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More American Images Richard Farina: Cultural Hero?

By Andrew G. Klein

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.

It is an expression of pure energy crystallized in print. If rock and roll is one of the most important cultural phenomena of the last ten years, it seems to have had little or no influence on recent fiction, other than stealing away most of our potential novelists. (Most of the likely writers born in the forties seem to have become rock and roll stars instead.) Very few recent novels read as though their authors had been exposed to any rock at all.

The only exceptions I have come across are the works of Richard Brautigan, Hall of Mirrors by Robert Stone, possibly Pynchon's Crying a Lot 49, and Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. It is not Farina's occasional reference to Buddy Holly that makes him post-rock, but rather the impression one gets from the novel that it was written with the Stones constantly playing in the background. The book is driven by a constant mindless throb of energy.

The book's other great strength lies in the charm of the hero, Gnossos Pappadopoulis, who one automatically identifies with Farina himself. Gnossos of course is the expression of ultimate cool. He says on the second page:

I am invisible . . . And Exempt. Immunity has been granted to me, for I do not lose my cool. Polarity is selected at will, for I am not ionized and I possess not violence. Call me inert and featureless but Beware, I am the Shadow, free to cloud men's minds. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? I am the Dracula, look into my eye.

It is difficult not to idolize Gnossos somewhere in your deepest libido; he gets away with everything. He does incredible varieties and quantities of dope but never flips out; he treats girls like objects and never feels guilty; he can go to war and not be shot; he can act outrageously and never be reproached. He is the complete hip college hero, and the aura of this rubs over to Farina.

ALL THIS, THE exuberance and grogginess of the novel plus the songs on the first two albums, combine in the mind to form a beautiful image of Richard Farina. The Memories album, released last December, is anticlimactic, to say the least, and contributes nothing to the legend. It is a hodgepodge of unreleased cuts, live remakes of old songs, tracks Farina produced for Joan Bacz, songs sung by Mimi alone, and old singles. Only the singles, a remake of "Pack Up Your Sorrows" with electric backup and a song called "Joy Round My Brain," are as good as anything on the first two albums.

However, the new book, Long Time Coming and A Long Time Gone, expands the mythology. The fiction and the poetry aren't particularly good, but the transcribed song lyrics and the memoirs are some ofthe best of Farina as artist or hero. The myth becomes about as complete as I imagine it ever will.

And then this cat named Robert Greenfield comes along in the October issue of Cavalier and tries to tell us that Richard Farina was an ambitious grubby little punk or at best was a pitifully insecure social climber.

Why? We don't come up with romantic culture heroes as good as our imaginary Dick Farina very often. Why does someone feel obliged to come along and destroy them with one or another dispensable version of the truth?

The whole corpus of Farina composes a rich and total mythological system. It might not be cruel to Farina to destroy it. But why must it be torn down in front of us?

Why?

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