More American Images Richard Farina: Cultural Hero?

ALL RIGHT: let's say a few words about the concept of culture heroes. Culture heroes are nothing new; every civilization of which we have record has chosen one or two human figures to elevate to the level of demigods, for the sake of personal identification and glorification. The Greeks had Ulysses; we are blessed with our three lunar loonies. Such people are indispensable; without them there would be no Hum 9.

But it's harder to be a culture hero these days than it used to be. The functioning of our prime communications media has grown to be too swift. The hero in our own culture is doomed to be part of his own audience; and if he finds himself applauding along with the masses, his heroic stature crumbles.

What's more, mythology can only grow healthily in an air of confusion and uncertainty. The lives of the Beatles, once our number one hero figures, have by now been too well-reported and unambiguous to allow them god-like respect. We have all seen John Lennon picking his nose on the Tonight show, and we have all seen proof that his sexual equipment is of mercy human proportions. Deluged with well-researched information by our zealous press media, we are often confronted with heroes too human and most ungodly.

Accordingly, we Americans tend to run through great numbers of short-lived heroes at a colossal rate. In recent years we have used and used up Ernest Hemingway, Otis Redding, a string of Kennedys, Joe Namath, Bob Dylan, Malcolm X, even George Plimpton (for God's sake). It is next to impossible to survive as a culture hero: you either die or you are exposed. (Or, in the saddest cases, both.)

In the case of Richard Farina, already dead three and a half years, the cruel denuding of defects is beginning. In response to the recent publication of a very good posthumous book, Long Time Coming and a Long Time Gone, and a not so good posthumous record album, Memories, Cavalier magazine (the second runner to Playboy in the field that can only be honestly called tits-and-ass journalism) has done their best to dig up the dirties on Dick Farina. Why? Does he deserve discrediting? Do we deserve having him discredited?

FARINA'S ascension to the ranks of cultural, or more accurately subcultural, hero-dome, was effected in the most plastic of manners. Prior to his death, he was known only to a small group of folks, who were at that time a hard dying race. His public work consisted of the two record albums he made with his wife Mimi, his first novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, the liner notes to his records, a Judy Collins record, and a Geoff Muldaur record (I think; maybe it was a Rick von Schmidt album), plus one story and several mediocre poems that he published, while in college, in two Ithaca literary magazines, Epoch (still running) and the Cornell Writer (long defunct and unavailable). His novel was not very well received. At the time of his death, two days after the publication of the novel, he could hardly be considered a resounding popular success. In her notes to the recent collection of his writing, Long Time Coming, Mimi remarks that he was perhaps a bit jealous of Bob Dylan, who was several years younger and was making it in a much bigger way.

I WAS a half-hearted folkie back in 1965, when the first Richard and Mimi Farina album, Celebrations for a Grey Day, came out. Although it was later chosen by Robert Shelton of the New York Times as one of the ten best folk albums of the year, whatever that means, it didn't sell very widely. This is no surprise. Although it was a great record, it was in a basically acoustic idiom, mostly just guitar and dulcimer; Dylan had just issued Highway 61, and folk music, as we then knew it, was shot to hell.

I would probably have missed the record altogether, had it not been for my Thomas Pynchon obsession, which ciliated the following postcard from my good buddy Kraz the drummer, then a freshman at Cornell:

How are things? Just heard a song on the radio by Richard Farina, who went here, called V. based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, also Cornell Grad. So? See you around.

(It develops that not only was there such a song on Celebrations for a Grey Day, an Eastern sounding instrumental, but that Farina and Pynchon were roommates and best friends at Cornell. Pynchon turns up not only in the blurb to Farina's novel, but also as a character in a piece in the new Farina book, an article entitled "The Monterey Fair," one of the most interesting in the book. Written for Mademosielle, strangely enough, it is the story of a trip to Monterey the day before Dick's and Mimi's wedding, at which Pynchon was best man.) At any rate, it was on account of Thomas Pynchon that I dug up the record and dug it.

The next time I heard of Richard Farina was the night after he died. I was listening to a folk show in Philadelphia, when the deejay read an announcement that Dick Farina had been killed in a motorcycle crash while leaving a party celebrating the publication of Been Down So Long.

At that point, despite the publication of the book and the appearance of a second record with a somewhat more timely electric backup, not too many people knew about him. And that was the end. Richard Farina was dead.

So? IT'S EASIER to create your culture heroes around people who are dead; they can't buck whatever image you give them. They can't betray your faith in them. And that's how Richard Farina, posthumously, and therefore, one would assume, unconsciously, began his plastic, fantastic ascent to heroic stature.

I guess Esquire magazine figured they didn't have much to lose when they eulogized him a year later as a "future culture hero." Even if they had been wrong about his appeal to college students (they weren't), they could be sure that the spread they were giving him would make him a culture hero even if he wasn't destined to be one. The appearance of the article guaranteed fulfillment of their prediction. They printed big two-page photo of Farina surrounded by quotes from his book and had Joan Baez, Farina's sister-in-law, write a brief portrait of him entitled "Child of Darkness," which, to Joanic's credit, is genuinely touching. It is reprinted as an introduction to Long Time Coming and may also be found in the middle of Miss Baez's phenomenally saccharine autobiography, Daybreak. The title of the article is a reference to "Children of Darkness," one of Farina's last and most world-weary songs.

His novel caught on despite the rotten reviews, all of which were correct. It is true that the novel is badly structured, has few real characters, is unevenly written, and is totally unbelievable for the last hundred and fifty pages. But it is probably the finest post-rock novel yet written.