Review

Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina, and Richard Farina

by David Hajdu

With the occasion of Bob Dylan's 60th birthday, baby boomer sentimentalists and counterculture evangelists have been out in especially full force. Listen to a coffeehouse folkster reminisce and you come away with an impression of Greenwich Village as some far off, magical land populated by hundreds of rare geniuses whose every artistic creation was pregnant with social import. Thankfully, David Hajdu's prodigiously researched, wildly entertaining tell-all, POSITIVELY 4TH STREET: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña, steers clear of revisionist romanticism. The four star players are unsparingly rendered, in all their codependent, narcissistic, ambitious, undeniably gifted, right-place-right-time glory.

Behind every good cultural revolution is an army of disenfranchised and disenchanted young people. In the late 1950s, middle class suburban kids began jumping on the folk music bandwagon, desperate to rebel against "Eisenhower-age conservatism." Among the mass migration was Joan Baez, a deeply self-conscious young woman with a frighteningly beautiful voice and a predilection for stealing other musicians' spotlight (according to several accounts, she would start singing from the audience, drowning out the performer onstage). Like so many others, she found inspiration in the progressive politics and activism explicit in the words and music of Pete Seeger. Also among the new folk devotees was an 18-year-old, gnomic, Guthrie acolyte from Minnesota named Robert Zimmerman (later, Bob Dillon, and still later, Bob Dylan "because it looked better"). Unlike Baez, Zimmerman identified less with folk's overt social commentary and more with its romantic portrayal of outcasts and underdogs, its "antihero mythos." Joining the folk wave a little later was the enigmatic, irrepressible, disarmingly charming, lothario-by-day/frustrated-writer-by-night Richard Fariña. The problem with folk music, as he saw it, "was that it needed a beat." Mimi Baez, still in high school, remained on the folk movement's periphery until just before her 18th birthday when she adopted a second last name, Fariña.

Forty years and nearly as many biographies later, the famed relationship between Dylan and Baez --- "the Liz and Dick" of the music world --- never ceases to be a topic of wide-eyed, tut-tutting, jaw-dropping fascination. The facts: An unknown Baez burst onto the folk scene at the Newport Folk Festival and became the overnight Queen of Folk. An unknown Dylan, looking to make his way up the music hierarchy, hitched himself to her rising star and launched a career of his own that eventually eclipsed Baez's. Then he dumped her and her adolescent, heart-swelling protest music, got himself an electric guitar, reincarnated himself as a folk-rocker, and became the mysterious, misunderstood, mad-genius posterboy of the counterculture.

Although the facts are still the facts --- Dylan was a manipulative egomaniac, Baez his pawn --- Hajdu's meticulous research and unwavering fairness go a long way toward debunking the mythology surrounding the dynamic duo and their demise. As Hajdu is careful to point out, Baez's romance with Dylan was as much a strategic alliance for her as it was for him. An unabashed appropriator of other people's music (as was Dylan and just about everybody in the folk movement), Baez needed Dylan's songs to beef up her repertoire. During every one of her performances, she would bring out "surprise guest" Bob Dylan --- the duets they performed lent Dylan a credibility he lacked, but of Baez they also said, "if folk was headed witherward to Bob Dylan, it was going toward, not away from Joan Baez. She was connected to him." More to the point, Dylan's songs lent Baez a versatility that her otherwise traditional, unsophisticated protest songs severely lacked.

Hajdu's biography becomes its most revelatory when Richard Fariña enters the picture. His first major contribution to the making of the folk counterculture, as clearly drawn and compellingly argued by Hajdu, implicates Fariña as the force behind Dylan's sudden interest in Joan Baez (he was from the Guthrie camp, she from the Seeger. Fariña from the big-idea Fariña camp, bridged the gap). According to Fred Neil, a mutual friend, Fariña told Dylan, "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...All you need to do, man, is start screwing Joan Baez." Dylan joked, "That's a good idea man --- I think I'll do that. But I don't want her singing none of my songs."

Even more eyebrow raising than tracing one of the most notorious breakups in music history back to Richard Fariña, Hajdu, again quite compellingly, credits the birth of the folk-rock megamovement to Fariña, not Dylan, its long-accepted founding father. Obsessed with recording "mature poetry lyrics and music in the rock style" (a long forgotten genre, now that Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly were out of the picture, according to Hajdu) --- Fariña eventually laid the tracks to "One-Way Ticket" and "Reno Nevada," the latter of which has a long electric guitar solo "so raw it nearly jeopardized the whole album." It was Fariña, Hajdu explains, that took the initial steps. It was Fariña that first fully captured the essence of the folk-rock sensibility: "Folk music, through no fault of its own, fooled us into certain sympathies and nostalgic alliances with the so-called traditional past...what the hell were rebels doing looking for roots? And how long would people with contemporary poetic sensibilities be content to sing archaic material?"

Mimi Fariña Baez was a shockingly beautiful young woman and the object of Fariña's, Dylan's --- and, it seems, every man who came in contact with her --- desire, and a talented musician in her own right (she and Richard recorded two albums together, though she admits "they were really Richard's thing"). Her life and times, however, don't paint an especially bold and revolutionary picture. Considering the company she kept, unless she was a fame-obsessed, narcissist whose mind never stopped thinking up brilliant ways to reinvent herself in the "name of truth and authenticity," how could they really?

Reviewed by Sarah Brennan on April 10, 2002

Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina, and Richard Farina
by David Hajdu

  • Publication Date: April 10, 2002
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: North Point Press
  • ISBN-10: 086547642X
  • ISBN-13: 9780865476424