Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña
|Publisher:||Farrar Straus Giroux|
The story of how four young bohemians on the make - Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mimi Baez, and Richard Fariña - converged in Greenwich Village, fell into love, and invented a sound and a style that are one of the most lasting legacies of the 1960s
When Bob Dylan, age twenty-five, wrecked his motorcycle on the side of a road near Woodstock in 1966 and dropped out of the public eye, he was recognized as a genius, a youth idol, and the authentic voice of the counterculture: and Greenwich Village, where he first made his mark as a protest singer with an acid wit and a barbwire throat, was unquestionably the center of youth culture.
So embedded are Dylan and the Village in the legend of the Sixties—one of the most powerful legends we have these days—that it is easy to forget how it all came about. In Positively Fourth Street, David Hajdu, whose 1995 biography of jazz composer Billy Strayhorn was the best and most popular music book in many seasons, tells the story of the emergence of folk music from cult practice to popular and enduring art form as the story of a colorful foursome: not only Dylan but his part-time lover Joan Baez - the first voice of the new generation; her sister Mimi - beautiful, haunted, and an artist in her own right; and her husband Richard Fariña, a comic novelist (Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me) who invented the worldliwise bohemian persona that Dylan adopted—some say stole—and made as his own.
The story begins in the plain Baez split-level house in a Boston suburb, moves to the Cambridge folk scene, Cornell University (where Fariña ran with Thomas Pynchon), and the University of Minnesota (where Robert Zimmerman christened himself Bob Dylan and swapped his electric guitar for an acoustic and a harmonica rack) before the four protagonists converge in New York.
Based on extensive new interviews and full of surprising revelations, Positively Fourth Street is that rare book with a new story to tell about the 1960s. It is, in a sense, a book about the Sixties before they were the Sixties—about how the decade and all that it is now associated with it were created in a fit of collective inspiration, with an energy and creativity that David Hajdu captures on the page as if for the first time.
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