Richie Unterberger, Turn! Turn! Turn!: The '60's Folk-Rock Revolution (Backbeat Books, 2002)
David Hajdu, Positively Fourth Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña (North Point Press, 2001)
Putting the popular music of the 1960's into any kind of intelligible context is hard and thankless work. Using the language of academic sociology to explain '60's music is like cutting a soufflé with a chainsaw or inviting Max Weber and Ted Adorno to the love-in. Relying on the memories, gossip and anecdotes of '60's musicians is more entertaining, but does little to explain how music, especially folk-derived music, came to have such a commanding place in the popular culture of the '60s. These two books exemplify these two contrasting approaches. Turn! Turn! Turn! strives for academic legitimacy, while Positively Fourth Street gives us the sleazy underside of folkdom but fails to explain how people as flawed as Dylan, Baez and Fariña came to be perceived as touchstones of integrity.
Richie Unterberger, the author of Turn! Turn! Turn!: The '60's Folk-Rock Revolution, is no stranger to rock, having already published two books on the subject, Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll and Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators and Eccentric Visionaries of '60's Rock.
In Turn! Turn! Turn! Unterberger seeks to present a complete chronological history of the evolution of folk-rock from Bob Dylan's electric debut at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival to Dylan's motorcycle accident in 1966. The book covers the forces that shaped the evolution of folk and folk-rock, the birth of rock 'n' roll, the folk music revival of the late 1950's and early 1960s, the British Invasion, and the emergence of folk-rock bands such as the Byrds, and presents both a coast-to-coast and global survey of the evolution of folk-rock during this period.
In a mere 18 months, Unterberger says, folk became a "cornerstone" of rock, responsible for a huge elevation in the overall lyrical intelligence of all rock music. Unterberger isolates three characteristics that set folk-rock apart from rock 'n' roll:
1) Lyrics that deal with personal or universal themes; "message"
2) Blending of styles
3) Performers who write and record their own material their own way
In August of 1965, Billboard Magazine published a formula for folk rock that captured its appeal even more succinctly: "Folk + Rock + Protest = An Erupting New Sound."
Unterberger also makes the claim that "Folk-rock was particularly effective at spreading its message because it marked one of those rare instances where social activism and mainstream commercial interests merged, each furthering the agenda of the other." It would have been interesting to learn how far folk-rockers played footsie with commercial interests, but unfortunately this was a thread that Unterberger did not pursue.
On the plus side, Unterberger takes time to highlight the contributions of pioneers and people behind the scenes who have long been overlooked, such as Jac Holtzman, the founder of Elektra Records, brilliant session musician Bruce Langehorne, and forgotten groups such as the Blue Things.
The author's voice is often irritating. Unterberger writes in The Voice of Authority about the '60's, a time when authority was decidedly uncool. He also is given to the broadest of generalizations: he is forever telling us "what every folk musician in the Village was thinking."
Unterberger uses hindsight to imply conflict where it probably didn't exist. For example, I doubt that the Byrds really stayed awake nights worrying that the Beau Brummels would invent folk-rock first. He also tends to editorialize. On page 51, for example, he writes, "President John F. Kennedy, for all his considerable flaws...." It would be helpful if Unterberger had explained what flaws he was referring to and how they were relevant to the genesis of folk rock.
Unterberger uses clunky turns of phrase such as "machinations were at work elsewhere." He also uses $20 words when simple language would be much clearer. For example, he writes "Folk LPs were not always easily found and accumulated, particularly for college-aged neophytes without much discretionary income," when he could have just as easily written, "It was hard for poor college-age folkies to find, let alone pay for, records." At times this book reads like a graduate school thesis. At times his sentences don't even make sense. A prime example of this is on page 91 where Unterberger gives Peter Asher, of Peter and Gordon, an on-the-spot sex change. He writes, "As the sister of McCartney's girlfriend Jane Asher, Peter had an inside track to Lennon-McCartney songs..." Yep, folks, those '60's were a very kinky time!
I could go on and on detailing the typos and sloppy writing, but to paraphrase Unterberger, it's just part of the "skien of hard knocks" (I think he meant to write "school," not "skien") that a reviewer must endure.
After the first chapters that lay out the groundwork for folk-rock, Unterberger presents a laundry list of groups, groups, groups that quickly becomes mind numbing. While Unterberger did a lot of interviewing in preparation for the book, he only uses snippets of the interviews, so we get a paragraph from John Sebastian cutting to a brief comment from Erik Jacobsen cutting to a comment by Jerry Yester, moving on to an effusive gush by Peter Yarrow ... it feels like a variation of "speed dating."
