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Novelist Nick Hornby

Novelist Nick Hornby's new book is How to Be Good a novel about a bitter and sarcastic man who becomes a –do-gooder.— He also the author of the bestseller High Fidelity (which was made into a film starring John Cusack), Fever Pitch, and About a Boy. Hornby is also the pop music critic for The New Yorker.


Other segments from the episode on July 10, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 10, 2001: Interview withe Nick Hornby; Interview with David Hajdu; Review of Otis Taylor's new music album "White African."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Nick Hornby talks about his latest novel, "How to Be
Good," and about his life and career

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Nick Hornby, is best known for his novel "High Fidelity" about a guy
who owns a used record store and defines himself and everyone he meets by
their taste in music. John Cusack starred in the movie adaptation. Hornby
writes about pop music for The New Yorker. He's also the author of the novel
"About a Boy" and the memoir "Fever Pitch" about his obsession with soccer, or
football as it's called in England, where he lives. Last year Hornby edited
an anthology of short stories, with profits going to the special school that
his autistic son attends.

Hornby has a new novel called "How to Be Good." It's written from the point of
view of a woman who has been married for 24 years. On the first page of the
novel, she surprises herself by telling her husband she wants a divorce. She's
a doctor who works in a clinic. Her husband, David, stays home, takes care of
their two kids and writes a local newspaper column called the Angriest Man in
Holloway, illustrated with a picture of him snarling at the camera. The
cynical persona he adopts for the column is not far from who he is, and she's
tired of the negativity, the bickering and the feeling that he just doesn't
like her anymore. Here's a reading.

Mr. NICK HORNBY (Author, "How to Be Good"): (Reading) What did I think I was
choosing when I married David? What do any of us think we're choosing? If I
tried to recapture now the semi-formed fantasies I had then, I'd say they
erred on the side of prosperity and health rather than anything very
difficult. I thought, I suppose, that we'd be poor but happy to begin with,
meaning that we would be living in a small, cute flat and spending a lot of
time watching TV or drinking halves of beer in pubs and making do with our
parents' hand-me-down furniture.

In other words, the difficulties I was prepared to tolerate in the early years
of my marriage were essentially romantic in their nature, inspired by the
cliches of young married life as depicted in TV comedies or, possibly, given
that most TV comedies are more sophisticated and complex than my fantasies, by
building society advertisements.

Then, later on, I thought one set of difficulties, the difficulties posed by
watching TV in a small flat and by eating baked beans on toast, would be
replaced by another, the difficulties that arose when you have two lovely,
bright and healthy children. There would be muddy football boots and
teen-aged daughters hogging the phone and the husband who had to be torn from
the TV to do the washing-up. Golly, gosh, there'd be no end to these sorts of
problems, and I was under no illusions. Muddy football boots would be awfully
trying. I was prepared, though. I wasn't green. I wasn't born yesterday.
There was no way I was ever going to buy white rugs.

What you don't ever catch a glimpse of on your wedding day--Because how could
you?--is that some days you will hate your spouse, that you will look at him
and regret ever exchanging a word with him, let alone a ring and bodily
fluids. Nor is it possible to foresee the desperation and depression, the
sense that your life is over, the occasional urge to hit your whining
children, even though hitting them is something you knew, for a fact, that you
would never do.

And, of course, you don't think about having affairs, and when you get to that
stage in life, when you do--and everyone gets there sooner or later--you don't
think of the sick feeling you get in your stomach when you're conducting them,
their inherent unhappiness, and nor do you think about your husband waking up
in the morning and being someone you don't recognize. If anyone thought about
any of these things, then no one would ever get married. Of course they
wouldn't. In fact, the impulse to marry would come from the same place as the
impulse to drink a bottle of bleach, and those are the kinds of impulses we
try to ignore rather than celebrate.

So we can't afford to think about these things because getting married, or
finding a partner whom we will want to spend our lives with and have children
by, is on our agenda. It's something we know we will do one day, and if you
take that away from us, then we're left with promotions at work and the
possibility of a winning lottery ticket, and it's not enough. So we kid
ourselves that it is possible to enter these partnerships and be faced only
with the problems of mud removal. And then we become unhappy and take Prozac,
and then we get divorced and die alone.

GROSS: Nick Hornby, thanks for reading that. That's a passage from Nick
Hornby's new novel, "How to Be Good."

It's never really clear to me that the couples in your books are particularly
well-matched in the first place. They seem to...

