Author David Hajdu has written for numerous publications and currently writes for The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review and Vanity Fair. His first book, Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn won a number of awards and is being adapted for a feature film. His latest book is Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña. David Hajdu lives in Manhattan and is working on his third book (of which he will only give us hints).
Robert Birnbaum: You broke ground with your book on Billy Strayhorn; there was no biography on him before yours...
David Hajdu: That’s right, that’s pretty true...
RB: Strayhorn was relatively obscure or unknown in mainstream pop culture. Then your next book is on someone who's seemingly been well-documented — a lion of pop music for as long as he has been performing. How did you do that?
DH: You are not describing my book. You are describing a biography of Bob Dylan, which I didn’t write. Other people have written those books, I didn’t. My book is not a Bob Dylan book. I wish that I were a little faster writer. That I weren’t so exhaustive in researching — I don’t want to sound self-aggrandizing — but I wish I were more efficient. Were I, I might have finished this a year ago, when it was due. And it wouldn’t have been caught in the slip stream of the Dylan birthday mania. And now it’s being mistaken as a Bob Dylan thing. He’s one fourth of the quartet of people who are the heart of this book. In actual pages he is not even fifteen or twenty percent of the book. You can’t extricate Dylan or any of the four figures from this book and come away with anything close to a viable portrait of any of the four individuals. It’s not the intent of the book.
The book is an exploration of the relationships and the nature of creative relationships. And the importance of personal relationships on creative relationships, and in that regard it comes directly out of Lush Life. Also, it’s window into the collaborative process — which comes right out of Lush Life. It’s an attempt to come to terms with prominent music of the second half of the century — post-war music, pop, rock era music. Just like Lush Life was an attempt to explore jazz, the prominent music of the first half of the century, through a pair of its most important voices. I didn’t start with Dylan. I wanted to do a study — an exploration of how post-war music got its identity and developed its identity — and how the post-war generation came of age. That drew me to the mid Fifties, this period when a number of people, including Bob Dylan, came together and got tangled in a web of collaboration and rivalry and passion and creativity to change popular music. So it’s not a Dylan book.
RB: I thought that the not-so-subtle hidden agenda was to lionize Richard Fariña. In the book he comes off as the most interesting, the most compelling of all and he has the added patina of the young artist nipped in the bud.
DH: Well, Richard Fariña is somewhat the Strayhorn of this book — the forgotten or little-known artist who deserves more recognition. I don’t claim that he is an artist on the same plane as Strayhorn or even Dylan or Baez. I would say in response to your specific question, ‘lionization’ is too strong. It’s not a glorification...I wanted to bring him to light but in a full-bodied way that’s a warts-and-all way. I set out neither to lionize nor to degrade any of the four people, but portray them as full-bodied figures.
RB: Your portrayal is very fair and very decent and there is clearly good research and fine writing. In your doing that, I must say, I found it hard to see the good aspects of Dylan. Even as you end this book you have Dylan talking to Mimi Fariña, "Hey that was a drag about Dick. It happened right around my thing, you know. Made me think."* Or the things he said about Baez around the time she was recording the never-released rock album. Terrible things.
DH: You can’t measure a great artist by his virtues as a human being, on moral standards. You have to judge an artist on aesthetic standards, not on moral standards. I don’t know what kind of song writer the Dalai Lama is or Gandhi was. I’m sure I’d rather listen to Dylan’s music than theirs.
RB: Getting back to how to accurately describe your book. I know, for instance, you are doing three or four TV appearances...Aren’t those coming about because of the Dylan birthday mania?
DH: It’s impossible, absolutely impossible. I tried to do...it’s difficult to even explain it to you without, again, seeming self-aggrandizing. I wasn’t trying to do something better than conventional scholarship or better biography or better than conventional cultural history. I was just trying to do something different. I wanted to do...I was drawn to the idea of two major people and two minor people by the fact that they gave me a full view of the era in the way just doing the central people doesn’t. The smaller people, the smaller voices, are lost to history. But they are important as counterpoint and frequently important in their own right. It helps us to understand Joan and Bob when we see two other people setting out to do the same thing who don’t succeed. And it gives us a deeper understanding of what goes into success. And I don’t mean success just in careerist terms but in aesthetic terms. Narratively, we have in this book four talented people setting out to change the world or at least setting out to make it. By the end, two of them do, beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. They literally do change the world. And two don’t. So I think the book casts some light on that process, on what goes into success.
