One of the signal perversities of celebrity culture is the way it induces ordinary Janes and Joes to identify with the love lives of men and women who by the nature of their calling are no good at loving. Celebrities are extraordinary performers, and all extraordinary performers share two attributes: self-centeredness and fame. Self-centeredness isn’t egotism, but it’s close enough, and bad enough when it comes to empathy (as opposed to pushing people’s buttons, which is what extraordinary performers do for a living). And fame is the cure for alienation that’s worse than the disease, alleviating anonymity in a world of big cities and bigger media while making it impossible to know who your friends are.
Hence the pathology of People-style examinations of pop musicians, movie stars, athletes, politicians, etc. But what about more literary endeavors—namely, biographies, which beyond fanbook cash-ins are presumably devoted to folks who have changed history, and thus justify intelligent curiosity about what made them tick? Well, especially beyond academia, that’s presuming a lot. David Hajdu’s 1996 Lush Life qualifies by delving into the life and work of Billy Strayhorn, a heroic composer who happened to be black and gay, and whose contribution to the Duke Ellington canon—as Hajdu argues rather too strenuously, but grant a fella his thesis—deserves more attention than it gets. Positively 4th Street smells a little different.
Commercially, this story of four romantically linked folksingers—Bob Dylan and Joan Baez stellar, Richard and Joan’s little sister Mimi Fariña merely mythic—posits the same untapped nostalgia market courted by Rhino’s three-CD Washington Square Memoirs: The Great Urban Folk Boom 1950-1970. Farrar, Straus would be overjoyed to rope in half the college students who made the pilgrimage to Newport in the ’60s, and knows that even back then this literate, middle-class target audience had a weakness for the past, the more romantic the better. A lucid stylist and diligent interviewer, Hajdu performs the narrative chore of contextualizing and limning the Fariñas’ tragic marriage and Joan and Bobby’s doomed affair with considerable grace and enough insight to get to the next quote. But in order to afford his story the patina of respectability he and the audience require, he feels he needs a bigger thesis. And what he comes up with should give Billy Strayhorn partisans pause.
For what Hajdu implies is that, just as Duke Ellington gets credit that Billy Strayhorn deserves, Bob Dylan gets credit that Richard Fariña deserves. The analogy isn’t explicit; Positively 4th Street never mentions Strayhorn. But as I read Lush Life in the new book’s wake—much preferring it, in part because Strayhorn was such an admirable human being—it became inescapable. For somebody treading ground already pounded into dust by legions of Ellington and Dylan adepts, the expedience of such theories is self-evident. Hajdu doesn’t overdo it—since Fariña died in 1966, his must be a tale of cheated potential rather than neglected achievement. But he does report that Fariña inspired Dylan to take up with Baez. He does adjudge Fariña’s literary endeavors a spur to Dylan’s, which even if true means Fariña distracted Dylan from a verbal genius that dispenses with the page. And, most remarkably, he does credit Fariña with inventing folk-rock by adding electric guitar to a song called “Reno, Nevada,” even though Dylan had recorded “Mixed Up Confusion” with a rock band 10 months before—quickly explaining that Dylan “would later dismiss” (what Hajdu doesn’t mention was) his first single, as if Dylan is to be taken literally about anything, especially his own work. Sheesh. “Mixed Up Confusion” is no masterpiece, but at least it has some bite to it, while anyone who believes Fariña “snarls” “Reno, Nevada” has listened to too much Billy Strayhorn.
Not that Hajdu is utterly clueless about music here. I’d say he’s excellent on Baez, although maybe that’s just because I share the disdain informing such stinted praise as “gifted with exceptional intonation, especially by the forgiving standards of vernacular music” (well, not that disdain, but disdain in general). When he cites Dylan’s “illusion of artlessness,” he’s hit the nub even if he’s incapable of understanding how difficult, world-historic, and postliterary it might be to sustain that illusion, as Dylan miraculously does 35 years past the expiration date of Hajdu’s period piece. But you’d never know from this book that the Fariñas couldn’t sing even by the forgiving standards of vernacular music, where mildness rarely cuts it, and that like most folkies they were too polite (and “literary”) by half. Physically gorgeous, synergistic, interested in rhythm, they were great in theory. But like Fariña’s preciously word-drunk Ivy League novel, whose sole surviving virtue is as an early case study in hip male chauvinism, their compilation CD has only documentary value. A thesis can be a worrisome thing.
The Fariñas’ love story, on the other hand, had promise. True, when Mimi assayed her engagement ring sometime after her husband got on one too many motorcycles, she found out the “ruby” was glass. Richard was a charming rogue, and rogues stray; Hajdu faithfully tracks his flirtations with his sister-in-law, which given Joan’s self-centeredness could conceivably have gotten very ugly. But Fariña also seemed to be learning something about conjugal interaction, as sometimes happens to rogues as they push 30, and it’s unlikely he would ever have achieved the pitch of celebrity that makes love so impossible. Bob and Joan were different. Because Baez was much warmer and funnier as a person than as an artist, Hajdu’s belief that Dylan brought out her maternal side rings true, and his tender description of the hugs and giggles they shared is convincing. But so is a jealous jape by MacDougal Street godfather Izzy Young: “They would get married, if only they could agree on whose last name to use.” And you have to wince when folk promoter Dick Waterman describes the pain he saw on Baez’s face the first time she heard “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”: “Goodbye’s too good a word, babe/So I’ll just say fare-thee-well.”
Politicians, athletes, and even movie stars have it easier—their public lives don’t depend on their love lives. Pop musicians are expected to make art out of their romantic ups and downs. We need them to feed our own emotions. But a biography like this one should demonstrate unequivocally that we take them literally at our peril. And that’s a thesis Hajdu doesn’t have it in him to explore.