When twenty-five-year-old Bob Dylan wrecked his motorcycle near Woodstock in 1966 and dropped out of the public eye, he was already recognized as a genius, a youth idol with an acid wit and a barbwire throat; and Greenwich Village, where he first made his mark, was the center of youth culture.
In Positively 4th Street, David Hajdu recounts the emergence of folk music from cult practice to a popular and enduring art form as the story of a colorful foursome: not only Dylan but also his part-time lover Joan Baez — the first voice of the new generation; her sister Mimi — beautiful, haunted, and an artist in her own right; and Mimi's husband, Richard Fariña, a comic novelist (Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me) who invented the worldly-wise bohemian persona that Dylan adopted and made his own.
A national bestseller acclaimed as "one of the best books about music in America" (Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post), Positively 4th Street is that rare book with a new story to tell about the 1960s — about how the decade and all that it is now associated with were created in a fit of collective inspiration, with an energy and creativity that David Hajdu has captured on the page as if for the first time. (This text courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)
Richard Fariña was born at sea. He spent his childhood traveling the world with his parents, his father a Cuban inventor, his mother an Irish mystic, and he was educated by tutors throughout Europe and Africa. As a teenager in the early 1950s, he lived among the barbudas in the hills of Cuba and ran guns for Fidel Castro. Fariña returned to the United States to study at Cornell but was expelled for leading a campus riot. He fled to Ireland and joined the Irish Republican Army. Among other missions, he once swam the Irish Sea with timed plastic explosives strapped to his back and sank a British submarine. He had a child in Ireland with a woman whose name can never be revealed. Like his idol and mentor, Ernest Hemingway, a friend from their days together in Cuba, Fariña loved to hunt; a rabid bear would surely have devoured him once, had he not inserted the barrel of his shotgun in the animal's rectum and pulled the trigger. He slept with a loaded .45 under his pillow, to protect himself from a jealous husband who vowed to kill him someday. Fariña had a metal plate in his head.
So he said, among innumerable other fantasies, partial truths, exaggerations, and appropriations from people he had met or had read about. "I think he rather self-consciously cultivated an aura of mystery," said C. Michael Curtis, one of his roommates in college. "He was... a fantasist. There was something so boyish and irrepressible about his fantasies, and he wasn't aggressive about pushing them. He would sort of drop a lot of vague hints that would encourage you to think things, and he would say, 'I can't talk about it,' and he would give you a quizzical smile, and then he would go on to change the subject. There were times when I thought that he really considered himself as someone who had done all these things and whose life might actually hve been in danger. And there were times when he seemed to want to let everybody in on the fact that everything he said was a grand joke."
The most purely enjoyable book I read this past year was a paperback I’d been saving up since 2002, David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña. I don’t usually read books about Dylan, and I wouldn’t usually recommend books about pop music to anyone unless they were prepared to relax their ordinary standards, but this book was great on every front, and unique. As a biography of young people who get fame early, it’s fascinating. As an explanation of why young white people cared about folk music in the 1960s (and jazz), but not rock and roll, and how it was that “rock” emerged post-1964, it’s clarifying. As a work of art, it’s just an overwhelming pleasure — Hajdu could write anything, fiction included, but has chosen this. And it includes the best Pynchon biographical cameo in print. Hajdu had to interview him by fax machine. -Mark Greif, N+1 (January 2011)
"A lovely madeleine of a book…[an] offbeat, compelling [story of] two sisters, their Machiavellian lovers and the assorted egos, ambitions, flirtations, rivalries and moments of musical genius that made those days so indelible." -Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"This ambitious four-headed biographical narrative…vividly re-creates the folk era: the odd alliances, the music forged between idealists and misfits, the convergence of rebels of varying talent and temperament." -Terrance Rafferty, GQ
"Think of Positively 4th Street as A Little Night Music scored for dulcimer and motorcycle. Or a pas de quatre, with wind chimes, love beads, and a guest appearance by Thomas Pynchon. As David Hajdu…rotates among his principals until at last they settle down to play house in Carmel and Woodstock, he is such an ironist among blue notes, so knowledgeable about their performing selves on stage, in bed, and in our mezzotinted memories, that he seems almost to be whistling scherzos." -John Leonard, The New York Review of Books
"One of the best books about music in America." -Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book Review
"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
"[In] a teeming stack of Dylan biographies and commentaries, [this is] the one new publication of distinction and clarity." -David Remnick, The New Yorker
"David Hajdu makes a motley bunch of folkies both naïve and ambitious, unquestionably talented and frequently unlikable as memorable as any great fictional characters." -Peter Terzian, Newsday
"From the sly Village title to the devastating New York characterizations, the probing, revelatory sentences, and the cruel plot, David Hajdu's Positively 4th Street recalls a lost Henry James novel transplanted to the 1960s." -Robert Polito, BookForum
"Hajdu adds an important chapter to the Dylan legend [and] deftly re-creates these era-defining characters and their world." -Gregory Curtis, Time
"Absorbing... Positively 4th Street offers a window into the folk music scene of the early '60s, into which Dylan, cloaked in enigmas of his own devising, insinuated himself." -A. O. Scott, Slate