Mr. HORNBY: That's probably where I go wrong.

GROSS: They seem to fight a lot right from the beginning. And, also, in your
typical couple in your books, the guy seems to have this obsession with
something--soccer, music, you know, records--and the woman seems to be a much
more kind of practical, down-to-earth type of person, and they don't--they
complement each other, but don't quite understand each other.

Mr. HORNBY: Yeah. I think that's fair enough. I don't ever quite understand
what it means to be well-matched as a couple because you can--you know, you
can both share a passionate interest in pedigreed dogs and, you know, nothing
else is going right for you at all. There are all sorts of ways in which we
don't match up, and that could be, you know, temperamentally or in terms of
our ambition, in terms of our lifestyles. There are just probably too many
things that can go wrong for that ever to make sense, I think, the idea that
we're looking for a perfect mate.

GROSS: The woman in your novel has an affair with somebody else, as her
relationship with her husband is going bad, and I think you capture something
here. She says, `What I really want and what I'm not getting with my husband
is the opportunity to rebuild myself from scratch. My husband's picture of me
is complete now, and I'm pretty sure neither of us likes it much. I just want
that feeling of not having gone wrong yet.' And that's the feeling she has
with her lover because she's a kind of new book for him.

Mr. HORNBY: Yeah, that's right. And I think it's a very, very strong urge
in all of us; that, you know, in a sense, it's not wanting to be known, isn't

GROSS: Well, to tell all your great stories over again and have somebody

Mr. HORNBY: Yeah, right. Because that...

GROSS: ...amazed at them because they've never heard them before.

Mr. HORNBY: That's right. And, you know, I think if you've been in a
relationship for any length of time, that feeling you have when you're telling
stories to somebody else and your partner's sitting there and you think,
`Jesus, how many times has she heard this?'

GROSS: Right.

Mr. HORNBY: And it's depressing.

GROSS: Now I know you've been asked this a lot, I'm sure, but whereas your
other books have always been written from the man's point of view, this book
about a couple is written from the wife's point of view. Why did you want to
do it from her point of view?

Mr. HORNBY: Well, to begin with, it was a purely technical thing connected
with the novel, which is that the thrust of the book is that her husband,
David, who's this grouchy, disappointed, permanently aggrieved, middle-aged
man, you know, that's in his 40s, he's got a bad back, and he goes off to see
a spiritual healer and comes back a completely different person. He's full of
love, and he wants to give away everything they own. And Katie, from having
been the kind of moral conscience of the relationship, is suddenly on the
moral back foot.

Now when I was conceiving the idea for the book, I knew that I wanted to write
about a strained relationship that was put under more strain by somebody's
spiritual conversion and for the other partner to comment on it. And I have
to say, rather sadly, that when I thought about this, it seemed more likely to
me that it would be, first of all, the man that was permanently aggrieved and
disappointed and angry and, also, the man who would react more intemperately
to some outside pressure. So that left me with the female as the narrator.

But, also, I really like writing in the first person, and, you know, there are
two genders to choose from, and it seems crazy to limit yourself to one for
the rest of your career.

GROSS: Since your previous books have been from the male point of view, were
there things that you had to see differently, even about your own life, when
trying to examine them from a woman's point of view?

Mr. HORNBY: I think that the big challenge is the frame of reference; that
whereas my automatic reaction to illustrate something would be to choose some
kind of cultural metaphor, maybe from a place that Katie wouldn't have
experienced. So it's rephrasing and reframing things that I think is the
hardest thing to do. But generally I do think that we're so much closer
together, the genders, than we were, and I think there's a kind of extremism
of masculinity which involves, you know, shaved heads and thousands of pints
of beer, and extremism of femininity, which is sort of frilly pink things, and
that most of us occupy a space somewhere in the middle and change over pretty
frequently. So I didn't feel too kind of scared about creating the kind of
woman that I wanted her to be.

GROSS: Were there things you actually had to ask other women about in
creating her and creating her voice?

Mr. HORNBY: Well, it was a very interesting experience to give a woman a
novel and tell her it's narrated by a woman, but written by a man, and then
ask her to comment because, line by line, whoever you show it to is going to
come up with some pretty interesting stuff. And it did occur to me after a
while that, in fact, if it had been a woman that had written this book, with a
female narrator, various friends would have come up with just as many points
and said that they hadn't been convinced, you know, if I hadn't told them in
the first place that it was a woman author.