RB: Thematically, you are working the material in the way you approached the Strayhorn story. What did you start with? Did you have a working title? Did you know these were the four subjects? You conducted over two-hundred interviews...
DH: Um huh, about 300 interviews, close to 300 interviews. I had a working title, Children of Darkness, which was a Richard Fariña song. I knew very early on that it would be a group portrait. I had in my mind for a long time to do something on Fariña, frankly. We have the same birthday. I’ve always been interested in him. I proposed to Rolling Stone to do a story on Fariña on the event of the tenth anniversary of his death in 1976. Unfortunately, I was twenty-one and I didn’t have enough of a track record at that point to get that assignment. I think it’s all the better that I didn’t because I don’t think I would have done him justice then. I think I would have done the lionization then. I have also always been interested in Bob and Joan. When I was in college. I came to New York, I moved to New York to go to NYU in 1974. It’s not that long after the folk boom. There was still kind of the last breath of the charm and the glamour of the folk era still kind of wafting around the Village.
RB: Then, it was the singer-songwriter thing...
DH: That’s right. But Gerde’s was still open. The Bitter End was still open, the Kettle of Fish was still open. In ’75 Joan and Bob were playing at Gerde’s Folk City (snorts/gasps). He gathered together a group of his old folk buddies — Bobby Neuwirth, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Joan Baez and took on the road the Rolling Thunder Review. Gerde’s Folk City still conferred legitimacy on young people who sought folk as a way to do something interesting musically. It’s really not done anymore. David Byrne played at Folk City, Patti Smith played at Folk City, and it’s all gone now. It’s all gone. The Village Vanguard still confers authority in jazz and the Carnegie Hall still does in classical music, the Apollo Theater is still there for R&B. But the whole folk thing is gone.
RB: We’ve seen the last remnants?
DH: There are a few other clubs around the country. Very, very few. There is still a place called Freight & Salvage in Berkeley. There is still Passim.
RB: There is no Gate of Horn or Quiet Knight in Chicago...
DH: No. There’s something in Washington. Most of them are gone. It’s all gone from the Village. It’s kind of ram shackle...it hasn’t even been themed. I would expect it to have been themed by now...for there to be a theme Folk City. That hasn’t even happened. I came to the Village at the same age that Bob did when he came to the city. And there was still a little bit of that aura, still a little of that mystique in the Village. It was still connected to folk.
When I was still in college, I had a screenwriting class, and I did a screenplay called Electric, that was about Bob Dylan going electric and it was about how it affected the relationship between Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. I read it recently and it’s quite atrocious, but I was interested in the subject matter and for a student film I made I did a film about Bob Dylan coming to New York. And I found a buddy of mine that looked like Dylan and we dressed him up and we filmed it. So it’s always been an interest of mine and when this book came out I got a call from an old college girlfriend — that I hadn’t talked to in twenty or twenty-five years — and she said, "I saw you finally did that book." So it was always something in the back of my mind to do. Now I’ve run out of ideas. I don’t know what I’m going to do for the third book. (laughs)
RB: Well, yeah sure...In looking over who you have talked to, there are two questions that pop up. One, did you in fact, talk to Thomas Pynchon directly or by fax?
DH: It was by fax. It’s funny this is another thing that nobody asks me about. I interviewed Thomas Pynchon, I’d like a little bit of credit for that...
RB: Right, right.
DH: He’s never talked to anyone. I mean he’s so reclusive he makes Salinger look like Madonna for goodness sakes. We did an epistolary interview. At first by fax and then there was an exchange of letters, three letters. I was shocked. I never requested an interview with him because I knew he would say no. So, instead I did all of my homework, spent a few months and fashioned all the questions, everything I’d ever want to ask him and just sent them. In the hope that he’d be so intrigued by the questions that I might catch him at the right moment.
He then proceeded to read my first book and he requested through his agent a copy of my proposal for this book. And he read it. (snorts) Then he responded. I knew from my editor (who did not send the proposal without my permission) that Pynchon was poring this over in his mind. So I keep my fingers crossed and I actually said a couple of prayers. I made some promises to God, "Just give me Pynchon, God." I’m not going to tell you what I promised God, but I have not delivered yet. (laughs)
RB: Perhaps the subject for your next book.
