Simple Twist of Fate might have been a
more appropriate title for this book, which is essentially
a biography of Richard Fariña in disguise. But
it is more than that. As entwined as any Dylan epic song,
it is a look at crazy poet/hustler conmen conniving their
way to the top; a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the folk
scene of the 60s; a tale of four lovers; a rivalry
of two sisters; and a competition between two writers.
a sense, Richard Fariña was the embodiment of the
60s. Undeniably brilliant and a creative explosion
waiting to happen, he was a myth-maker supreme, a charmer
beyond compare, and a master manipulator. In reality,
a kid from Flatbush, Brooklyn, of Cuban-Irish descent,
Fariña had people believing he was a gun runner
for the IRA and fought in the hills with Castro. The parallels
with his Hibbing, Minnesota counterpart, whose stories
of running away from home, working in carnivals, and hanging
with blues singers, are clear. All this would be somewhat
laughable, except as an artist Fariña delivered
the goods. With less than 20 songs, he established himself
as a major songwriter, pretty much blowing away all the
other folkie songwriters from Greenwich Village, and showed
himself to be the only one working on the same poetic
level as Dylan.
4th Street begins with the sheltered childhood
of Joan Baez and her younger sister Mimi, telling us more
than we want or need to know. Structured almost like a
play, various characters are introduced, some peripheral,
some not. For some mysterious reason, Hajdu feels the
need to describe in detail not only every residence Baez
lived in but every room mentioned in the book. The only
time it really works is when Fariña and Eric Von
Schmidt, broke and scuffling, are crashing at an opulent
residence in London, complete with an invisible butler.
This attention to detail is extended to what people wore
(that Fariña liked his jeans dry cleaned is mentioned
often) and what brand of guitars they played. The last
is rather humorous, because Hajdu gets it wrong, referring
several times to Baezs Gibson and Dylans Martin,
when it was Baez who played a Martin and Dylan who played
interesting are the almost incidental glances into the
business side of the 60s folk scene. The blundering
by musicians, managers, and record company executives
is comical and sad, especially considering that the "folk
community" then (and now) prides itself on not being interested
in business. This is not presented as gossip or dirt but
as what went down: Baez turned down Columbia Records for
the low-key Vanguard and picked the more ethical Manny
Greenhill to manage her, but only after she had the far
more business-minded Albert Grossman negotiate her contract.
a sense, this book is about three hustlers who would do
whatever they had to for fame and success with Mimi Fariña
emerging as heroine/victim. She was just 17 and still
in high school when Fariña, at his romantic poet-rebel
best, courted and secretly married her in France.
was more reserved in her hustling, but the description
of her debut at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival shows she
was no slouch in the getting noticed department.
surprisingly, Dylan comes off as elusive. While he probably
was every bit as manipulative as Fariña, like a
true Mafia Don, he didnt get caught. Throughout
the book, he appears and disappears, saying very little
with the exception of a rather vicious attack on virtually
every other songwriter near the books conclusion.
As Mitch Greenhill comments, "Dick was like Look
at mehere I am. Dig Me! Dylan was like, 'Look
all you want youll never see me.'"
interesting as the four main characters are, drama and
emotion are missing, and Hajdu is sometimes confusing.
Describing Martin Carthy and Dylan spending New Year's
Eve at a London club, he has Dylan stop singing "Auld
Lang Syne" after the first line of the song, while Carthy
wonders why Dylan stopped singing. In the very next paragraph,
Hajdu writes: "While Dylan and Martin Carthy were bellowing
'Auld Lang Syne' Eric Von Schmidt was celebrating with
a miniature bottle of bourbon on a BOAC flight to London."
So was Dylan standing silent during the celebration or
bellowing? A proofreader should have caught this.
Hajdu succeeds in portraying Fariña as a domineering
control freak who somehow charmed almost everyone he met
into loving him, although not necessarily trusting him,
the reader is left ambivalent. What should have been the
books great dramatic and tragic moment, Fariñas
death in a motorcycle crash on the day his novel, Been
Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, was published as
well as Mimis 21st birthday, leaves you feeling
like "gee, thats too bad," despite Hajdu's careful
building up to it.
is at his best when, following Fariñas death,
he writes, "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 great story here. Unlike many biographies, most of the
accounts are believable. But, somehow, Hajdualthough
he shows insight and makes the right connectionsfails
to make this book come alive.
Peter Stone Brown