I think authenticity is always in question in fiction anyway, and there are
all sorts of kind of odd moments. There's a reference to Lee Harvey Oswald on
the very first page of the book, and one woman I know said she didn't think
women would make political references of that kind, and I started to get kind
of depressed about it around about that point because it seemed so patronizing
of their own sex. So I left it in there.

GROSS: My guest is Nick Hornby. His new novel is called "How to be Good."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Nick Hornby, author of "High Fidelity," "Fever Pitch,"
"About a Boy" and the new novel "How to Be Good."

You published a book of short stories, with the profits from the book going
toward your son's school. This is a special school for autistic children.
Did your attempts to do good with that book figure into your writing of this

Mr. HORNBY: Since my son was diagnosed, I do think that my moral universe has
become more complicated, I think, in ways that I hadn't expected it to be.
For a start, I seem to deal with people who operate in a sphere of pure love
and devotion. And, you know, I think--well, you probably know yourself,
Terry--that when you work in the media and with books, pure love and devotion
quite often is in short supply. There's a lot of bitching and moaning. And
now I'm working with all these people who just have a fantastic degree of
patience and resilience in dealing with very difficult children. So I've been
really kind of bowled over by them and felt almost inadequate in lots and lots
of ways. And, you know, doing this book was easy and fun, and I was really
proud of the book, but it still doesn't feel like a really big deal to do
something like that.

GROSS: Your main character, Katie, says that getting married and having a
family is like emigrating to a different country. I'm wondering, though, if
having, like, an autistic son made it more like emigrating to a different
country because so few people in your circle of friends, I'm sure, experienced
anything like that.

Mr. HORNBY: Yeah. I think it is a great separation thing; that people don't
really understand quite how different your experience of parenthood is, for
example. You know, most of my friends have kids now, and they've always been
incredibly sympathetic and respectful and so on, but they don't know what the
day-to-day detail of dealing with Danny is. So they tend to hang out with
other people who are in the same situation.

GROSS: What are some of the things that a parent of children who aren't
autistic would experience that you feel don't really apply to you?

Mr. HORNBY: Well, I guess--I mean, the basic thing is that everything's
easier with kids who are not autistic, that it doesn't become such a big deal,
you know, to go to visit somebody at their house, for example. I mean, Danny
might just literally refuse to go indoors because he doesn't like the vibe, or
there are other kids there and he's scared of other kids. And so, you know,
visits of that kind can last anything from between, you know, one minute and
three minutes, not usually much longer than that. But it's sort of--you know,
most seconds of the day, things are different from the other experience, the
normal experience.

GROSS: Nick Hornby is my guest. He is the author of "High Fidelity," "Fever
Pitch" and "About a Boy." He has a new novel which is called "How to Be Good."

When your novel "High Fidelity" was made into a movie, I think some of the
records that the people in the record store talk about and buy and some of the
records that the main character is most obsessed with are changed, in part
because this setting is a few years later and, also, the setting in the movie
is America, whereas the setting in the novel is England. Did you help choose
what the records in the movie were going to be?

Mr. HORNBY: No, I didn't, and I'm kind of glad that I left it to them because
the guys who made the movie, John Cusack and the two co-writers, they're
exactly the right age, and they're completely obsessed with music. I think
(technical difficulties) D.V.--I may have read this somewhere--has 10 or
15,000 vinyl records and is constantly buying pieces of hi-fi equipment. And,
no, they're absolutely the right guys to choose it, and I think I wouldn't
have got it right, either generationally or culturally, so I left it to them,
and they did a pretty good job, I think.

GROSS: Do you know if they had to change some of their choices because the
rights for the music were too expensive? You have to buy the rights before
you can use a record in a movie.

Mr. HORNBY: No. As I understand it, the only reason they ever changed their
mind was because they kept changing their minds, like Robin in the book. But
I think I remember somebody saying that Disney had made more clearances for
"High Fidelity" than for any other movie that they'd ever been involved in,
and I think the music budget for "High Fidelity" was almost the same as the
total budget for "Fever Pitch." But, no, they didn't suffer from that, at

GROSS: Are you following soccer--football--as carefully as you used to?