DH: Anyway, one the day the fax comes over and it’s the answers. I was so shocked...I went into such a tizzy over it that I had to just leave the house and just pace around the streets. He couldn’t have been better, really. I must say that I don’t suffer any delusions that this a testament to the grandness that is me or any such thing. I am convinced by the nature of his answers that his regard and love for Richard Fariña runs very, very deep.
RB: Don’t sell yourself short. That is an endorsement.
DH: Well, he did say some nice things about Lush Life in his note. And he’s read this manuscript and didn’t ask for significant changes. He did ask that I soften one matter that dealt with his personal life and had no bearing on my subjects. I thought I could give him that. It just had to do with his life at Cornell and his own background.
RB: Do you think about what this book would have been like without what he gave you?
DH: Oh, I could have done it.
RB: Sure, you would have done it...you were prepared to do it...
DH: I would have done it. Sure, of course, I was prepared to do it. But, geez, he was Fariña’s best friend, his roommate in college, he was his best man at his wedding to Mimi, he was a pall bearer at his funeral. He was there. It wouldn’t be the same book without him.
RB: Well, something shined down upon you...Another name that struck me in its absence — though I can’t think it made much of a difference — is it telling Robbie Robertson isn’t in this book?
DH: Oh. Rick Danko is in the book. Yeah, no he didn’t respond at all.
RB: He was nominally the leader of the Band...
DH: Yeah, I would have liked to talk to Robbie. I don’t think I lost much. There is another one along the same lines. I didn’t get to Bob Neuwirth, who was one of Dylan’s best friends. I did have instead Victor Maymudes. He was Dylan’s bodyguard and went everywhere with him and he was there and saw it all. He hadn’t done an interview before. I think somebody else doing a book specifically about Dylan did talk to him. I think he is quoted in the Sone’s book. I’m not sure, I haven’t read it.
RB: Is that the extent of whom you didn’t get to talk to?
DH: I never — you didn’t ask me about Bob — I never expected to talk to Bob but have no regrets about that. First of all I just know that it would have been a nerve-wracking and frustrating experience to sit down with him. He has used the interview process to add layers and layers of obfuscation...
RB: Ron Rosenbaum in The New York Observer recounts a Playboy magazine interview he did with Dylan which presents pretty much what you just described...
DH: Right. I know that I would have never gotten anything of substance out of him. He’s used the interview process as a kind of performance art for decades. What I did instead (I don’t know if you picked this up), I arranged for this even before I wrote the proposal for this book — because I knew I needed good source material from Dylan. I arranged through the executor of the estate of Robert Shelton (who gave Dylan his start and spent four years interviewing Dylan extensively) to see his original research materials.
Shelton had utterly unique access. Dylan submitted to four years of long probing interviews with Robert Shelton. He felt indebted to Shelton because Shelton gave him his start. He discussed personal matters as well as his music and matters of the connection between the two in much greater depth than he ever did anywhere else. But Shelton misused the materials because somewhere along the line he got the ideas that his role as a biographer was to glorify Bob rather than to characterize or portray him. So I arranged through his sister, the executor of his estate, to see the interviews. They’re incredible. They’re incredible. Most of the quotes from Dylan, in my book, have never been published before. Or they were bastardized. He took little bits from one sentence and little bits from another sentence and stuck them together and rewrote and made some things up too, actually.
RB: You quote Dylan rejecting the title ‘rock and roll,’ disparaging ‘folk rock’ and coming up with the name ‘vision music.’ Sounds like something that could have been marketed.
DH: (laughs) It’s not too late. Vision music, it sounds a little too grand. It also doesn’t have the connection to sex that every other word for popular music has in the last hundred years.
DH: Not folk. But rock and roll meant sex. Jazz meant fornication.
RB: Hip hop?
DH: Not quite. All right there goes that theory, so much for my sexual theory of...
RB: Ordinarily as we came to the end of our conversation I would have asked what’s next, but since you suggested or confessed that you are out of ideas...
DH: No, I actually have an idea. I was being coy. But my wife has sworn me to secrecy because unlike the first two books it’s a topic that someone else could come along and do. I’ll be the first to do it unless someone else gets the idea. But there was an event — and it’s outside of music for the first time for me since I’ve been writing seriously — in the early Fifties that is completely forgotten. National news, parallel to McCarthyism but not related that ended something. Ended careers, ruined lives and the effect of it as a result had enormous cultural impact. There’s this thing that happened that I’m going to write a book about.
