Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Fun with Dick and Joan and Bob and Mimi

Positively 4th Street
The Life and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña
A history by David Hajdu, 2001

Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me
A novel by Richard Fariña, 1966

Whew! Here is a double flashback of 60s culture that should stir the memories of aging hippies (but I can’t imagine what a young person might get out of reading these two books.) Of the four people in the title of the Hajdu book, Bob Dylan is by far the most famous. Before he was famous as a folksinger, however, Joan Baez was. She encouraged Bob to the point of bringing him onstage at her concerts. Another acquaintance of Bob’s at the time was Richard (Dick) Fariña, a college dropout turned writer-folkie who was married to Carolyn Hester, another folksinger. Joan knew Richard and introduced him to Bob, and her younger sister Mimi. This foursome became close, Bob was attracted to Mimi from the start, but 25-year-old Richard was absolutely smitten, divorcing Hester and marrying Mimi when she was only 17 and still in high school! Bob and Richard were friendly to a degree—Richard envied Bob’s musical prowess and Dylan was intrigued by Richard’s success as a writer. Joan kept a close eye on the other three; she was jealous of the way Mimi’s natural beauty attracted Bob and she was wary of the ‘wild’ Richard and made sure that he didn’t do anything to hurt her younger sister.

Joan’s career had reached its peak at the time Dylan’s was taking off. Meanwhile, Mimi and Richard had begun to have some success as a performing and recording duo. Dylan eventually split with Joan but in 1966 Mimi and Richard’s idyllic life together was torn asunder by Richard’s death in a motorcycle accident—two days after the publication of his debut novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me.

Been Down is a roller-coaster of a novel. Its protagonist, Gnossos, is a off-again on-again student at a college in upstate New York (based on Cornell) who evidently attends on a some kind of trust/scholarship (“the exemption”), supplementing his income with gambling and living on paregoric (opium), marijuana, mescaline, Red Cap ale, and hard liquor. He is a non-stop hustler who careens from one misdemeanor to another, punctuated by various felonies. His behavior with women is reprehensible, but still they seek him out. Throughout the book Fariña casts his gaze at America—all the tropes of the late 60s counter-culture are here—but seen from the late 1950s, including a trip to Havana just before Castro’s takeover.

This book was not well-reviewed when it was first released. The language is used as an impressionist collage; it is as far from The Iowa Writer’s Workshop as one can get (which is a big plus for me.) Been Down does have its fans, Thomas Pynchon (who was a classmate of Fariña’s) wrote a glowing introduction to the 1983 Penguin Classic edition and his description of Gnossos could be a description of Richard himself:
… he’s really too much in love with being alive, with dope, sex, rock n roll—he feels so good he has to take chances, has to keep tempting death, only half—realizing that the more intensely he lives, the better the odds of his number finally coming up.
Book of these books are imperfect; Hajdu goes out on a limb from time to time, and Fariña’s writing is definitely not for every taste. But reading them back-to-back they give an in-depth look at one of the most interesting figures of the early-to-mid 1960s. Fariña was a link between the beats and the hippies, between Burroughs and Hunter Thompson, between Kerouac and Brautigan. He had real success as a lyricist and his recordings with Mimi are a precious time-capsule from a simpler era.

Almost everyone knows how Dylan’s career played out, and Joan has found new fans among younger audiences. Mimi had a rough time of it after Richard’s death, but she did resume her musical career and found a new one as promoter of benefit concerts until she died in 2001.

Here is the recording of Mimi and Richard’s biggest ‘hit’ :

And here is the reason I became so interested in them (click on the description in the link.) The Weaver and I will spend our winter vacation there!

By Professor Batty


Blogger jono said...

That takes me WAY back. Nice house and location, too.

Blogger Professor Batty said...

That was another world, wasn’t it?

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