Mr. HORNBY: Yeah, I follow it as carefully. I wouldn't say that I've felt
quite the same way about it. I still live right next to the soccer stadium,
so it actually doesn't take a big chunk out of the day or out of the week to
go and see them. It really is walking around the corner. But the game has
changed so much in the last few years, in England in particular, I think, and
there are almost no English players, for example, who play for Arsenal any
more. It's become much more kind of mercenary, and the players come from
France or Italy or Spain or Holland and stay a year and then start saying that
they want to go and play somewhere else. And I think this is actually
beginning to loosen the bond between fan and club.

GROSS: You know, it's funny, in the movie "Fever Pitch," when the guy in the
story is trying to convince his girlfriend, or fiancee, to get a home that's
right a block away from...

Mr. HORNBY: Yes.

GROSS: ...the soccer stadium, I was thinking, `You're crazy. Sure, it's
going to be convenient to get there, but there's going to be mobs of people
parading past your house all the time, and that's not going to be pleasant.'
So what is it like to have lots of, you know, fans coming and going from the
stadium, passing by your home?

Mr. HORNBY: Well, this is a subject of great debate among the residents of
the area. Lots of them aren't very keen, and actually lots of them are. But
generally speaking, I think people do quite like living on top of a football
stadium. It's like waking up on a Saturday morning and having some kind of
fun fair or something right in your front yard. There's an atmosphere,
there's a buzz. You know, people are selling things from the wall outside
your room. It's just much more interesting than most places, and I really
enjoy it. And, you know, the game finishes at 5:00, and everyone's gone home
by quarter to six. It's not such a big deal.

GROSS: Do people ever drink a lot of beer and urinate in front of your house?

Mr. HORNBY: That can happen, yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Doesn't bother you?

Mr. HORNBY: I'll be honest about that.

GROSS: You just take that in your stride?

Mr. HORNBY: Yeah. Well, yeah, my stride sort of takes me over it, if you
see what I mean.

GROSS: Right. I think I got that cliche wrong. You take it in stride, not
in your stride, right?

Mr. HORNBY: No, in your stride's good, but...

GROSS: In your stride, OK.

Mr. HORNBY: Yeah, but I'm saying I'm striding over it. So...

GROSS: OK. You've been writing music criticism for The New Yorker magazine.
Do you enjoy writing about music, you know, functioning as a critic?

Mr. HORNBY: Yeah. I think it's incredibly hard. I think that writing about
music is much, much harder than writing about books, where, you know, if
you're going to be lazy, you can always retell the plot or you've got some
kind of take on the content. But to actually describe the way something
sounds is tough, I think, and I think it's not something that you can do
forever unless you're very, very resourceful. But I do enjoy it, and, you
know, it's fantastic just being exposed to so much more music and music that I
might not have heard otherwise.

GROSS: Did you ever play an instrument or sing yourself?

Mr. HORNBY: I have done that. I don't really want to be drawn on that. You
can ask me about my parents' marriage and everything, but you're not going to
talk to me about my harmonica playing, OK?

GROSS: Is that because you don't think you're very good?

Mr. HORNBY: It's just a very personal thing.

GROSS: Fair enough.

Mr. HORNBY: You've gone way over the mark now, Terry.

GROSS: I've crossed the line.

Mr. HORNBY: You've crossed the line. I'm going to walk out. My headphones
are going to be thrown on the floor.

GROSS: Well, I'd better quit while I'm ahead and thank you right here. Well,
Nick Hornby, thanks so much.

Mr. HORNBY: Thank you.

GROSS: Good luck with the novel and the new movie.

Mr. HORNBY: Thank you.

GROSS: And thank you.

Mr. HORNBY: Thanks.

GROSS: Nick Hornby's new novel is called "How to Be Good." A movie adaptation
of his novel "About a Boy" finished shooting last week. It stars Hugh Grant
and Toni Collette.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

Here's Jack Black from the soundtrack of "High Fidelity"

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JACK BLACK: (Singing) I've been really trying, baby, trying to hold on
to this feeling for so long. And if you feel like I feel, sugar, come
on--whoa, come on--yoo!--let's get it on. Oh, baby, let's get it on. Let's
love, sugar. Let's get it on. Sugar, let's get it on, woo-hoo. We are all
sensitive people...