Anyway, just about every folkie and folk-rocker who was active in the '60's gets a mention: Dylan, Donovan, The Beatles, Joan Baez, The Farinas, the Byrds, Peter, and Gordon, Fred Neil, Hamilton Camp, Tim Hardin, Odetta, Judy Collins, The Mugwumps, Lovin' Spoonful, The Fugs, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Peter, Paul and Mary, Sonny & Cher, The Turtles, Simon & Garfunkel, The Mamas and the Papas, Pete Seeger, Janis Ian, The Blue Things, the Beau Brummels, Jackie DeShannon, Ian and Sylvia, The Dillards, Alan Lomax, Manfred Mann, The Association, Judy Collins, Barry McGuire, P.F. Sloane, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Glen Campbell, Phil Ochs, We Five, Buffalo Springfield, The Monkees, The Yardbirds, The Youngbloods, Tom Paxton.... The list is endless and Unterberger's definition of "folk rock" is elastic enough to fit anyone who so much as looked at a drum kit in the early 1960s. (Tom Paxton a folk-rocker?! Gimme a break!) I would also argue that a great many of the artists Unterberger identifies as folk-rockers could be more accurately described as folk-pop, (Peter Paul & Mary, and Ian & Sylvia are two examples).
This is a very useful book. I doubt that there is anywhere else in the universe outside of Lillian Roxon's more readable, but alas, outdated Rock Encyclopedia, where a reader could find so much information on so many groups. Given the rapid and chaotic evolution of '60's rock, Unterberger's attempt to present a chronological narrative is nothing short of heroic.
Turn! Turn! Turn! is part one of a two-volume series Unterberger has written on the '60's Rock Revolution. The second book, Eight Miles High: Folk Rock's Flight from Haight-Ashbury to Woodstock, is due out this year. An epilogue in Turn! Turn! Turn! says that Eight Miles High will cover the period from mid-1966 to the late '60's/early '70s "mutation of folk-rock into psychedelia," the birth of the singer-songwriter movement, the inception of country rock and British folk-rock and the growth of folk and rock festivals.
The book includes a collection of photos (mainly publicity stills) and concludes with a useful discography. Unterberger says that the complete discography for both books along with links to performers' Web sites can be found at his Web site.
As I read Unterberger's book, I couldn't help contrasting it with Eric Von Schmidt's book Baby Let me Follow You Down, a first-hand account of Von Schmidt's experiences as a folksinger in the early '60's Cambridge scene. Turn! Turn! Turn! lacks the immediacy and juice of Baby Let Me Follow You Down. If you want to get all the facts, just the facts and probably more facts than you ever wanted, get Unterberger 's book. If you want to know how it felt to be present at the creation, get Baby Let Me Follow You Down.
Then there's Positively Fourth Street...
As a child I knew that high in folk music Valhalla, dwelling in complete, if sometimes discordant, authenticity and truth were the high king and queen of folkdom, Dylan and Baez. David Hajdu's Positively Fourth Street uses the anecdotal approach to demolish a core belief of my childhood, that "there are no finks among the folkies."
Hajdu's book is a group biography of the titans of the East Coast Folk Scene, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Richard and Mimi Fariña, which reveals that my idols had not only clay feet but were pure clay (perhaps slime is more apt) from the tips of their sandaled toes to the crowns of their tousled heads. He paints a picture so black that it's hard to understand how this crew of misfits could have done anything worthwhile or decent in their lives. Dylan especially seems more suited to pulling the wings off butterflies than writing "Blowing in the Wind."
Comedian Mort Sahl called Baez and Dylan "the Liz [Taylor] and Dick [Burton] of the self-righteous set." This book highlights their manipulation of the symbols of the youth movement for their own ends. While Baez seemed to genuinely believe and practice what she preached, Dylan and Fariña set out to use folk music and the protest movement as a way of advancing their careers.
David Hajdu's main informant was Mimi Baez Fariña, so the characters of Joan Baez and Richard Fariña tend to be more fleshed-out than that of Bob Dylan, who remains a distant yet unpleasant presence throughout the book. Mimi appears to have had many scores to settle and Hajdu seems to have unquestioningly accepted Mimi's point of view on everything. This is especially apparent when Hajdu tries to depict Mimi as a hugely talented musician who was robbed of stardom by her ruthlessly ambitious sister and ruthlessly ambitious husband. The truth is that Mimi Fariña had a small, pleasant, colorless voice and a guitar style that was adequate. For Hajdu to describe her guitar style as "superb" and her singing as on a par with her sister's is just totally off the mark.
The book begins with a look at the Baez family. Dr. Albert Baez is a Mexican physicist married to Joan Bridge ("Big Joan"), a beautiful woman of Scotch-Irish ancestry and bisexual inclinations. I was curious to learn about the intricacies of their marriage (how does a man from a macho culture adjust to a wife who is always out with the girls?), but the focus quickly shifted to "Little" Joan and her younger sister Mimi. Their relationship was painfully close, Hajdu writes. "The girls held hands constantly; once as they were walking, Mimi squeezed so tightly that her fingernails dug into her sister's palm, and blood smeared onto their dresses."
