Positively 4th Street by David Hajdu

by Simon Warner


Beatniks and Folk Chicks

“Black eddies brim
Around my heel which, pressing deep,
Accelerates the waiting sleep”

51; Thom Gunn in “The Unsettled Motorcyclist’s Vision of his Death”

cover art

Positively 4th Street — the Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña an

David Hajdu

(Farrar Strauss & Giroux)

If Richard Fariña had been a rock star he would be widely remembered. Maybe not a Hendrix or a Joplin, a Morrison or a Cobain, but perhaps a Gene Vincent or a Frankie Lymon or a Sam Cooke, a star in the making who never quite had time to mature into a popular music colossus. But Fariña was not a rock artist; in fact, at the time rock ‘n’ roll was speedily transmuting into a new and powerful tearaway called rock — a socio-political juggernaut with Dylan and Lennon and Jagger at the wheel — the motorcycle carrying our young subject along the Californian coast was delivering him, fatally, into a nearby field.

So who is Fariña and why should he count? Born in Brooklyn in 1938, Fariña was a chameleon of many cultural colours — Irish, Cuban, American — and many cultural expressions — novelist, poet, folk singer, rebel manque — who threatened briefly, in that alchemic cooking pot of the mid-1960s, to take on the world and win. It was certainly this bright-eyed, handsome boy’s aim. And win he might have done if the Harley-Davidson on which he rode — he was pillion, we are led to believe, reducing the iconic resonance of his death — had not failed, at high velocity, to take that corner and thus spill its vivacious cargo.

Fate dealt its hand within 48 hours of Fariña’s one major work appearing in print. That day of destiny, April 30th, 1966, had seen a post-publication party for one of the minor classics of modern US literature, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. There’d been a get-together to celebrate the event at a Carmel bookstore, close to where the writer had made his home, with his singer-guitarist wife Mimi, who was celebrating her own 21st birthday on the very same day. Crazy to think that a few weeks on, Bob Dylan would suffer his own motorbike madness but escape with his life still intact, only a neck brace in place.

But how does this chain of apparently unconnected incident intermesh? The answer is readably and engagingly unveiled in Positively 4th Street — The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña, penned by the New York-based David Hajdu, better known until now as a jazz biographer of Billy Strayhorn. Yet his insightful account of a fascinating period in the development of the American psyche confirms him as a commentator who can set personal details against the wider social drama of a nation squirming from the triple assault of a Civil Rightscampaign, a South-East Asian war, and the emergence of concerted youth protest.

The fact that Dylan, of course, would romantically dally with the queen of folk, Joan Baez, the fact that Fariña would marry and perform with both Joan’s early rival Carolyn Hester and her teenage sister Mimi, the fact that Dylan would strive to fuse literary conceits with the energy of rock music and Fariña would virtually beat him to it with his own “boogie poetry”, and the fact both Dylan and Fariña tussled petulantly to secure a debut novel in print, all make this 300-page account a quite gripping document for those attempting to unravel the excitements and complexities of these troubled yet creatively febrile times.

Hajdu’s book, over a quarter century in the making as his original interviews were forged as early as 1974, scores on a number of fronts. He not only secures access to the main surviving players in the saga — the Baez and Fariña families and a plethora of friends, contacts and collaborators, reclusive author Thomas Pynchon perhaps most notably — but also adds intriguing fresh material from two central dramatis personae — one dead, the other, predictably unavailable. Unpublished and revealing interviews by the late Robert Shelton, the critic credited with “breaking” Dylan in 1961, with Bob himself have been well-utilised in the telling of the tale.

Positively 4th Street, named in favour of Dylan’s excoriating 1965 tune which lambasted the people and the Greenwich Village scene that had made him half a decade before, draws a potent picture of artists as young men — and women — run through as it is with the spice and spark of success and disappointment, treachery and infidelity, ambition and antagonism. Intoxicated yet disorientated by the rush of fame, they interact with passion, but their relationships are generally tarnished by jealousies and insecurities.

Dylan emerges as a self-regarding mumbler, uncommunicative, incoherent away from the stage or studio, while Fariña is painted as the do-er, the catalyst, the man who lights the blue touch paper in every bar, at every gig, in all his frenetic womanising. All they share is vision, ability and egos that overwhelm every crowd, every club, every meal, every gathering, in which they deign to participate.

That no community — the Village, Cambridge, Bearsville at Woodstock, Carmel — was ever capable of housing the two protagonists together for long comes as no surprise. But the shock of death when Fariña’s lifeforce is so finally quenched is much harder to digest. I read Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me as a student in the mid-1970s and its hustling, bustling, larger than life hero Gnossos Pappadopoulis seemed to represent all that was possible for a life-consuming 20-year-old swimming in the thrilling swell of the university tide.

Some years after Fariña’s affirming roman a clef, Dylan’s Tarantula would belatedly appear — belatedly because that text had been the subject of his race with Richard to produce the first published novel. But the delay had barely been worthwhile: dense, rambling, obscurely impressionistic, Dylan’s indulgence had a sub-Burroughs vibe — downbeat, pessimistic, but all-too-often unintelligible. Against it Fariña’s book spoke young Kerouac, Gnossos like a Sixties Dean Moriarty, mad to live, mad to talk.

Dylan lived and lives, of course, to offer one of the more fascinating 20th-century resumes; Fariña was extinguished despite his oft-expressed belief that death might haunt him, might tease him, but would never actually leave a business card.

If Richard Fariña had been a film star he would still be celebrated now, maybe not a James Dean but perhaps a Montgomery Clift or a John Garfield. But Fariña was too many things for the critics, the commentators, his rivals, or even his friends to pin down. Mercurial, he dashed off poems and magazine articles, a small but acclaimed body of recorded songs including the memorable “Birmingham Sunday”, and a novel that would have allowed him to walk in the tracks of Pynchon, Kesey or Tom Wolfe if only the footprints in the sand had not been washed away so quickly.

After he died, it was revealed that his next novel would have been a fictionalised account of that extraordinary quartet — Dylan, himself and two Baez sisters - who played out an all-too-short four-hander. David Hajdu’s excellent overview is, I think, the next best thing.

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