Advertisement

Tombstone Blues

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.

Advertisement

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.

“Fair young maid, all in the garden,” begins the probably 17th century English ballad “John Riley” as it appears on the 1960 album “Joan Baez.” It’s the quieting of the tale as Baez moves it on, a little melodic pattern on her guitar flitting by like a small bird as a hushed bass progression follows it like a cat, even more than the voice--the voice of someone already dead, but walking the Earth to warn the living--that told the listener then, and can tell a listener now, that he or she has stumbled into a different country. It was like waking up as an adult, or nearly so, to discover that all the fairy tales of one’s childhood were true--and that, if you wished, you could, instead of the career or the war awaiting you, live them out. In a few old songs, making a drama of hiding and escape, material defeat and spiritual conquest, investing that drama with the passion of her voice and the physical presence of the body that held it, she beckoned you toward a crack in the invisible wall around your city. What would it mean, people all across the country asked the music they were hearing, as the music asked them, to feel anything so deeply?

Advertisement

Bob Dylan, whose fellows in the northern Minnesota town of Hibbing would have been unable to say just what it was a suburb of, appeared on “Bob Dylan,” in 1962, as a tramp. That is: as someone who had slept in hobo jungles, seen men go mad from drinking Sterno and forgotten the names of people who, one night, seemed like the best friends anyone could ever have. Though in Hajdu’s book there is not a hint that Dylan ever evinced humor beyond a private joke, many of the songs are funny (“I been around this whole country,” he says of the place name that in 1962 was a folk talisman, “but I never yet found Fennario”), but shadowed. All in all, the album is a collection of old songs about death. They dare the singer--can you sing me?--and he dares them--can you deny me what is mine? It was a time when almost everyone assumed that nuclear war would take place, somewhere, sometime, if not everywhere for all time; it was a time when black Americans risked their lives, and sometimes had them taken, whenever they raised their voices, or took a step outside of the country into which they had been born and into a new one, the country they and everyone else had been promised. Death is real, the 20-year-old singing on “Bob Dylan” said; knocking on a door perhaps built especially for that purpose, the sound Dylan made was not ridiculous because he was right.

This is the public drama that, in Hajdu’s book, is only a figment of private life, and, as its players followed that drama over the next years, Farina added nothing to it. Fulsome accounts of the 1965 Farinas albums “Celebrations for a Gray Day” and “Reflections in a Crystal Wind” cannot hide the fact that Mimi Farina could not sing, or that with the exception of “Reno Nevada,” Farina’s most noticeable compositions were stiff, shallow imitations of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and other Dylan songs. Because the case for Farina as a cultural innovator cannot be made--his novel, despite its blazing encomium from Pynchon, is a ‘60s curio--Hajdu spends far more time on Farina as a movable feast, as a boundless spirit, as the man who already was what, in the better world Baez and Dylan seemed to be singing about, everyone would be. Hajdu quotes a letter from married Farina to teenage Mimi: “Things is, Mishka mine, I’m weary of hopping around the cities of this tired world & not knowing what was happening ‘fore I got there. For me alone I guess it’s all right but I’m not me alone anymore .... Take my hand a little, baby, and squeeze it some.”

Why are we reading this? Because Mimi Farina gave the letter to David Hajdu? It’s creepy, and not just because the posing style of 1963 doesn’t travel well, but because you are violating someone’s privacy by reading other people’s embarrassing letters, and when you do that, you are made to violate your own privacy. But because Farina did not live long enough to prove the truth or lie of his life, that is what Hajdu is left with.

“Richard never started the next book he planned to write,” Hajdu says. “It was to be a memoir of his experiences with Mimi, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan.” Those are the last words of Hajdu’s book. Farina’s torch has been passed, one is to understand, but the music and the writing that remain, Baez’s, Dylan’s and Farina’s, give the lie to the notion that it was ever really lit.


Advertisement