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: David Hajdu discusses his book "Positively 4th Street"
about Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina
(Soundbite of song)

Mr. BOB DYLAN (Singing) You just want to be on the side that's winning. You
say I let you down. You know it's not like that. If you're so hurt, why,
then, don't you show it? You say you lost your faith, but that's not where
it's at. You have no faith to lose, and you know it. I know the reason that
you talk behind my back. I used to be among the crowd you're in with.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In the new book "Positively 4th Street," David Hajdu tells the story of the
'60s folk renaissance by telling the interconnected personal stories of four
performers: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina. Hajdu
is also the author of "Lush Life," a biography of composer Billy Strayhorn.

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were at the forefront of the folk renaissance.
Richard and Mimi Farina were lesser known. Let's start with the Farinas
recording "Pack Up Your Sorrows."

(Soundbite of "Pack Up Your Sorrows")

Mr. RICHARD FARINA: No use crying, talking to a stranger, naming the sorrow
you see. Too many bad times, too many sad times, nobody knows what you mean.

THE FARINAS: But if somehow you could pack up your sorrows and give them all
to me. You would lose them. I know how to use them. Give them all to me.

Mr. FARINA: No use ramblin', walkin' in the shadows, trailing a wandering
star, no one beside you, no one to hide you, and nobody knows what you are.

THE FARINAS: But if somehow you could pack up your sorrows and give them all
to me. You would lose them. I know how to use them. Give them all to me.

GROSS: Richard and Mimi Farina recorded in 1965. Richard died in a
motorcycle accident in '66 coming home from a book signing celebrating the
publication of his first novel, "Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me." It
was his wife Mimi's 21st birthday. I asked David Hajdu to tell us more
about The Farinas.

Mr. DAVID HAJDU (Author, "Positively 4th Street"): Mimi was Joan's little
sister, four years younger, also a guitarist and a singer. Very talented
guitarist, perhaps a better guitarist than Joan; difference between them
musically is that Mimi had marginal interest in being a public performer.
Richard Farina, whom she married at a very tender age, was a colleague and
competitor and friend of Dylan's, who was trying to do much the--something
similar to what Dylan ended up doing. In Richard's case, he was a writer,
studied at Cornell under Nabakov, was good friends with Thomas Pynchon in
college, and set out to do a literature with a rock 'n' roll sensibility, a
little before Dylan set out to do rock 'n' roll with literary sensibility.
And they all came together in this strange period in the 1960s.

GROSS: How did Dylan and Joan Baez first meet, and at what point were they in
their music careers when they did meet?

Mr. HAJDU: Well, it's interesting and marginally forgotten today that Joan
was a huge star and an important cultural force when Bob was largely unknown.
They met, literally, on Fourth Street, which recurs repeatedly in my book,
which is one of the reasons I named it "Positively 4th Street," at the hub of
the folk scene, Gertie's Folk City. And Joan, being very well regarded and
visiting New York at the time, was asked to sing. Bob sought her out and
followed her out to the curb of Gertie's Folk City as she was leaving with her
little sister, by the way, and said, `Oh, you know, can I sing a song for you?
I'm writing songs now. I want to sing a song for you I wrote.' And he bent
down on one knee outside of Gertie's Folk City and he sang "hey, hey, Woody
Guthrie, I Wrote You a Song."

And Joan thought, `Well, that was very nice. Well, bye-bye. We really must
be going now.' And she wasn't terribly impressed. Bob also made kind of an
unseemly overture toward Mimi, Joan's little sister, on the same occasion, and
I think for a complicity of reasons, she wasn't especially enamored of Bob
originally. It was a little later when he started writing songs of social
consciousness and they were at a party together, and she heard him playing
"With God on Our Side" for some friends when she realized that he was
something special. It was the depth and the originality of his early
compositions. And she was quite early in recognizing that Dylan was doing
something special.

GROSS: What did Joan Baez do for Bob Dylan's career?

Mr. HAJDU: Joan Baez gave Bob Dylan his start. She gave him her audience.
She transferred her fame to him. She brought him along on her early tours,
unbilled and largely unknown, and turned over the stage for the second half of
her shows to him. She brought this unknown guy out and, you know, she would
have to lecture her audiences, who didn't particularly like him at first. He
was doing a very, very different kind of thing. His voice was considered
strange at the time. He was writing a different kind of music. His guitar
playing was unconventional. She would--audiences would talk and sometimes boo
a little bit, and she would have to come out and lecture them, say, `Listen to
him. He's doing something different. Give him a chance.' And now that was
the beginning of Bob's national exposure.

GROSS: And Joan Baez and Bob Dylan were lovers at the time?

