Positively 4th Street: The Life and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina
by David Hajdu
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
328 pages, 2001
Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan
by Howard Sounes
Published by Grove Press
527 pages, 2001
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
During a weekend retreat at a Benedictine monastery earlier this year, I reconnected with one of the idols of my youth in a setting which was both wildly unlikely and oddly appropriate. "I'd like to play you some of the most spiritual music ever written," Father John told us as he switched on the CD player to the howling bark of the greatest visionary popular music has ever known, Bob Dylan.
Appropriate, because after all, Dylan the master trickster pops up everywhere these days on TV commercial jingles, in an audience with the Pope (in which he sang "Blowin' in the Wind"), at the Kennedy Center as an awkward but grateful honoree and even at this year's Academy Awards.
He has been nominated for a Nobel Prize for literature and booed off the stage by hostile audiences for the sin of "going electric." Throughout his monumental career as a troubadour of conscience, Bob Dylan has not reflected the times so much as predicted them, keeping one eerie step ahead of whatever way the wind blows.
It's not surprising that on the occasion of his 60th birthday, various writers would attempt to capture his enigmatic presence in biography. This is a nearly impossible task, like picking up a blob of mercury that scatters into a million glittering bits. The problem is that Dylan has lived so many lives in one, all of them radically intense: the idealistic young folkie visiting Woody Guthrie in the hospital, the jaded rocker crashing his motorbike, the family-oriented country squire, the born-again Christian zealot, the actor (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Dharma and Greg), the grizzled survivor on his famous Never-Ending Tour.
Just when critics were about to write him off as a has-been, he recorded the amazing 1997 Grammy-winner Time Out of Mind, followed up by the ultimate Dylan hurting-love song, "Things Have Changed." Receiving his Oscar for best song, he looked frayed around the edges, exhausted by a life at the fringes of normalcy. But he still has those hypnotic, penetrating eyes; eyes that can see for a thousand miles, deep into the heart of life's most fragile, compelling mysteries.
New York journalist David Hajdu has come as close as any writer to nailing Dylan's mercurial soul to the page a curious fact, given that Positively 4th Street does not center on him exclusively: but then, perhaps enigmas are best glimpsed out of the corner of your eye. The book recreates a charmed time, the era of the 1960s folk boom with its burning idealism and compelling personalities. It was the perfect cultural milieu for a gifted, ambitious artist like Dylan to make his debut.
But as Hajdu points out, he wasn't the only opportunist in the crowd. Joan Baez comes across as a curious mixture of brash confidence and quaking insecurity, using the 60s to her advantage in a way that looks quite ruthless in retrospect. "She just devoured everybody's things," a friend recalls of her ability to expropriate song material and make it her own. "I knew I could do what (the folk singers) were doing and a lot better than them," Baez claimed.
Her Anglo-Mexican background made her a bit of an exotic and she graduated from the coffeehouses of Cambridge to the Newport Folk Festival in 1959. Musician Bob Gibson gave her a push, but it was hardly necessary: "If I hadn't 'introduced' Joan Baez, someone else would have. It was like 'discovering' the Grand Canyon."
Such a force of nature seemed to be on a predestined collision-course with another astral body, a tightly wound Minnesotan minstrel-boy newly renamed Bob Dylan. The former Bobby Zimmerman, a baby-faced Jewish rock musician from a small town, had remade himself in Woody Guthrie's image and was busy charming the socks off people (particularly young women) all over New York's Greenwich Village.
Dylan even mimicked Guthrie's tics from Huntington's chorea, causing fellow singer Eric von Schmidt to describe him as "a spastic little gnome." But with all his charm, Dylan was paradoxically an extreme introvert; as Theodore Bikel reminisced, "He didn't reach out to touch you. You had to come where he was."
When these two supernatural beings joined forces, they immediately went supernova. Dylan's embryonic talent to capture the political zeitgeist was cheered on by an enthralled, deeply infatuated Baez.
Meanwhile her little sister Mimi, still in high school, was developing a quieter but beautifully polished musical gift of her own. Destined to live forever in Joan's giant shadow, she even ended up with a sort of faux Bob Dylan in the person of Cuban-Irish writer Richard Farina, whom she married at the tender age of 17.
The Farina of Hajdu's account was not so much an original as a badly smudged photocopy of Dylan's blazing genius ("I could kind of see the strings," one friend put it), a hanger-on who would stop at nothing to further his ambitions. While Dylan turned out such searing masterpieces as "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "Masters of War" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'," Farina fiddled with a dulcimer and rehashed traditional folk tunes, winning over a surprising number of people on charm alone.
