Knockin' on Dylan's Door

Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña, David Hajdu. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 328 pages, $25.00.


Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, Howard Sounes. Grove Press, 527 pages, $27.50.

Because folk music in the 1960s was driven by larger-than-life personalities
and agendas to match--because it was a scene--it's especially susceptible
to grandiose analysis. That's what makes David Hajdu's critical equilibrium in
Positively 4th Street so distinctive. Hajdu neither worships nor maligns;
he reveals complex insight into the folk movement, particularly into "the lives
and times" of four musical artists: Bob Dylan, Richard Fariña, Joan Baez, and
Joan's sister Mimi.

The author begins by describing life in the Baez household when Joan and Mimi
were young. A Quaker upbringing taught the girls about pacifism, though their own
relationship was marked more by rivalry than peacefulness. (Mimi was beautiful
and Joan felt unattractive. Joan was funny and bold; Mimi, quite shy.) After
their aunt took them to a Pete Seeger concert, the sisters got guitars. The
Baezes eventually moved from California to Massachusetts, where Joan attended
Boston University, spent lots of time in coffeehouses, and thus found the stage
before her younger sister did.

Joan Baez had established herself as Harvard Square's folk queen when Bob
Dylan began attracting attention in Greenwich Village, first as a Woody Guthrie
devotee but later as an original. Richard Fariña, a talented writer, elbowed his
way into the folk mix by marrying the lovely singer Carolyn Hester and becoming
part of her act, with his dulcimer and his poetry. Later he divorced Carolyn to
court and marry a high-school-age Mimi Baez. Meanwhile, sister Joan became
disenchanted with the English ballads she'd been performing and found new purpose
in Bob Dylan's politically charged lyrics; she sang his songs, repeatedly invited
him to perform with her, and became his on-again, off-again lover.

And so the four came together. In relaying the details of their lives and the
progress of their art, Hajdu always has an eye on context. He draws upon a wealth
of interviews and an extensive bibliography in order to shed light on the 1950s
counterculture and how it evolved into that of the 1960s. Yet his central
characters remain in focus. Background doesn't overwhelm the compelling
narrative, which we follow with great interest to the end, when Richard Fariña (a
newly published novelist) dies in a motorcycle accident and Dylan (hugely
successful but strung out on drugs) nearly does the same two months later and
actually heeds the wake-up call.

Positively 4th Street charts an intricate web of influence--personal and
musical--in the folk scene at large. For being antislick, these people worked
their connections: They schmoozed at parties and piggybacked onto one another's
performances and recordings. When Hajdu points out that Baez, Dylan, and Fariña
were keenly ambitious for acclaim (Mimi Baez Fariña was more subdued, even
passive), he doesn't pass judgment. They just did what everyone else was doing.

Nor is Hajdu afraid to let ugly behavior speak for itself. Joan Baez couldn't
stand being an audience member; at several small concerts, she sang along with
the featured performer, loudly, until she was invited to come on up. After Dylan
surpassed her in international fame, he wouldn't share his stage time with her
during his first tour in England, even though she was largely responsible for his
success and remained loyal when the old-guard folkies attacked him for turning
his back on protest and going electric. And then there was Richard Fariña,
perhaps the most self-interested one of the bunch. He may have loved Mimi Baez,
but there's ample evidence that her maiden name was a big part of the attraction.

Of course they were arrogant, manipulative brats, Hajdu's matter-of-fact tone
suggests. They were barely adults, and famous.

One peripheral figure who shows up more than a few times in Positively 4th
Street
is Robert Shelton, a critic who covered folk music for The New York
Times
when Baez and Dylan started out. Shelton's review of Dylan's debut
performance at Gerde's Folk City is often credited with having launched one of
the most influential music careers in America. His folk criticism tended to be
"advocative," as Hajdu puts it. Shelton "would describe an act he disliked as
'promising.'"

Shelton is one of several writers defeated by the task of capturing Dylan. His
biography No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan (a 1986 book
that was reissued as a paperback in 1997) reads like a jumbled, passionate letter
from an unrequited lover--albeit with a useful discography appended as a
postscript. Oddly, Hajdu omits mention of Shelton-the-biographer. And though his
individual comments about Shelton-the-critic aren't especially acerbic or
unwarranted, added up they seem a conscious--though needless--effort to undermine
a biographical predecessor. For example, he writes that Shelton's "main job at
[The New York Times] was proofreading and that his reviewing was a
sideline." He implies that Shelton was more of a public relations agent than a
critic because he faithfully transcribed Dylan's "parade of colorful fantasies."
Perhaps Hajdu oversteps here. After all, his own endnotes reveal a heavy reliance
on Shelton's archives; Dylan is notably absent from the acknowledgments in
Positively 4th Street.

Shelton was tangled up in his material; Howard Sounes, by contrast, hovers
above his in Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan--which came out this
spring in time to commemorate Dylan's 60th birthday. Sounes's bird's-eye view
makes for a detailed, cohesive account, but his voice is distant and book-
reportish. He says that when Dylan was young, his mom "helped [him] make friends
by organizing enjoyable parties for him"; that in addition to Dylan's teen idol
James Dean, Elvis was "another very exciting figure"; that Dylan's early years
"were filled with remarkable achievements as he wrote songs with fecundity,
recorded extraordinary albums, and regularly gave brilliant concerts."

Sounes gives us the scoop on Dylan's personal life, particularly his formerly
secret marriage in 1986 to singer Carolyn Dennis. But when it comes to the
music--not just Dylan's, but everyone's--the analysis is shallow and at times
forced. To Sounes's credit, he's done an impressive amount of legwork. And he
clearly holds Dylan in high regard. (His goal is to convey "the full grandeur of
Bob Dylan's artistic achievement" as well as "the true life of this fascinating
and elusive man.") Yet he doesn't approach Hajdu in richness, subtlety, or
spirit.

Hajdu's choice to zero in on the intersection of four lives is a smart one.
Exploring their connections with one another and with the folk crowd generally,
he's able to step back and theorize a bit, without too much stretching. Folk's
"rural vernacular music," Hajdu writes, "put a premium on naturalness and
authenticity during a boom in man-made materials, especially plastics." College
students--contemporaries of Hajdu's central characters and certainly their
largest audience--were drawn to coffeehouses much as the Lost Generation's
expatriates were to Paris. The attraction "was conspicuously counter-American at
a high point in the United States' world prominence--espresso and existential
doubt, no cocktails, no glitz, an appealing combination to postwar college
students seeking their own generational identity." The perfect poster child for
this sensibility was an uncosmetic, earnest, half-Mexican Joan Baez, whose
soprano voice was purity incarnate. Add Dylan's artful lyrics, the Fari"as'
inventive instrumentation, and attitude galore, and you have yourself a movement.

Another advantage of Hajdu's focus is that it makes his task manageable. For
Shelton and Sounes, anyway, uncut Bob Dylan proves to be unwieldy. Especially
when he was younger, Dylan served up little but lies and cryptic non sequiturs to
the press. He's always valued his privacy--enough to beat up A.J. Weberman
(according to Weberman, anyway), a self-proclaimed "Dylanologist" who is infamous
for digging through his hero's garbage and hounding the artist about hidden
meanings in his songs. And Dylan is as hard to pin down musically as he is
personally: To the delight and frustration of anyone who has performed with him,he never does a song the same way twice. In short, he's a "mystery tramp," and
his image as such is inseparable from his art.

In fact, image cultivation is a recurring theme in Hajdu's book. Bob Dylan,
Joan Baez, and Richard Fariña were quick studies in self-creation. They knew how
to construct a persona and then revise it as needed, generating optimal buzz. In
high school, Dylan was Bobby Zimmerman, a clean-cut rock-and-roller in red
leather; he (briefly) came to the University of Minnesota with a tweed jacket,
which he quickly replaced with "work clothes" and a cap that were in keeping with
his fabricated past as a hobo and a carny; eventually, when he started mixing
musical idioms, he was back in leather, black this time, and he let his hair go
wild.

Fariña's tales were even taller than Dylan's. He said that he had a metal
plate in his head, that he'd fought with the Irish Republican Army, that he'd run
guns in Cuba. Most people were more charmed than annoyed by his bullshit and
realized that he wasn't all show. Although not as calculating as her husband or
her sister Joan, even Mimi Baez Fariña played a couple of roles: the ethereal
complement to Fariña's vivacity, the give to his take.

Presented as a package deal, these four are a logical coda to the literary
Beat Generation. They prized nonconformity in politics and spontaneity in art;
they thrived individually as well as collaboratively. And as Hajdu demonstrates,
their relationships with one another had a tremendous effect on their creative
output.

Still, though Positively 4th Street is very much about a group, it's
named after an individual's work--a song that Hajdu calls "Bob Dylan's
valedictory to the Greenwich Village scene." It's tempting to see Hajdu's title
as a gesture of favoritism, but that wouldn't be quite right. He's careful to
give equal time and treatment to each artist. More likely, the titular nod to
Dylan is quite literal: In lyrics and in life, Dylan bade farewell to his roots
and moved on to completely new aesthetic territory. The Baez sisters didn't, and
Fariña died before he could try. Dylan didn't just use folk; he survived it.

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