Mr. HAJDU: They fell in love very soon after he came to California and
started writing in her house, and it was a very complex relationship, and
elementally flawed as a romance because of the clash of egos involved.
Someone said that they broke up eventually because they couldn't decide whose
last name to give the children. I mean, they were two very strong people, but
deeply attracted to each other and respectful of each other's accomplishments.

GROSS: Although Joan Baez introduced Bob Dylan to her audience, and she was
more famous than he was, he didn't return the favor when he became famous and
toured England. She had hoped that he would introduce her to his audience,
and that didn't happen. What was going on between the two of them then?

Mr. HAJDU: From a careerist or a business point of view, it might have been
nice for Bob to invite Joan onto the stage. Her fame was beginning to wane.
She was losing her audience. Bob's audience was growing. He was on the
ascent from a musical point of view. From a creative point of view, it made
very little sense for the two of them to be together anymore, and Bob
recognized that before Joan caught on. I mean, by '64, '65, Bob was no longer
doing traditional folk music, music of social consciousness. He was writing
in a pop band, and he was writing very internal, probing and poetic music that
was nothing like the increasingly political and sometimes strident music that
Joan was doing at that time.

GROSS: My guest is David Hajdu, author of the new book "Positively 4th
Street." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Hajdu. He's the author
of the new book "Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob
Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina."

Let's bring Richard Farina into the picture. Farina and Dylan had several
things in common. One of them was that they liked to tell fictional stories
about their early life. Let's start with Dylan, whose story is more famous by
now, but what are some of the stories that were untrue that he told people
when he first arrived on the Greenwich Village music scene?

Mr. HAJDU: Practically everything Dylan said since high school was untrue,
you know. He originally created a whole new persona for himself. While he
was still in high school, he created another character named Elston Gunn,
who was a rock 'n' roll piano player, and he dropped the name Bob Zimmerman
then, when he was just a teen-ager; started wearing pink shirts and bow ties
and wearing a leather jacket, you know, and you could see him kind of
appropriating the pop culture sources around him. You know, he took Gunn from
"Peter Gunn," right?

And then when rock 'n' roll started to wane in popularity in the late '50s and
folk started to emerge as the new smart, cool, hip music, the music that was
happening, he dropped his first created persona and invented another one, Bob
Dylan, this time based on another TV character, Matt Dillon from the
"Gunsmoke" series. And he started telling stories that reinforced this new
image, that he worked--that he was a carnival barker, that he rode the rails,
that he was an orphan, that he was part American Indian, that he had an uncle
who was a professional gambler and, you know, all kinds of, you know, fanciful
tales that portrayed him as a mysterious figure of the road.

GROSS: And what are some of the things Richard Farina said about his past
that were untrue?

Mr. HAJDU: Well, if it's at all possible to imagine this, Richard Farina
outclassed Dylan as a myth maker. He used to say that he ran guns for Castro
in Cuba, that he was a member of the--he worked for the IRA. And he used to
claim that he had to sleep with a loaded .45 under his pillow. He used to say
that he couldn't fly because he had a metal plate in his head, and if he flew
his head might explode. But with Richard Farina, there was always an
awareness that it was a grand charade, and an invitation to join in and take
part of it.

GROSS: So what was Farina's real story?

Mr. HAJDU: Farina's real story is about as mundane as Bob Dylan's. He was
born and raised in Brooklyn, and attended Brooklyn Technical High School,
was a star student, quite bright, nose to the grindstone. And it was at
Cornell that he started becoming a bit of a Heathcliff character.

GROSS: Richard Farina became lovers and then the husband of Mimi Baez, Joan's
younger sister. And you seem to think that Farina maybe married her in part
for musical reasons, too, that she was the sister of a famous woman, she sang
and could help round out his performance? Am I giving an accurate
interpretation of your reading of this?

Mr. HAJDU: Well, Richard was boundlessly ambitious. He was overabsorbed with
Mimi's being a Baez and being part of the illustrious Baez family. After he
and Mimi agreed to marry, he bumped into a former teacher of his from Cornell,
the novelist Herbert Gold, at the American Express office in Paris, and he
yelled across the room to Herb, `Hey, Herb, guess what? I'm going to marry
Joan Baez's sister.' Well, that's sad, although that was clearly a component
of his attraction to Mimi. Everyone who met Mimi Baez was attracted to Mimi
Baez, not just physically, but she was a very warm and loving person, and a
bright person. When they did come together and developed a relationship, it
became more than just a simplistic, you know, Machiavellian thing. It became
largely symbiotic, and she contributed mightily to his development as a
musician. And if it weren't for Mimi and her knowledge of music theory and
her understanding of chords and her own creativity, Richard Farina would never
have emerged as a half-decent songwriter, as he did. He would never have had
the moderately successful career as half of a performing folk duo that he
did with Mimi.