RB: Not the black list?
DH: No. So I’m going to write about this event...
RB: Thank you David, from now until you publish this book I be calling you asking for more clues, "I think it’s this. I think it’s that."
DH: Call me every now and then. So that’s what I’m going to do. It’s a different challenge.
RB: There is a writer I am acquainted with who has been watching a family of ospreys every summer up on a remote island in Maine and intends to write a book about that. I saw him recently and mentioned that I noticed that I had seen a book recently published on ospreys. I thought about it later and thought, "So what."
DH: So what. I am convinced from my own experience that it’s doom to follow the market. You have to follow your heart. For the eleven years I was working on Lush Life people were dumb struck when they heard I was writing about this guy Billy Strayhorn. People would actually say to me, "Why?" And now it seems like the most natural thing in the world to have done. This thing is already finding enough of an audience that I am gratified already. And now...look at the case of Sea Biscuit, for goodness sakes! Somebody decided to write a book about a racehorse from the 1920’s. Number one bestseller, huge phenomenon, what? I talked to my agent about that, he said, "I would have never taken that book on... You just really never know." It’s not true that you never know. Sea Biscuit and what I tried to do both have something in common, in that they both come out of fierce passions. This person really wanted desperately to write about Sea Biscuit.
RB: Ultimately, you wrote a very good book. That does count for something, I hope.
DH: I hope so too. Thank you.
RB: It’s a well-written book, but it gets attention because Dylan’s name is on the cover...
DH: It’s a source of frustration for me in a way. It does help in that introduces the thing to people. I hope they are not disappointed. I really try to use these resources to do a work of non-fiction literature — even though that’s a little pretentious. That’s what I tried to do. It’s not an accident that it has the novelistic feeling that it does, though it is rooted rigorously in non-fiction standards. I don’t fabricate dialogue. There are no internal monologues and all that nonsense. It’s still rigorous non-fiction. I really tried to do something novelistic and literate with it, with these pop-culture resources.
RB: I know this isn’t the point of your book, but is there any way to measure Bob Dylan’s effect on pop music?
DH: Oh geez, his significance is immeasurable. Joni Mitchell said, after she heard the song "Positively Fourth Street": "Oh, I see now we can write about anything." So he broadened the palette, he broadened the scope of popular music. He deepened popular music. I think, to get at what you are really getting at with this question is, is what’s he doing now, and what’s it matter now that he’s out there now looking like Mephistopheles, writing these very long cryptic songs and singing them night after night after night? It’s a very powerful statement to everyone but especially to young people that there are reasons for making music beyond fame and what drove him at the beginning.
Now he’s out there like Doc Watson or Bill Munroe or like a jazz artist. Out there every night on the road...obviously he doesn’t need the money. I don’t think he’s seeking fame and glory. He doesn’t do interviews. He's not reveling in that side of it. He’s out there making the music. That must be what drives him. That’s a very powerful statement. He’s making great music...
DH: Oh yeah, he’s hit-and-miss...
RB: I think it’s great that he never likes to play the same thing the same way. I remember a few years ago on the Grammys, he sounded like a goat or a sheep.
DH: I gave him devastatingly critical reviews in the '80s. He was so doped up...he seemed to be terribly doped up. He was off-key. His guitar wasn’t tuned. It was humiliating, but I think he’s cleaned up and he’s very musical these days. He’s become an incredible guitar player. He didn’t used to be. He’s all over the neck of that guitar and he’s really learned music theory and how to play the guitar and not just strum it. As his voice diminishes technically I think he’s learned how to use it expressively. He’s never had much of a range, but he now has one quasi note.
RB: Dylan presents himself as having done the social activism/consciousness music because it would sell. Do you believe him?
DH: Not entirely. Evidence to the contrary is the music itself. It’s too compelling and powerful to be works of artifice. I think to a degree there’s some truth to that. On the other hand he continued to return not only to folk music, but to themes of social consciousness later in his life. He came back with "George Jackson," he did "Hurricane" in the '70s. And then he did two folk albums in the '90s, just with acoustic guitar singing folk songs again. It wasn’t entirely a pose. He’s a great American improviser following his heart and his whims or whatever.
Posted: (Date Unknown), 2001
Copyright 2001 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing