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Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina & Richard Farina Hardcover – June 1, 2001
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David Hajdu (pronounced HAY-doo), the prizewinning author of the magisterial jazz biography Lush Life, now steam-cleans the legend of the lost folk generation in Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña. What a ripping read! It's like an invitation to the wildest party Greenwich Village ever saw. You feel swept up in the coffeehouse culture that transformed ordinary suburban kids into ragged, radiant avatars of a traditional yet bewilderingly new music. Hajdu's sociomusical analysis is as scholarly as (though less arty than) Greil Marcus's work; he deftly sketches the sources and evolving styles of his ambitious, rather calculating subjects, proving in the process that genius is not individual--it's rooted in a time and place. Hajdu says Dylan heisted many early tunes (e.g., "Maggie's Farm" from Pete Seeger's "Down on Penny's Farm"): "Dylan [told] a radio interviewer that he felt as if his music had always existed and he just wrote it down ... [in fact], much of his early work had existed as other writers' melodies, chord structures, or thematic ideas." But Dylan and company made it all their own, and Hajdu vividly evokes the scenes they made.
Positively 4th Street is very much a group portrait. When something amazing happens, Hajdu puts you right there. The unknown Baez barefoot in the rain, bedazzling the Newport Jazz Festival and becoming immortal overnight. The irresistibly irresponsible Fariña talking his folk-star wife out of shooting him dead with his own pistol. The "little spastic gnome" Dylan transmogrified into greatness onstage, bashing Joan with the searing lyrics of "She Belongs to Me." A stoned Fariña advising Dylan to cynically hitch his wagon to Joan's rising star and "start a whole new genre. Poetry set to music, but not chamber music or beatnik jazz, man... poetry you can dance to."
The book is as delectably gossipy as Vanity Fair (one of Hajdu's employers). Richard married the exceedingly young beauty Mimi and helmed their career, but he might have dumped her for big sister Joan, whose madcap humor and verbal wit harmonized with his--except that he ineptly killed himself on a motorcycle first. Bob mumblingly courted both sisters, but when he cruelly taunted the insecure Joan, Mimi yanked his hair back until he cried. The account of Bob and Joan's musical-erotic passion is first-rate music history and uproarious soap opera. Hajdu's research is prodigious--even Fariña's close chum Thomas Pynchon granted interviews--and his anecdotes are often off-the-cuff funny: "[Rock manager Albert Grossman] was easy to deal with.... It wasn't till maybe two days after you would see Albert that you'd realize your underwear had been stolen." Full disclosure: Hajdu was one of my long-ago bosses at Entertainment Weekly, but that's certainly not why I heartily endorse this book. It's scholarship with a human face, akin to "poetry you can dance to." --Tim Appelo
From Publishers Weekly
Sometimes, gifted people intersect at the perfect moment and spark a cultural movement. According to acclaimed biographer David Hajdu (Lush Life), Joan and Mimi Baez, Dylan, and Farina were of that brand of fated genius, and via romantic and creative trysts, they invented 1960s folk and its initially maligned offshoot, folk rock. But their convergence hardly emblematizes the free-loving media version of the 1960s. Egos--especially Joan Baez's and Dylan's--clashed, jealousies flared, romance was strategic. Hajdu does not dwell on Dylan's thoughtless, well-documented breakup with Joan Baez after riding to fame on her flowing skirts. Instead, he spotlights Joan's younger sister, Mimi, a skilled guitarist in her own right, and her husband, novelist-musician Farina. After divorcing leading folkster Carolyn Hester, the disarmingly groovy Farina captivated teenage Mimi via love letters, and, but for his untimely death, might have pursued Joan. Though Farina comes off as more opportunistic than Dylan, Hajdu compellingly asserts that Farina, not Dylan, invented folk rock and provided fodder for Dylan's trademark sensibilities. Hajdu provides a skillfully wrought, honest portrait that neither sentimentalizes nor slams the countercultural heyday. Photos not seen by PW. (June)Forecast: Hajdu's reputation and Dylan's 60th birthday on May 24 will win the book attention.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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Dylan looms over the entire narrative, but is not the star. Joan Baez and, to a lesser extent, her younger sister Mimi are central to the story, and their personalities--refracted through the eyes of their parents, other artists, business associates and ardent admirers--shine through the dark