Mimi could never escape being overshadowed by Joan, who comes across as a gifted and ruthless mimic who hijacked the work of her more talented musician friends and presented it to the world as her own. This was particularly evident in the case of Debbie Green. Green, a college buddy of Joan's, was the source of the classic ballads, rubato singing style and tasteful guitar work that made Baez a standout in the folk scene. Green had the misfortune to be sick for a couple of months and when she reappeared in the Boston folk clubs, she found that Joan had copied her repertoire down to the last nuance. Baez, when confronted, said, " I didn't hurt her. I only helped myself."
Joan Baez attracted a national following beyond the core folk audience, and celebrity wanna-be's Bob Dylan and novelist/songwriter Richard Fariña both hit on the strategy of "riding" Joan to the top. Their efforts to achieve fame as gigolos are the stuff of farce. To put it in a nutshell: Richard Fariña wanted Joan and got Mimi, and Dylan wanted Mimi and got Joan. Mimi got an older, controlling husband who was constantly hitting on her sister, while the moment Dylan became famous he lost no time in dumping and viciously ridiculing Joan, his former lover and patron.
While Dylan remains a cipher throughout the book, Richard Fariña is "larger than life and twice as real." Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra Records, recalls that "things glowed around Richard," while another friend observed that Richard was "born to wear a black velvet cape." Richard was a multi-talented, charismatic sociopath who was desperate to be famous. With his ever-changing stories of exotic and impossible international adventure, he created a mythic persona. This, combined with his fun, flamboyant, and outrageous personality, made him irresistible. People simply loved to be taken for a ride when Richard was doing the driving.
Fariña switched from being a writer to musician when he saw that folk music was the flavor of the month. He decided that he could get on the fast track to fame through marriage with one of the two reigning folk divas, Carolyn Hester or Joan Baez. He dazzled Hester with his charm and married her after an 18-day courtship. When he found that Hester would not let him control her career, he began to look elsewhere. Richard, the original "heartbreak kid," courted his second wife, the younger, more naïve Mimi Baez, while on honeymoon with his first wife. Hester, who was impulsive but no fool, quickly divorced Fariña and he just as quickly married the 17-year old Mimi Baez.
Mimi found Fariña to be a husband who demanded total control. He kept Mimi from learning how to drive or handle money, controlled her social life and screened her letters. Having created the perfect, submissive child-wife, Richard berated Mimi for her immaturity. Mimi recalled that during this period "I felt like I was disappearing, when I was supposed to be growing up." The saving grace for her was that "I wasn't just Joanie's little sister anymore."
Ironically, Richard probably didn't need to scheme to make it to the top. He had talent and imagination to match his incredible charisma. Fariña was a pioneer of fusion who combined folk with Eastern influences, Cuban polyrhythms, highbrow poetry and Rock 'n' Roll rhythms and instrumentation. Richard and Mimi Fariña's second album, Reflections in a Crystal Wind, was named one of 1965's top ten folk recordings by the New York Times. Richard's first novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, was released in April 1966. He was also striving to invent the graphic novel, but had run into a wall of incomprehension from artists and publishers. At the publication party for Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, Fariña decided to take a spin on a motorcycle and crashed, dying almost instantly. In a macabre coincidence, Dylan was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident a few weeks later.
Dylan is a pivotal character, but so much has already been written about Dylan during this period, that there is very little Hadju can add to the picture. Also, Mimi Fariña, Hadju's main informant, thought Dylan was a creep. As a result Dylan comes across as one-dimensional a creature of bad faith with a collection of hip poses and nervous tics.
Reading Positively Fourth Street in conjunction with Richie Unterberger's Turn! Turn! Turn! has me half convinced that people who write about Sixties music have to take a blood oath to write badly. Consider these examples from Positively Fourth Street: "Pynchon had the maturity of someone older." "Like Karl Marx himself, Seeger was a Marxist." "Costner was a doggish adventurer." Does he mean "dogged" or was Costner the sort who felt an uncontrollable compunction to mark out new territory? (Woof! This prose bites!) Hadju also describes "All I Really Want To Do" as "a song celebrating 'fraternal' love." What has "fraternal love" got to do with a song addressed by a man to a woman? I think what Hadju meant was "platonic love" or "friendship." Also, I always thought of that song as a covert put down of a woman who was just a little too cautious for Dylan's taste and not a celebration of any kind of friendship.
Positively Fourth Street is graced with a beautiful cover design derived from posters Eric Von Schmidt designed for Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, and for Richard and Mimi Fariña. There are 16 pages of black and white pictures that capture key moments in the careers of Baez, Dylan and the Fariñas. There's also a useful bibliography which presents a good basic reading list.
Positively Fourth Street is loaded with mean spirited, backbiting gossip and guess what mean spirited, backbiting gossip can be great fun to read.
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