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Tombstone Blues

POSITIVELY 4TH STREET The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina By David Hajdu; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 328 pp., $25

May 20, 2001|GREIL MARCUS | Greil Marcus is the author of numerous books, including "Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes" and, most recently, "Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives."

Richard Farina died in a motorcycle accident near Carmel on April 30, 1966, just following a party celebrating the publication of his first novel, "Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me." A musician, songwriter, singer, and fabulist as well as a novelist, he seduced many people in life, and many in death. David Hajdu, author of the well-received biography of Billy Strayhorn, the Duke Ellington collaborator, is one of the latter.

"Who reveled in the act of living more than this man who tried to make every meal a banquet, every task a mission, every conversation a play, every gathering a party?" Hajdu asks. "Being with Dick was a feeling,' a Carmel friend said. "It wasn't something outside of you that you looked at or saw. It was something that went through you." Thomas Pynchon, friend from college and ever after, worshiped him. Women could not resist. Did Farina truly carry out secret missions for the IRA, as he claimed? We will never know.

A little of this goes a long way. Hajdu bets that a life unlived--cut short--a life unsullied by failure, decline or betrayal, can overshadow lives that were lived, that went on past the golden moment when all things seemed possible, i.e., the world of American folk music from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s.

In this story, the Cambridge folk singer Joan Baez, who from the time of the release of her first album in 1960 was for many the embodiment of a moral purity that could not be found in American society as it advertised itself, and her younger sister, guitarist Mimi Baez, Farina's second wife, function as confused, manipulated, lovesick women caught between two powerful men.

On the side of life there is Farina, from Brooklyn, handsome, exotic (his father Cuban, his mother Irish), a deep male friend, a capricious lover, dedicated to laughter and to his art. On the side of death there is singer and songwriter Bob Dylan, "a Jewish kid from the suburbs."

He is profoundly talented, but principally as a thief; he is able to ride the times as if they were a horse, even to become the voice of a generation, without ever truly engaging with the times, his eye always on the way out. As a person he is distant, less a comrade in the folk milieu than a spy; he is sour, "pallid and soft ... childlike, almost feminine," "a little spastic gnome"--"that little toad," as Baez describes him to Hajdu. And without Farina--who, a friend recalls, conceived the idea of merging folk with rock ("Dick said, 'We should start a whole new genre. Poetry set to music, but not chamber music or beatnik jazz, man--music with a beat. Poetry you can dance to. Boogie poetry!"')--Dylan would have had no career: not even the idea of carrying around a notebook in which to write down ideas, "as Richard Farina had been doing since college." "Farina gave Bob this lecture," folk singer Fred Neil tells Hajdu, as Farina told others: "'If you want to be a songwriter, man, you'd better find yourself a singer.' You see," Neil says, "Bob and me, we were both writing, but I knew how to sing. Farina told him straight, 'Man, what you need to do, man, is hook up with Joan Baez. She is so square, she isn't in this century. She needs you to bring her into the twentieth century, and you need somebody like her to do your songs. She's your ticket, man. All you need to do, man, is start screwing Joan Baez."' It was 1961, in New York; by 1963, it would be true. They sang together; they slept together. And of course it was a freak show: "As soloists, each of them had always had a public image that was elementally desexualized and androgynous--Joan the virgin enchantress, Bob the boy poet," Hajdu writes. "The idea of either of them sexually engaged was not so much titillating as it was startling and puzzling: How will this work?"

But perhaps one can draw a deep breath, wipe the sweat from one's brow and leave Hajdu's career-and-relationships reconstructions; his utter credulousness when it comes to anyone who, having been left behind, might resent the fact that Bob Dylan, having entered history, still writes and sings songs people want to hear; his coups of research (the unpublished or unexpurgated 1960s interviews by the late Dylan biographer Robert Shelton with Dylan and others now archived at the Experience Music Project in Seattle); his ability to get people to speak in ways that hardly cast themselves in a favorable light ("When I started, I used a lot from Debbie's act," Baez says of the Cambridge singer and guitarist Debbie Green. "She was modestly talented, but not ambitious. I was going someplace, she wasn't. I didn't hurt her. I only helped myself"), and his inability to dramatize, which is ultimately his inability to convey any sense of why his story is of any import at all, and listen again to how, for the country at large, the story took shape.

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