GROSS: Now say something about the dynamics between this foursome when they
were together, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Farina and Richard Farina.

Mr. HAJDU: Oh, the four of them came together quite a bit. In California,
they lived next to each other, and for a while in 1964 they all lived together
in a house for a summer. Thomas Pynchon said, `It certainly was a nest of
vipers, wasn't it?' It was a little bit more than that, but there was a lot
of competitive inspiration as well as, you know, sheer rivalry. But Farina
egged Dylan on as a writer. They were both in a race to complete their books.
They both intended to have their books published in 1966. And Mimi and Joan,
like all sisters, were always intensely rivalrous. And the sexual dynamic of
the four of them just made this horribly complicated.

To make it as simple as I can--and it's not easy--Bob was always attracted to
Mimi first. When Bob met Joan, it was in Mimi's company, and he always had a
crush on Mimi. Richard seemed to have had his eye on Joan all along, and by
1965 had wormed his way into Joan's career and was producing a record for her
and writing music for her and beginning to talk about a whole series of other
projects with her.

GROSS: Some of the research that you did for your new book is very
interesting. For example, you communicated with the writer Thomas Pynchon,
the reclusive writer who never talks to the press. He had been Richard
Farina's college roommate at Cornell and best man at Farina's wedding with
Mimi. How did you manage to talk with him--or communicate with him might be
the better word?

Mr. HAJDU: Thomas Pynchon was one of many people who Richard Farina
influenced very deeply, one of many people who considered Richard Farina his
best friend. You know, that just says something about the kind of person
Richard Farina was--I mean, a fount of ideas, full of life, inspired, a number
of people around him, including other people who are the core subjects of my
book. And he was best friends with Pynchon in college. Pynchon was the best
man at Farina's wedding to Mimi and then the pallbearer at Richard's funeral.
I wish I had a colorful anecdote about, you know, Pynchon's coming out of, you
know, seclusion to talk to me. It really had nothing to do with me, I'm
convinced. I submitted some questions to him, you know, formally, through his
publisher, expected them to disappear into the ether, and was quite shocked
when he responded by fax.

And after that, there was some back and forth, an exchange of some letters.
And he couldn't have been more helpful. He answered everything I asked, was
charming and illuminating. I'm convinced that Pynchon's affection for this
person, Farina, was such that he thought it important to help tell Farina's
story. I think he thought that Farina's story is a story that needs to be
told. And even if he had to, you know, come out of his hole to pitch in,
well, it was worth doing.

GROSS: I think people are pretty much able to keep up with what Bob Dylan has
been doing musically, particularly because he had his 60th birthday recently.
He was very much in the news. What about Joan Baez and Mimi Farina?

Mr. HAJDU: Mimi essentially gave up public performing about 30 years ago to
shift her focus to public service, and she started an organization called
Bread and Roses in the San Francisco Bay area, devoted to bringing music
and other entertainment to shut-ins, hospital patients, prisoners and such.
And it's now an enormous organization, influential one, with branches all
around the country. That's been Mimi's focus. She's very well known in
social service circles around the country, entirely apart from her early work
in music. And she's quite ill at the moment with cancer, and as a result, her
big sister Joan has stopped touring for the foreseeable future to be at Mimi's
side. In fact, the entire Baez family is at Mimi's side in Mill Valley
while Mimi fights a quite serious bout with cancer.

GROSS: Well, David Hajdu, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. HAJDU: Oh, thank you. I had a great time.

GROSS: David Hajdu is the author of "Positively 4th Street."

Coming up, Milo Miles reviews a new CD by blues musician and singer Otis
Taylor. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Otis Taylor's CD "White African"

Otis Taylor formed his first blues band in 1954. By 1977, he quit the music
business, then stayed away nearly 20 years. Music critic Milo Miles says in
Taylor's new album, "White African," he infuses his folk-blues storytelling
with vivid characters and a keen sense of social and music history.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. OTIS TAYLOR: (Singing) Left my soul in Louisiana, left my body lying in
Tennessee. I didn't kill, kill no brakeman. I didn't kill no engineer.
Well, a white man pointed his finger in the sand, what they always say.
They didn't bother, bother to hang me. They just shot me on the spot.

