Friday, September 18, 2009|
Thursday, September 17, 2009
by Richard Farina
Positiviely Fourth Street:
The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina & Richard Farina
by David Hajdu
Richard Farina was an acclaimed folksinger who had a successful folk duo act with his wife, Mimi Baez, Joan Baez' little sister. A semi-professional writer whose stories and poems appeared in print, he died tragically in a motorcycle accident coming home from a party to celebrate the publication of his debut novel, the thinly-veiled roman a clef Been Down So Long It Look Like Up To Me, which he had been writing off-and-on for six years, starting in college.
This is, of course, half the story. I read Farina's Down before reading the biography Positively Fourth Street. Down is a somewhat difficult read, written as it is in a very dense dialect of 60s-era hipster-speak. A lot of digging goes on in both the dialogue and the narration, and in a book where the protagonist's voice is identical to the narrator's, it's impossible not to conflate the two. Which may have been Farina's intention.
Down is the story of Gnossos Pappadopoulis, a young man who returns to college after a year spent traveling and discovering himself, filled with tales of unlikely derring-do and colorful characters. Sometimes we're told that his colorful stories are lies, at other times characters from his constant ongoing autobiography (and Gnossos loves to talk) turn up to prove them true.
The action in the story plays like a fever dream, with every emotion and act hyped to a maximum color and effect. Since this is the product of a young man who, in the course of writing his novel has gone through many life changes (in real life, Farina continued to write this book while graduating college, getting married twice, and finding an unlikely brush with fame and fortune), and so the maturity level of the book ranges wildly from childish to startlingly adult and wise.
To wit: the book beings with its funniest story, of the protagonist wrangling an invitation to his friend's fraternity's rush week events with no intention of joining, but rather scamming a free steak dinner. In the course of the night, he proceeds to smoke strong weed (before it became the mainstream's drug of choice, back when marijuana was confined, in the popular imagination, to the domain of musicians and vagrants), get massively drunk, and run havoc through the frat house.
In what was, undoubtedly a 1950s/60s young hipster's wet dream of ultimate coolness, Pappadopoulis takes a date to a black nightclub, and impresses her (and the audience) with how friendly he is, even with the black jazz musicians who his normal white society rejects.
On the other end of that scale, the book ends with a group of college revolutionaries, whose most radical act hitherto had been to stage a campus-wide protest of restrictions on co-ed cohabitation. heading to revolution-era Cuba to "go into the mountains" and join the revolt. Instead, one of their friends gets shot on the street before they can begin, and our Gnossos returns to the States with his tail between his legs.
My other big problem with this book is what it unintentionally points up a big problem with the "progressive" movement of the '60s - in this book, women are treated, more often as mindless sex objects, or sex objects who have no compunction about betraying the men who love them. There's nothing even as sophisticated as the Madonna/Whore Complex in this book, if only because in this book the Madonna is also the Whore.
Also, the casual racism, where black friends are treated as tokens of status, and foreigners are described in animal terms. I know this was written during a different time, but it was a time when casual sexism and racism permeated even the "liberal" culture.
But all in all, there's more to recommend this novel than not, although it has become so entwined with the legend of an artist cut off in his prime that it has gained an aura of great literature that the reality cannot live up to: that this is a very good first book from a man with clearly a lot of natural talent that still needed to be tempered and controlled. I really think that if he had been able to focus his literary ambitions, Richard Farina could have written an amazing third or fourth novel.
In Positively Fourth Street, the reader has to remember that there's two sides to every story, and the protagonists who come off worst are Richard Farina, a man who is unable to give his side of the story, and Bob Dylan, a man who refuses to.
The author, David Hajdu, makes several interesting parallels between Farina and Dylan, from the obvious to the less-so. Both are painted as men of talent, whose artistry with music and writing is equalled by their artistry with bullshit and opportunism. Dylan hangs himself with his own words and actions here; infiltrating the NYC folk scene, becoming a superstar of the protest scene, although he would later go on to truly make his mark with personal, non-topical songwriting, and disavow any interest in the progressive community.
His relationship with Baez plays as a metaphor, going from shyly seducing her with his songwriting talent, starting a whirlwind romance that results in Baez talking up Dylan's concert and bringing him on for guest appearances at her sold-out shows. When he becomes a star in his own right, he refuses to pay her the same favor, and it isn't until his Rolling Thunder Revue Tour a decade later that he features Joan Baez as a guest performer. As a professional tactic, it was crucial that Dylan make this move to truly separate himself, but as a personal tactic it's a bit of a dick move. But as with all stories about relationships, there are undoubtedly other things that we the casual reader were not privy to.
