforming years. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez are the most familiar of the quartet, while Mimi Baez, sister to Joan, and Richard Fariña, who would become husband to Mimi, complete the group under scrutiny. Hajdu, previously known as the author of Lush Life, a well-received biography of Billy Strayhorn, skilfully relates their interwoven progress to provide a broader and engaging portrait of the times.
Amid years of delving the first conversations for this volume took place more than quarter of a century ago Hajdu’s coup in persuading Pynchon to lend his recollections to the tale is perhaps the most exciting. The acclaimed author, whose fantastical takes on a warped reality appeared to distil much of the excitement and desperation of the post-war decades, was a close college friend of Richard Fariña, a fellow penman destined to die in a motorcycle smash in 1966. Fariña, by then a published novelist with Been Down So Long it Seems Like Up to Me and also a rising star of the folk circuit in league with Mimi, would make that fatal journey along the Californian coast at Carmel, riding pillion on a friend’s machine, just days after his debut title hit the bookstores.
Pynchon’s cooperation was most unexpected, Hajdu confesses: “I never thought he would participate but I ploughed ahead with the idea anyway, fingers crossed. I sent him every question I could think of and expected them to disappear into the ether. That why I was unnerved the day the answers came over!” Nor was it just those faxed answers that Pynchon provided. “He also let me quote his correspondence, yet I must say that this owed nothing to my powers of persuasion. He did that out of devotion to his old friend Fariña.”
After Lush Life, was Positively 4th Street not a surprising shift in subject matter? “It was a change of course,” Hajdu says, “but it was a natural one for me. My first book boils down to a study of the most prominent music of the first half of the 20th century jazz via Duke Ellington and his collaborator Strayhorn. Having done that, it was natural to turn to the most prominent music of the second half of the century. The two books are bookends, a companion piece, if you like. Ellington is a towering figure; Dylan in my view can be seen as his counterpart.”
One thing he wanted to avoid was any attempt at a definitive Dylan volume. “I wanted to do a study of the music that he played the various strains that came together, aesthetic and cultural, black and white, American and European, to give the period its identity.” He also wanted a different way into the Dylan saga. “I have been fascinated by the role of relationships in creative lives. There was no understanding of Ellington without Strayhorn. Much of the writing about the great figures of other musics suffers from not looking at the creative process as a cooperative and communal one. I wanted to write a book about a community”.
The tight-knit community that forms the core of Hajdu’s tale largely congealed in the coffee houses of Greenwich Village as the grey skies of McCarthy-ite America lifted to offer a possibility of change, with the folk song as the new messenger of hope. As Hajdu points out, when the Fifties turned into the Sixties, “folk music was considered a radical, smart, daring, dangerous music, at a time when rock was viewed as a simplistic music for teenagers”.
Hadju also believes that a certain “rockcentricity” infuses most journalistic work produced on popular music since the Second World War. “I feel strongly that the focus on rock’n'roll means that the folk era and folk music as a phenomenon is often diminished by those rock writers and characterised only by its influence on rock. Most books that deal with Dylan use Newport [Dylan’s notorious decision in 1965 to use rock amps at the biggest folk festival of all] as a starting point. I use it as an end, purposely. It was the end of events coming together”.
Positively 4th Street travels far and wide in its sources. The Baez family, the Fariña family and dozens of other significant dramatis personae contribute their voices to Hajdu’s prose. Yet Dylan, the centrepiece not only of this book but also, in many ways, of the actual years the book describes, did not personally lend his thoughts to the project. This, the author feels, is actually not a bad thing. “I tried to speak to Bob Dylan and he never declined to talk to me. He just never found the time. But I never thought that an interview with Dylan was essential. I did need his voice and his insight, which is why I ranged the Robert Shelton archives and discovered new and unpublished material.” Shelton was the New York Times critic whose favourable notices in 1961 did most to give the young Dylan’s career a kickstart. Between 1962 and 1966, Shelton shared a number of discussions with the artist at a time when his subject was much less reticent. Most of the quotes have remained unused until Hajdu resurrected many for his own book. “I think I actually found something much more valuable than an interview with Dylan today. Anything he would say about the early Sixties would be filtered by 40 years of subsequent history. He no longer wants to discuss personal matters, so for several reasons utilising the unpublished Shelton was much better.”
Hadju has attracted some suggestions that Positively 4th Street overstates Richard Fariña’s abilities. “You better note ‘author laughter’ at this point,” he jests. “Fariña’s family don’t share that viewpoint and nor do his fans who have written to me. I think I am probably much more critical of Fariña than anyone in the book. Here is a fascinating and colourful figure set alongside Dylan’s genius; Fariña demonstrates how far one can go: many ideas but not enough talent. Fariña and his wife Mimi did not succeed on the same level, but having the four of them gave me a history, a kind of upstairs/downstairs of the era. One couple provides a counterpoint to the other.”
While the two male protagonists certainly shared an extraordinary egocentricity, I was left feeling that the buzz, the charm, the charisma of Fariña appealed much more than the maudlin and often uncharitable introspection of Dylan. I concluded that I would rather have spent the Sixties in the company of the former rather than the latter. Hajdu refuses to reduce the matter to snap personality profiles: “I hope those who read this book will feel they have spent the Sixties with both of them. This book is not meant to demean or elevate either of these people but bring them to life. My interest was literary, not hagiographic. It flies in the face of writing in the rock ‘n’ roll era, which has been overly male and overly adolescent, its history reduced to a series of ‘Best of’ lists”.
Hajdu, 46, was born in Phillipsburg, New Jersey “a dark, smoky town” but now resides in Manhattan with his jazz and cabaret singer wife Karen Oberlain and two children, and teaches non-fiction literature at the New School for Social Research in New York City alongside journalistic assignments for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and others.
- Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña by David Hajdu (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux (US)/Bloomsbury (UK))
- Been Down It Seems Like Up to Me by Richard Fariña (Penguin Twentieth Century Classic)