Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña , by David Hajdu. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 328 pages, $25.
Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s , by Nick Bromell. The University of Chicago Press, 225 pages, $22.50.
For those of us now in our late 40′s or our 50′s-at least those of us who once lived with the anxiously exhilarating sense of a world in transformation-a reading of David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña is bound to elicit a very basic reaction. Nostalgia. Is there another word for it? Jiggle the facts how you will, things were better then, however much they may also have been worse. Indeed, beyond its immediate surface appeal as gossip popcorn for unregenerate folkies, Mr. Hajdu’s book brings a whole new world, the long-gone look and feel of things, swarming up out of the memory hole.
The time is the early 60′s. Toward the beginning of the book, the four principals-three of them just barely out of their teens, the fourth, Mimi Baez, still doing her high-school homework-are in that wonderfully raw and poignant state of first formation. We meet the shyly ambitious Joan Baez, ready to rev up her extraordinary pipes before any available gathering; the young Bob Dylan, just recently emerged from his small-town-Minnesota rock apprenticeship, already scrapping on his way to his first serious incarnation as the next Woody Guthrie; Richard Fariña, done being Thomas Pynchon’s roommate at Cornell University, now dreaming his way toward literary stardom ….
Mr. Hajdu proceeds by marking the intersection of their various paths, assuming that when the cross-hatching becomes densest he will have found his way to the center of the Zeitgeist that was the folk scene. And he is right, for between them-in their friendships, romances, rivalries and betrayals, not to mention their separate and collective forging of musical style-these four players mapped the scene. Not all of it, of course. Dozens of others-including Mark Spoelstra, Dave Van Ronk, Carolyn Hester, “Spider” John Koerner, Eric von Schmidt, Jim Rooney-were right there with them. But Mr. Hajdu persuades us that this nexus of talents was defining, if not representative.
Positively 4th Street is, in the best sense, a book of gossip: gossip as the archaeology of interesting particulars, a compilation of anecdote and suggestive speculation that recreates the intricate contagion that was early-60′s folk in New York City, Cambridge and elsewhere. Mr. Hajdu has the art of staging his moments without subjecting them to the embalming gaze of hindsight, and the result is a tonic freshness, the sense of a spirit recovered. The scenes are ragged with the raggedness of the times, and credible. As, for example, when Mr. Hajdu reports on an encounter between Bob Dylan and Joan Baez-they had spoken only twice before-at a party in Cambridge in 1963. Mr. Dylan, we learn, has been jamming with Jim Kweskin, of Jug Band fame. As Mark Spoelstra recalls, “They were sitting there with their noses three inches apart, proving to each other how many lyrics they knew to all these songs or something …. It wasn’t fun. It was tense, and Joanie walked in on that.”
Mr. Hajdu then unfolds the moment: “Catching Joan’s eye as he leaned back in his chair, Bob said to her, ‘Hey, how ya doin’? Is your sister here?’ Joan said, ‘No,’ flatly and finished the sentence with a glare that expressed, in essence, and fuck you for asking. ‘Wanna hear a song I wrote?’ Bob responded. Dylan nestled his guitar on his lap and began strumming a C chord in three-quarter time. He repeated it until the small room hushed, then he slid into the opening of ‘With God on Our Side.’ By the end of the song’s nine verses, Joan Baez was no longer indifferent to Bob Dylan or irked by his crush on her sister Mimi.”
And so it goes. The two singers of course were soon lovers, merging private and public selves as they traveled and performed together. The whole period became fodder for Ms. Baez’s later nostalgic tour de force, “Diamonds and Rust”-”Speaking strictly for me / We both could have died then and there”-before the powerful warps of ambition, political involvement (Mr. Dylan was pulling away from protest as Ms. Baez was immersing herself ever more deeply) and musical taste (Mr. Dylan’s sense of edge launched him past Ms. Baez almost instantly) pulled them bitterly apart.
Mr. Dylan’s trajectory carried him straight to the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, where he sent folk loyalists reeling with his electrified closing set; in that same year came the epoch-making release of Highway 61 Revisited.
Bob Dylan is, understandably, the enigmatic core of Mr. Hajdu’s book, but for a few chapters Richard Fariña gives him a run for his money. Strutting, charismatic, one of life’s great improvisers, Fariña-via his involvement with young Mimi Baez-steps with a blackguard’s charm right into the heart of the folk scene, more or less inventing a musical career for himself from scratch, putting the ever-watchful Mr. Dylan on his guard as he turned his hard-driving-that is, basic-dulcimer style into a trademark and his verbal knack into a songwriting gift. He was, of course, no Bob Dylan, but then who was? One of the tragedies of the era was Fariña’s death in 1966 in a motorcycle accident on his way home from a book-signing party for his novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. Of his friend and rival’s death, Mr. Dylan reportedly said to his widow, Mimi, many years later, referring to his own well-known motorcycle accident: “Hey, that was a drag about Dick …. It happened right around my thing, you know. Made me think.” Mr. Dylan has never led with his tact.
Mr. Hajdu does a marvelous job of getting the stories-the encounters and interchanges-on the page. He has clearly talked to everyone. No less importantly, he is able to channel the energies of that era convincingly. His weave of cultural history and dish creates a most poignant sense of coalescence and dissolution, both on the personal level, as relationships change and fray, and the larger cultural level, where-how to put it?-a whole larger feeling about things, the essence of 60′s folk, emerges, flourishes and fades. Diamonds and rust.
We find a similar sense of immersion, but a somewhat differently angled view, in Nick Bromell’s Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s, a book which, interestingly, catches some part of Mr. Hajdu’s story but situates it in a larger but also more generationally specific cultural frame. Writing as an insider, Mr. Bromell opens by acknowledging that his own life was in the deepest ways shaped by the counterculture of the late 1960′s. Less anecdotal, a bit more insistently reflective, he fends off the corrective perspectives supplied by hindsight and tries to get back to what the world felt like then, coming at us, back when music was not a market commodity (not in the same way), not a lifestyle preference, but an environment, a concentration of signals about what it meant to be alive-how one should proceed in the face of apparent cultural apocalypse. Writes Mr. Bromell: “I want to get at: in exalted terms, the existential and visionary side of the 1960s; more mundanely, the inside of the experience of listening to rock, hearing it as a spontaneous epic poem produced miraculously by your peers for immediate use.” Beginning with the Beatles, but taking in Elvis, the blues, Mr. Dylan, Hendrix and a host of lesser avatars, he identifies a period, between 1963 and 1972-the period, too, of Mr. Hajdu’s account-when “[f]or a short time, just nine years at the most, it became imaginable that one could stay ‘forever young,’ and that it was legitimate to do so because youth had a vision, a peculiar insight into modernity, a way of seeing and being in the world that was just as true as the perspective of their parents.”
Wasn’t it pretty to think so? How odd, too, that as that belief has all but completely vaporized, the music, its strange and supple vessel, has remained. Both David Hajdu and Nick Bromell restore to us some feeling of what lay behind-just enough to remind us that in the heart, where it counts, passionate illusion trumps hard truth every time.
Sven Birkerts is the author of The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber and Faber). He will publish a memoir early next year.