MILO MILES reporting:

Modern blues performers have an image problem. If they're too self-conscious
and thoughtful, they seem like curators, preserving somebody else's blues.
But if they make visceral music, the only popular styles nowadays are party
guitar boogie or gangsta blues. Even perceptive performers, like Alvin
Youngblood Hart and Corey Harris, have trouble keeping the tone of their
music lively but not lowlife.

Now coming straight out of Colorado is Otis Taylor, whose album "White
African" is the most on-target blues record I've heard in years. Taylor's
music is electric without blaring. His songs are angry without craziness.
They make you think, might make you flinch and sweat a little bit, too.

Taylor is far from a newcomer. Born in 1948, he played in mostly obscure
bands until 1977. Then he took an extended break from music until his 1996
solo debut, "Blue Eyed Monster." He followed up with "When Negroes Walked the
Earth." That CD is illustrated with photos of Otis Taylor's father from
the 1940s, when Negroes, indeed, did walk the Earth. That's just one example
of Taylor's fine, caustic sense of history and its consequences.

But "White African" is his most focused, ferocious collection of songs.
Taylor's electric banjo and the lack of drums give his tunes some of the eerie
tang of Blind Lemon Jefferson or John Lee Hooker. But stories always
dominate. Taylor's soft voice is an advantage as he sings, whispers or just
talks his tormented characters to life. Here's a homeless father whose child
is dying because he cannot pay for medical treatment.

(Soundbite of song)

(Soundbite of baby crying)

Mr. TAYLOR: I ain't slept for three days and three nights. My little girl...

Unidentified Woman: (Echoing) My little girl.

Mr. TAYLOR: little girl, she's slipping, she's slipping away. I said
no work, no work.

Unidentified Woman: (Echoing) No work.

Mr. TAYLOR: If I fall, if I fall asleep...

Unidentified Woman: (Echoing) If I fall asleep.

Mr. TAYLOR: ...well, then, Jesus...

Unidentified Woman: (Echoing) Jesus.

Mr. TAYLOR: ...Jesus will hold your hand, hold your hand, baby. I went to
the hospital.

Unidentified Woman: (Echoing) I went to the hospital.

Mr. TAYLOR: Whoa! I said the doc, I said the doctor wouldn't even let us in.

Unidentified Woman: (Echoing) Even let us in.

Mr. TAYLOR: I went back home to my cardboard box...

Unidentified Woman: (Echoing) I went back home.

Mr. TAYLOR: ...laid, laid my little girl down. I said no work, no work.

Unidentified Woman: (Echoing) No work.

Mr. TAYLOR: 'Cause heaven...

Unidentified Woman: (Echoing) Heaven.

Mr. TAYLOR: ...heaven would let us in.

Unidentified Woman: (Echoing) Heaven, let us in.

MILES: Taylor can make fantastic states of mind seem like facts and factual
situations seem light nightmares. In the strange religious number
"Resurrection Blues," he explains that while people understand they have to
suffer before they die, they don't want to become Jesus.

(Soundbite of "Resurrection Blues")

Mr. TAYLOR: Woke up this morning, a deep, deep, a deep sleep. Found out, I
found out, I found out I was Jesus. I don't want to be crucified, don't want
thorns on my head. I don't want to walk among the dead. I don't want to be

MILES: The most harrowing track, "Saint Martha Blues," describes how
Taylor's great-grandfather was lynched and dismembered, and how his
great-grandmother persevered without hope for justice. Taylor has said he
wants to say much with a minimum of words. He gets it here.

(Soundbite of "St. Martha Blues")

Mr. TAYLOR: Poor, poor, poor Martha, she got to go, she got to go and find,
she got to go and find, she got, got, got to go and find, find her husband.
She walks all over town, she walkin', she walkin', she walkin' all over town.
She's draggin', oh, she's draggin' that baby behind her. She got to, she got
to go and find her husband. Oh, Martha. Oh, Saint Martha.

MILES: No one who hears Otis Taylor's "White African" should ever imagine
that the blues have to be safe or brutal or antique.

GROSS: Milo Miles is a music writer living in Cambridge. He reviewed "White
African" by Otis Taylor on NorthernBlues Music.

I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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