Sunday, August 20, 2006

What Would It Have Looked Like Now?

Few aftershocks from what is now yesteryear, to my great surprise, equal my discovery yesterday that Mimi Fariña died five years ago this summer. You have to be a bit of a folk music aficionado to even remember Mimi and it helps to have lived through the 1960s.

Mimi, nee Margarita Mimi Baez, was the sister of superstar folksinger Joan Baez, but she was best known as the feminine half of Richard and Mimi Fariña, the husband-and-wife dulcimer and guitar duo that flourished in the mid-1960s.

While digitizing the beloved, pristine LPs of their music that I've kept through the decades, I discovered that the two albums I have were recorded in 1964 and 1965. I didn't discover them until 1971, when I graduated from Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell to Bluegrass and some singers of whom no one but true-and-tried folkies have heard.

I mean real folk music that has not been mass-marketed, engineered -- or, as Paul Simon memorably put it in A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Lyndon Johnsoned Into Submission), referring to the recording engineer and music entrepreneurs who built him into a commercial legend,
I been Phil Spectored, resurrected.
I been Lou Adlered, Barry Sadlered.
Real folk music is found in the memorable year 2000 film Songcatcher, about a musicologist who, while visiting her sister's rural school in Appalachia, stumbles upon ancient Scots-Irish ballads and decides to record them sung by memory, just as they were passed down, from generation to generation. You hear purely performed a capella singing, occasionally the intervention of a stringed instrument, and lyrics that tell stories of woe, of faith, of warning to playful young maidens and hasty young men.

That's more or less the way Richard and Mimi Fariña played, even though Richard attended Cornell University and penned his college-age early writings in the company of folks such as the future novelist Thomas Pynchon, while Mimi swirled in her sister's wake of folk stars (even Bob Dylan, the god, accompanies them in a few tracks).

For a brief two years their musical stars were ascending with a sound that was old and new, delicate and challenging all at once in the then-little-heard sound of the dulcimer and guitar. Then came the fateful surprise birthday party for Mimi on April 30, 1966, and the motorcycle accident that killed Richard instantly.

That day Richard Fariña joined the pantheon of heroes of the 1960s whose lives were unexpectedly cut short. The memorial wall, were there one, would begin with John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr.; the names would include the enigmatic, energy-filled Lusitanian-Celtic, enigmatic young singer with promise Richard Fariña; then it would pass through Jimi Hendrix, to end perhaps with Phil Ochs, who committed suicide in the late-1970s, or John Lennon, killed like Kennedy, closing the circle.

Richard Fariña might not have distinguished himself for his music without Mimi. But he certainly left behind an unreadable little novel with a title that often comes to mind: Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me.

Upon hearing their music again after several years I googled them, hoping to see middle-aged Mimi with at least a few extra pounds to match my own, a middle-aged woman to whom it didn't seem to have looked so down way back when. She had been stuck with the role of widow of the young creative hero, which apparently wreaked havoc with her romantic life, much the way being stuck with being Joan Baez's sister didn't help her musical confidence.

Middle age has a way of softening things. She was getting ready to retire from music in the year 2000, following the 25th anniversary of a famous prison concert in which she had played with her sister. Fate denied her a ride into the sunset: she was diagnosed with cancer and died a year later.

Makes me wonder. According to Nobelist author Nikos Kazantzakis, Jesus' last temptation occurred on the cross, when he had one last option to recant and die an old man surrounded by his wife and grandchildren.

So even now I'm left to wonder what would life had looked like had Kennedy and King, Fariña and Ochs and Brel, the young disappeared of Argentina, the dead in Vietnam and the Congo, Patrice Lumumba and Che Guevara, had everyone lived to be old, their life's work rounded out to match their bodies.

Maybe the young existential angst, the earnestness, the deadly conflicts and issues, the poignant music and poetry, and life itself, all might have seemed so silly, so trivial, so beside the real point for so long.

Then, maybe and at last, it would all now look like up to all of us.
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