wakes of pain and disillusion (dissolution!) that Dylan and Richard Farina, leave in their ardent pursuit of fame. Joan Baez achieved the significant success as the barefoot angel of the folk scene at first and subsequent Newport Folk Festivals. She produced the first commercially successful LP among the four. And, through an on-again-off-again infatuation and romance with Dylan--whose affections were plainly calculated to contribute to his budding career--Baez maintains her dignity and humanity in the face of his often misogynistic disregard. Towards the end, the book recounts Baez' emerging political sensibilities and activism, including the creation of a Center for the Study of Non-violence near her home in Carmel California. (For another view of this enterprise, see Joan Didion's 1968 volume of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem)
Farina's life is dissected in detail, from multiple perspectives. He is arguably the hero of this narrative and his life and untimely death seem to serve as a metaphor of the times. His highest ambition was to be a writer, though he dabbled in folk music and achieved some success teaming with his second wife, Joan's sister Mimi. At the age of 26 he was nine years older than Mimi Baez, who was 17 when he married her in 1963. She effectively had her parents permission, though her sister Joan was furious and skeptical of Farina's motives. Farina's creative genius is undeniable, the equal of Dylan's, I think, but he did not possess the pathological need for approval (even to the extent of self-loathing) that animated Dylan in the early part of his career. While Farina quickly became the center of attention in any room he entered, he was usually able to leave everybody feeling better following his seemingly effortless performance. The Dylan Hadju depicts has few redeeming qualities as a human being, which will certainly be off-putting to legions of his admirers. I found this portrait to be profoundly illuminating and consistent with the odd behaviors, arrogance and self aggrandizement that characterizes his autobiography, Chronicles Vol 1, which I found to be virtually unreadable. The book closes shortly after Farina's untimely death in a 1966 motorcycle accident, on the day first his novel, Been Down So Long It Seems Like Up To Me, was released. If you are "of" this time or intrigued by it, read the book. You won't be disappointed.
As a lifelong Dylan fan, Positively 4th Street was a great find, and a interesting, entertaining and gripping read. David Hajdu brings you RIGHT THERE into beatnick Greenwich Village and beyond, and examines the dynamics between the relationships of four particular people: Dylan, Joan & Mimi Baez, and Richard Farina. If you are interested in exploring that embryonic time for Dylan in particular, and getting a glimpse at his formative environment, you'll likely enjoy this as much as I did.
Given some other reviews here, I was turning pages with baited breath waiting for often mentioned "oh, dear" bad behavior to begin. But honestly, I didn't perceive that. Oh sure, it's there for Dylan, but mostly towards the end when he reaches his "folk rejection" stage. As has always been the case for Dylan as an artist, he conceives new personas and in doing actively destroys the previous one. He's done it his whole life. So it's not his time, per se, with Joan Baez that is filled with poor behavior, it's the end of that time when she is pooled in Dylan's mind with things he wants to dispose of. Joan got lumped in with "protest Bob" and got dumped as poorly as anyone has ever been dumped. But when they were together, he may have been quiet and eccentric, but he wasn't "bad". None of the four were. They were just ambitious young adults, looking for their place in the world. And their pursuits are hardly of the tune out / drop out variety - they were hard working, focused, young dreamers.
Some have spoken about whether Richard Farina deserves the attention he gets from the author in regards to his music. Never having heard him and Mimi before, I sampled some of their work and my conclusion is much the same as Dylan's own assessment - there isn't anything special going on there. I'm certainly not motivated to purchase any of this material.
Farina's excellence was as an author. I did pick up his "Been Down So Long It Looks Up To Me" novel, released just before he was killed, and it's wonderful. He was a later bloomer than Bob or Joan, and it's very sad that we only have the one large piece of work from him (short stories were released posthumously). But in short I agree that Hajdu spends too much time heaping praise on Farina's work. I suspect his successes on the stage were more a factor of his charisma than his material.
So, don't expect this to be a salaciously revealing read. For the hard-core Dylan fan, it's another key resource in understanding the artist. For the romantics, it's an exploration of their well-known Baez/Dylan affair that goes beyond the standard biographies. You'll learn how co-dependent these two people were at that point in their lives. And, most of all, it resurrects New York's early 60's Greenwich Village, and explains how all those folksters got there in the first place.
A fine, enjoyable book.
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