There was a moment in the early '60s when the folk-music revival evolved into rock 'n' roll with a message. One person who realized that folk had to move on-to step out, as he put it-was Bob Dylan. One other person, Richard Fariņa, may have realized it too, but he died in a motorcycle accident in 1966, just as he was poised to become Dylan's great rival. In Positively 4th Street (Bloomsbury; 328 pages), David Hajdu adds an important chapter to the Dylan legend by recounting the professional and personal loves of these two men and the music that fueled it all.
Fariņa had serious literary talent-he published poetry in the Atlantic, and his novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me is still in print-but he willed himself to be a musician, eventually recording with his second wife Mimi Baez Fariņa (Joan's younger sister), until his slender musical talent was taken for something real. Most of all, though, he wanted to be famous, to occupy a central place in the youth culture he could see taking shape around him.
But Dylan, who had become Joan Baez's lover, was eyeing that place for himself. In 1965 Dylan recorded Positively 4th Street, a bitter screed that renounced the folk scene he had come from, and by extension Fariņa, and embraced rock 'n' roll.
Hajdu, who wrote a well-received biography of Duke Ellington's collaborator Billy Strayhorn, deftly re-creates these era-defining characters and their world. To read this book now, when Dylan's long career seems inevitable, is to wonder whether things would have been different had Fariņa survived.