in paperback this month, David Hajdus Positively
4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan,
Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina (North Point Press)
is part biography, part popular music history and part
Greenwich Village travelogue, circa 1962.
obvious why a writer of Hajdus expertisehis
last book was on jazz vocalist Billy Strayhornwould
want to have a go at Dylan and the elder Baez sister.
They were folk/rock royalty, the couple everyone talked
aboutthey were Britney and Justin with talent.
why would Hajdu devote so much time and energy to documenting
the lives of Joans little sister and her husband
Richard? As Hajdu points out in his richly-reported book,
Mimi was, in some ways, a greater talent than her better-known
sibling. A preternatural beauty and a widow by the time
she was 21, hers is an irresistible story. And Farina,
well, he was a storyteller, a musician and a writer of
such skill that his only novel made a jealous man of close
friend Thomas Pynchon. "Holy shit man," Pynchon, the most
inventive novelist of his era, wrote after reading the
manuscript that became Farinas only novel, Been
Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. "How would holy
shit look on the book jacket? What I mean is you
have written, really and truly, a great out-of-fucking
recently spent six months with Wynton Marsalis for an
upcoming piece in Atlantic Monthly and has begun
writing a book about mid-century comics. He is on tour
again this month to support the Dylan-Baez-Farina paperback,
but he took time out recently to talk about the book,
the four characters at its heart and how he managed to
get in touch with the famously reclusive Pynchon.
For pretty obvious reasons, a lot of other writers
have focused exclusively on Joan Baez and Dylan. Why did
you decide to focus on all four of these people?
Hajdu: There are a number of reasons. I was interested
in the Farinas as a point of contrast. By telling the
story of all four of them you start with four people who
might seem to have the same kind of potential. You have
two sisters who are both musically gifted. Practically
everyone who knew them bothincluding Joanthought
that Mimi was the superior musician, as a guitarist. Joan
had a better voice, and Joan had something elsebut
the similar genetic makeup. So the two of them are a case
study in what it takes to succeed in this culture, and
also of the role of sibling relations in the development
of artistic lives.
then Dylan and Farina are similar points of contrast.
Dylan's detractorsI'm not among themhave often
painted him as an overly ambitious young man who used
everything he came in touch with to his benefit. But much
more than that accounts for Dylan's success as an artist
and as a cultural figure. Richard Farina was much more
ambitious. Richard Farina was infinitely more ambitious.
So what if you have two people, one who has great ideasRichard
Farinaand ambition on a monstrous scale and then
someone who also has great ideas [Dylan] but a different
kind of talent, and a deeper talent? And then the relationships
between all four of them were intertwined. So its
more than just the effect of sibling relationships on
careers, but also fraternal relationships. The four of
them are an irresistible study; it was a little laboratory
You explain how Joan Baez enjoyed more early success
than almost anyone in the folk scene, including Dylan.
What effect did her popularity have on other artists and
the scene as a whole?
It's immeasurable, it's absolutely immeasurable. Joan
was the first young star in the folk milieu. She made
a music that had different associations, she made it cool
and young and hip and she helped a whole generation connect
with the music, connect to folk music in a way that was
related to their identity and their concerns. You had
people seeking an individual generational identity in
the shadow of the World War II generation, in the shadow
of a generation that won The War, seemed to rule the world
and was infusing everything in the culture with a kind
of bombast and powerthe confidence and the kind
of overt the top rah-rah Americanism. Big cars, jets,
confidence in anything that was American, mass-produced,
commercial. Folk music was played by older people and
had been around forever. It was folk music for
goodness sakes. Young people were able to see that as
an antidote to everything their parents represented. For
once they had someone their own age to connect to. Joan
was really the Elvis figure, not Bob.
alluded to this before, I think. Like a lot of artists
who came after him, Dylan sort of reinvented himself on
a few occasions, didn't he?
Yeah, he sure did. But so did I. I don't know about you.
That's kind of the nature of what it means to be American.
It's part of the American ideal, it's part of the great
promise of this country. It's a New World so you can become
a new person here; I think I used a line like that in
the book. And especially in show business, there's a long
tradition that predates America of reinvention in show
business. But the irony of it in the case of Dylan and
his peers and Joan, too, was that they performed their
roles and adopted false personas in the nature of authenticity.
That's really the irony of it. On the surface they were
challenging the artificiality of their parents generation,
they were challenging the Vegasy artificiality of Vic
Damone and that whole ilk of singers. But what they were
doing was certainly just as much a posebut in the
name of authenticity. Its really very peculiar and
Dylan's first record was almost never released, you
say, and when it finally was it sold pretty poorly, didn't
I don't have the numbers in front of me, but it was a
disappointment. John Hammond, who had signed him, was
under tremendous pressure to drop him. In the halls of
Columbia Dylan was derided as Hammonds folly. And
the record is quite good, but its not the Bob Dylan
we know now. He hadn't yet found his voice, certainly
as a composer. And it's a remarkable act of prescience
on Hammond's part that he signed this guy at all. He certainly
didn't see any songwriting genius in Dylan at that point.
He hadn't written works of genius yet, he had only written
a handful of things of any merit. But then Dylan started
composing and [1963s The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan]
seems like some kind of miracle following the first album.
The rate of his growth was just breathtaking. In a matter
of months he was on another level, from one album to another
album to another album. He just seems to be almost a different
artist. It's the same kind of growth that you could see
in the Beatles just a few years later. There's practically
no precedent for it in the music of subsequent generations.
Dylan and Joan Baez tapped into sort of a cultural
moment as much as a musical movement. How were they able
to pull that off?
It was kind of remarkable. It was this odd time when it
was a trend, it was chic to be serious, introspective,
poetic, socially conscious, to apply self-sacrifice to
social causes. Why? The peak of the Civil Rights movement,
the Vietnam War was just catching fire, beginning to become
a controversy in this country. The Cold War was at a peak.
I was a kid in those days, and I remember being in school
with crayons and having to draw pictures of how we would
design our fallout shelters. And that was a class assignment.
[Dylan and Baez] gave voice to those concerns through
a music that seemed appropriately serious and had the
right kind of gravitas.
talk about the legend surrounding Dylan's going electric
at the Newport Folk in '65. That's sort taken on mythic
status over the years and it's become overblown to a certain
extent, hasn't it?
Well, it definitely has. I read the contemporary reports,
and it was not seen as a cataclysm at the time. It was
absolutely impossible that most of those people were surprised
to hear Bob Dylan playing with a rock band. "Like a Rolling
Stone" was on the pop charts. You couldn't drive to Newport
without hearing "Like a Rolling Stone" the whole ride.
Bringing it All Back Home had come out something
like six months before that. "Like a Rolling Stone" was
his second rock and roll single/ folk rock single. So
there's no way that everyone was shocked. They mightve
been shocked if he came out with a folk guitarthat
wouldve been a shock.
there were some complaints about the performance that
day. But they didn't dominate the audience reaction. The
nature of those complaints is up for debate. Maybe it
was the sound system. The Newport Folk Festival wasn't
wired for a rock band. The sound system wasn't set up
for that kind of performance, and surely some of the diehard
old-line folk purists did object to the commercialism
that they associated with rock n roll. It was popular
music, my God. Folk music cant be popular.
The moment has been reinvented over the years because
it serves a handy function. Every generation needs not
just great music and great artists, we need great moments.
We just need them and that became one of them.
Thomas Pynchon was Farina's best man, as you note,
and you quote Pynchon several times in the book. How were
able to pin him down?
He was very generous with me and helpful and I think that
was out of respect for his old friend Richard. He responded
well to my questions, by fax, by way of an intermediary.
One day I came home and the fax machine is churning and
it was answers from Thomas Pynchon. I was so excited about
it. He had never done this before. I couldn't sit still.
I had to go out and take my dog for a walk, just kind
of run around the block. My mouth was parched so I put
the dog on a post and I ran in to get a cold drink at
the deli. I came back to the house, pacing, the buzzer
rings, it's the police. I had left my dog tied to a post.
Could I say I'm sorry, officer, I just got a fax from
Thomas Pynchon? I'm sure hed understand.
novel is still in print but you say near the end of the
book that he never started his second one, and you explain
how it was going to be a memoir of his times with Dylan
and the Baez sisters. Did you in a way write the book
that he never got a chance to?
That was not my intent. I had put a couple of years of
work into the book and done probably half the interviews
when I found that out from his editor. I was surprised
but it just seemed like a poetic convergence, so I loved
hearing that fact. But I didn't set out to write the lost
Richard Farina novel. I did have that fact in mind when
I asked [artist] Eric von Schmidt to do the cover. It
was a painting inspired by a poster that he made for a
concert that Joan and Bob did. He repainted it and added
Richard and Mimi in the back. I had that in mind because
he had only ever done two book jackets before (Farinas
novel and a collection of his previously unpublished work).
So no I didnt set out to write the lost Richard
Farina book, but I found a lot of pleasure in the convergence.