Wednesday, October 24, 2001

Scoundrels’ progress

Looking under a rock for Bob Dylan and Richard Fariña.

Posted By on Wed, Oct 24, 2001 at 12:00 AM

Mimi Baez once said that neither Bob Dylan nor Richard Fariña knew how to ride a motorcycle, and she was right on the money: Both men suffered serious crashes that affected them in profoundly different ways. David Hajdu’s Positively Fourth Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña is the bumpy ride leading to those accidents, the portrait of two artists living and working at breakneck speed.

It’s a fascinating book, an engrossing account of 1960s counterculture America that provides an important connection between pop music and literature. Many Dylan fans tend to be readers, writers and artists, and we’ve been starving for something with a literary slant that divulges more than his association with Allen Ginsberg. Hajdu’s book is it, mainly for its three-dimensional painting of Fariña, friend and rival of Dylan and, more importantly, author of the hilariously original Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me.

Of Irish and Cuban parentage, Fariña led a whirlwind life, studying at Cornell University, befriending author Thomas Pynchon, publishing stories and poems in Mademoiselle and the Atlantic, wedding folk singer Carolyn Hester, befriending Dylan, divorcing Hester, marrying Mimi Baez (then only 17), recording critically acclaimed albums with his second wife, and finally writing Been Down So Long. For those unfamiliar with the novel, it’s a darkly comical snapshot of the ’60s, a tale that follows young Gnossos Pappadopoulis through love, drugs and betrayal, from the campus of an Eastern college to riotous Cuba and back, and it brings to mind the lyricism of Dylan Thomas and the black Irish humor of J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man.

If Fariña has a literary equivalent, it is undoubtedly Jack Kerouac’s Neal Cassady, a burst of energy bent on partying through every moment of life. Fariña, like Cassady, had a terrible temper, knew how to charm the pants off anyone and managed to pull just about every girl he wanted. But for all his ugliness, he’s entertaining as hell. While courting a drunk Mimi Baez, he tells her a story that makes her laugh so hard she pukes up a sandwich on his face. Grinning, he wipes it off and continues with the tale. Not long thereafter, the two are married, with Pynchon, who published V. that year, serving as best man.

But all this merriment is overshadowed by the story’s ugly premise. Fariña uses Mimi’s connection to her sister Joan to advance his career, while Dylan dates the folk queen herself, soaking up and eventually eclipsing her popularity. The Baez sisters become chained to men of Machiavellian cruelty, and they suffer accordingly. For instance, we learn that Dylan’s decision to date Joan owes much to Fariña. Counseling Dylan on how to achieve success, he says, “All you need to do, man, is start screwing Joan Baez.”

Dylan’s reply? “That’s a good idea — I think I’ll do that.”

Among Dylan’s other atrocities, he purposely vomits on a fan, declares that “Folk is a bunch of fat people” and ridicules Joan’s appearance, about which she was very sensitive, in a restaurant. It is this last act that causes Mimi to fly from her seat, grab his hair and pull his head over the back of a chair, making him choke and cry. At this point, even the biggest Dylan fans will find themselves rooting for Mimi.

The whole thing comes to a tragic end, worse than anything Hollywood has cooked up in some time. On Mimi’s 21st birthday (which happened to coincide with her husband’s book-signing party for Been Down So Long), Fariña goes for a motorcycle ride from which he never returns. Dylan suffers a crash 60 days later, but he survives. Years after his less-serious but more-publicized accident, he runs into Mimi.

“Hey, that was a drag about Dick,” he says. “It happened right around my thing, you know. Made me think.”

What we’re left with then is a record of depravity lurking behind some of the 20th century’s great works. There are, however, a few perks. The book is gorgeously packaged, wrapped in a colorful painting by Eric von Schmidt and filled with black-and-white photographs. We also gain a rare interview with the reclusive Pynchon (conducted, appropriately, by fax). But for those who consider Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde and Been Down So Long masterpieces, it is vaguely disappointing to learn that their creators were essentially scumbags.

Bob Dylan performs at Cobo Arena in Detroit, 8 p.m., Friday, Nov. 9. Call 248-645-6666 for tickets.

Read Timothy Dugdale's review of Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited, an overly flattering look at the musical celebrity's life so far.

Sean Daigle is a Detroit-based freelance writer. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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