The Book Club

To Be Young, Gifted, and Obnoxious

Dear Tony,

First off, let me correct an impression casual readers may have received from your posting today: Yes, I am older than you, but no, I am not old enough to be your father. Well, perhaps biologically, but I wasn’t that lucky in junior high. So I’ll take it amiss if you start addressing me as “Gramps” or “Old-timer.”

Still, it’s inarguable that the years separating us were pretty crucial years culturally, and that many decades of social and artistic turbulence were compressed into a fairly brief interval. I can’t pretend that living through that period doesn’t have an impact on how I hear this music. Especially since I first heard it when it was new, not part of an accepted cultural inheritance. I can remember when it hadn’t happened yet, and when no one could predict it was going to. That kind of excitement isn’t recapturable.

Today, I’d like to talk a little about (and around) a real strength of David Hajdu’s book,–to wit, its first-rate reportage. The man has done his homework: He’s assembled a wealth of interesting anecdotes, he’s talked to all the relevant people who were willing to talk (a group that does not, of course, include the notoriously reclusive Bob Dylan, but, amazingly, does include the notoriously reclusive Thomas Pynchon), he’s hunted down the rumors and subjected the various legends to critical scrutiny. And he’s gone beyond that; he’s also immersed himself in the period so that he’s able to put his discoveries into a vivid historical context. It’s impossible to read Positively 4th Street and not learn something.

Which is not to suggest you end up feeling you know these people. But I doubt you’d feel you knew these people even if you really did know these people. They aren’t easy to know, and they’re almost impossible to like. What a miserable bunch of posers! (Perhaps Mimi Baez Fariña ought to be exempted from this observation; the youngest and apparently the least ambitious of the foursome, she remains a cipher throughout the book.) There’s Joan Baez, whose virginal purity and ostentatious self-abnegation somehow always serve her ambition and make her the center of attention, and there are those two self-romanticizing heirs to Baron von Munchhausen, Bob Dylan and Richard Fariña, with all their lies and schemes and scams. The worst of them is unquestionably Dylan, who is rude, selfish, exploitive, cruel, and manipulative. (Anyone who has seen D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back will have no difficulty recognizing the accuracy of Hajdu’s portrait.) Hajdu’s portrayal of Dylan puts me in mind of something Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said to James MacNeill Whistler: “Why, Jimmy, do you behave as if you had no talent?” It’s also one of the mysteries about Dylan: Why would anyone with so much talent choose to be such a schmuck? Perhaps–not that this qualifies as either excuse or explanation–he didn’t yet know what he was capable of.

You mentioned the oddity of Dylan’s relationship with Joan Baez, and it is a puzzlement in many ways. Despite the congruity of professional interests, their temperaments seem deeply ill-suited to one another. And in fact the period when they actually seemed to enjoy each other’s company appears to have been very brief indeed. But Hajdu supplies an anecdote that suggests a possible explanation, an explanation that’s almost as creepy as it is plausible. He quotes Fred Neil, a friend of Dylan and Fariña who was out drinking in the Village one evening with both men in 1961, well before either had hooked up with a Baez girl:

“Fariña gave Bob this lecture,” said Neil. “‘If you want to be a songwriter, man, you’d better find yourself a singer.’ You see, Bob and me, we were both writing, but I knew how to sing. Fariña told him straight, ‘Man, what you need to do, man, is hook up with Joan Baez. She is so square, she isn’t in this century. She needs you to bring her into the twentieth century, and you need somebody like her to do your songs. She’s your ticket, man. All you need to do, man, is start screwing Joan Baez.’ “

This may be, even as explanations for complicated relationships go, much too pat, and it doesn’t square with such inconvenient data as the brief renewal of their affair after the breakup of Dylan’s first marriage. But a talent as strange and in many ways as rebarbative as Dylan’s clearly benefited from the advocacy of a popular interpreter, and at the time they got together, Dylan was an obscure songwriter while Joan Baez was virtually the queen of folk music. “Please don’t let on that you knew me when I was hungry, and it was your world,” he sings in “Just Like a Woman.” Is there any question to whom that plea is addressed? When they first got together, it was undoubtedly Joan’s world, and Bob Dylan was manifestly ravenous.

Do you have any thoughts about the odd, tense quasi-friendship between Dylan and Fariña? As a novelist, I found it the most intriguing of the entire complex web of relationships described in the book. What’s your take?