Farina, likewise, is portrayed as an almost romantic grifter, moving from one budding star of the folk scene, his first wife Carolyn Hester, to Mimi Baez, the little sister of a true superstar of the folks scene, whom he begins courting while still married. Farina the opportunist infiltrates the inner circle of a wary Joan Baez, who reads as a somewhat uneducated, intellectually incurious, if well-meaning, middle-class Bohemian.
The book ends with dual motorcycle crashes - the one on the West Coast that kills Richard Farina and the other on the East Coast that gives Bob Dylan a chance to rest and renew his life.
Overall, two very different books that combine to paint a picture of an interesting set of characters.
Friday, September 11, 2009
Wednesday, September 09, 2009
On the other hand, the time I waste on the Internet and watching television has gone way up, which is not good. So to get back into the literacy habit, I've decided to challenge myself to read at least one book a week. And I figured, what better time to do it than the first week of September, when children go back to school?
Obviously, if something big comes up that's good but commands most of my focus, a big writing job, say, or I end up in a coma, I'm going to give myself a break. And I'm not going to pressure myself to read nothing but Great Books of Literature. Reading is fun, and a great hobby, and I'm going to treat it as such.
Also, I'm going to discuss these books on my blog. Fair warning: I'm not a literature major. Hell, I didn't even finish college. And I certainly have no interest in providing professional-level literary criticism. So I'm going to get some things wrong, going to use simple terms instead of the kinds that educated people use. Believe me, I welcome corrections. I genuinely like learning new things.
So let's talk about this book, The Year of Living Biblically, by AJ Jacobs. This is a book I've been wanting to read for a number of reasons:
First, I did a reading show with the guy a few years ago, which led me to pick up his first book, The Know-It All (about his year spent reading the entirety of The Enyclopedia Brittanica), which I enjoyed. Then again, it was an experience I could relate to - as a kid I used to read Leonard Maltin's movie capsule review books for fun, and I used to buy those Uncle John Bathroom Reader books just for the fun of reading them back-to-front. Hell, i've probably spent more time reading through the Trivia sections on IMDB than I should admit.
Secondly, having been raised as a Buddhist in a Catholic/Jewish family, in an incredibly diverse neighborhood in Queens, I have always been fascinated by the major organized religions and the effect they have on the lives of their followers. My favorite class in my aborted college career was called "Literature of the Bible," and it studied the Bible as a book of literature rather than a religious text. This inspired me to read the Bible front-to-back, mostly (I kind os skipped chapters like The Book of Numbers, which were just lists and lists), and while it is a tough slog there is enough to reward the casual reader that I would recommend it.
Jacobs decided to devote a year of his life to following the Bible the way most religions do to one degree or another - as if it were God's instruction manual, and following as many rules as literally as possible. As a guy I refer to as Jew-ish (raised to identify as a member of the Tribe, but not particularly observant of, or even interested in, the religion that forms his culture), he finds himself really delving into it.
His journey takes us into some places both interesting - he gets inside the insular world of the Hasidic Jews, as a typical New Yorker, I only know from seeing those guys in the Diamond District and the occasional horror story - and mundane - "Thrill to the incredible story about an Amish guy who's hard to talk to!" But even those latter yield their interesting moments; an otherwise taciturn Amish farmer suddenly busting out a corny Amish joke, and then a harmonica solo. Little bursts of independent humanity from a man who has given his life to a religion whose strict interpretation of a millennia-old text demands a sacrifice of the self for the betterment of the community.
Some of the best stories in this book pertain to the effect this experiment has on Jacobs' marriage; old-time religion is notoriously hard on women, and rules pertaining to mens' treatment of them, obviously, rub his modern and independent wife the wrong way. My favorite bit involves her reaction to the rules he must suddenly abide concerning not being allowed to touch a woman for a week after her menstruation, which extends to not being allowed to sit on any chairs or use an bed she has touched. He comes home one night to the announcement that she has used every chair in the house.
As Jacobs molds his exterior further and further to conform to the Bible's rules - growing his beard out, wearing clothes fringed with tassels, getting his hair cut just so, he finds his interior world changing as well. He finds himself making the connection between the sometimes arbitrary and superficial, seemingly-meaningless rules on dress and diet and conduct, and what they mean to genuinely think about his relationship to his world. He finds himself growing more connected to what it means to be part of a community whose stories, whose traditions, and whose laws go back to literally the dawn of recorded history.
If I had a major complaint about this book, it is that the author tries to include as much as possible, sometimes referencing things in passing that could do with more detailed exploration. Then again, if he wrote the kind of book I wanted, it would probably be twice as long as Infinite Jest (another book on my list) and sell about ten copies.
In short: I liked it! Read it! Bye!