"He walked and talked as if he had been born wearing a cape," a friend remembers. Many believed he went after Mimi just to get to Joan and the ploy worked. For a time there was a strange sort of romantic formation, not a triangle so much as a rectangle, Bob and Joan on one side, Mimi and Richard on the other, with flirtations flying dangerously in all directions.
Though Hajdu is very good at recreating all the fizz and spark of the folk era, he drops names at such a thick rate that it can make for hard going: "Carolyn and Richard had never met Mimi and Todd, and Mimi and Todd had not met Alex Campbell, a Scottish folk singer whom Carolyn, Richard and John knew." There must be a less-awkward way to introduce the huge cast of players on the folk scene. But like the magazine reporter he is, Hajdu just has to tell us who was there and what was said, giving some passages a distinct gossip-column flavor.
Still, Hajdu does show us a Dylan bristling with paradox: stumblingly inarticulate in person, but a master communicator on stage; a protest-song writer par excellence who had virtually no interest in politics; a man both vicious (as in the slashing "Positively 4th Street," a diatribe against all his old Greenwich Village friends: "I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes,/You'd know what a drag it is to see you") and deeply compassionate, as in the "Ballad of Hollis Brown" and "Chimes of Freedom."
Hajdu traces the inevitable falling-out between the King and Queen of folk, as Baez comes to realize that Dylan "criticizes society, and I criticize it, but he ends up saying there is not a goddamned thing you can do about it, so screw it. And I say just the opposite." Dylan's scandalously poor treatment of Joan on his tour to London further undermined the romance, which was destined to blaze briefly, then collapse.
A far worse disaster struck Mimi Baez Farina when her husband was killed in a motorcycle crash on her 21st birthday in 1966. Suddenly it was all over. Dylan abandoned folk and went electric; Joan Baez remained glued in the 60s, forever associated with that all-too-brief time when anything seemed possible.
For a more blow-by-blow account of the life of Bob Dylan, you couldn't do much better than British writer Howard Sounes' "Down the Highway." This book is as detailed and relentless as one of Dylan's marathon-length songs (say, "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" or "Desolation Row") and seems to go on as long as the fabled Never-Ending Tour. For Dylan addicts hungry for trivia tidbits, this is fine fare, but there is a certain fineness missing from the writing, a subtlety which would have helped capture the mystery of the man.
Here we learn that Bob's nickname in high school was Zimbo, and that he piled his hair on top of his head in deliberate imitation of Little Richard. We find out that the last thing his mother said when he left home was, "Don't keep writing poetry, please don't."
Though Sounes does acknowledge the greatness of Dylan's lyrics (citing such classic lines as "he not busy being born is busy dying" and "you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows"), he tends to focus more on his subject's messy, convoluted personal life with its dozens of complicated love affairs. Though Dylan made a brave attempt at marriage to Sara Lowndes and has been a loving father to his six children, he is not good husband material and can't even seem to hang on to his friends for long.
What emerges in Sounes' book is a portrait of a desperately lonely man, isolated by his genius and an almost pathological social awkwardness. In some ways Bob Dylan is a bit of an idiot savant, supremely gifted in his words and music but handicapped everywhere else. But as Sounes points out, his strange charisma is so strong that these flaws only add to his mystique. As one record executive put it, "Is he a regular guy? No. Why would you want him to be?"
The baffling way he has always played with the press reflects a deep shyness and a reluctance to share private details. It would be interesting to know what Dylan would make of a book that probes his personal life so deeply, sometimes at the expense of what should be the main focus, his art.
Still, I was intrigued to learn that "Lay, Lady, Lay" was originally written for Midnight Cowboy (typically, Dylan missed the deadline) and that Woodstock legend Wavy Gravy remains a close friend. And yes, the musicians really were stoned on the infamous "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" (which, like a lot of Dylan classics, was done in a single take).
But let the master have the last word. In preparing to write this piece, I plunged back into those songs again and was astounded at their freshness and power, even decades later. This is the real reason Dylan is worthy subject matter for books like these. The man still has the capacity to move me to tears, especially in my personal favorite, his ringing anthem of the dispossessed, Chimes of Freedom:
Tolling for the aching, whose wounds cannot be nursed,
To that I say amen, Bob; amen. | June 2001
Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.