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on 28 August 2014
If you want to understand what made Richard Farina tick, try reading his magnum opus Been Down So Long It looks Like Up to Me (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics). Billed as an underground novel, it gives a sensational though romanticized view of student life (at Cornell) in the 1960s. Hard as it may be to believe, Farina at one point looked more likely to succeed than Bob Dylan or Donovan! You can read the whole amazing story in David Hajdu's excellent history Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina, and Richard Farina. Farina married Mimi Baez, younger sister of the more famous Joan, in 1963; the novelist Thomas Pynchon, a close friend of Farina's, was best man. Farina died in a motorcycle accident at the age of 29 (in 1966). Some critics believed that an important career was thus cut short: for example, Ed Ward said that "[i]f Richard had survived that motorcycle accident, he would have easily given Dylan a run for his money".

Born in Brooklyn of Cuban and Irish parents, Farina always knew he wanted to be famous. His novel gave him a big advantage over Dylan, who could at best claim to be a poet. Unfortunately, Farina's music went only so far - and this album reveals the limits of his muse. Idiosyncratically, he chose to play an Abyssinian dulcimer rather than the almost compulsory guitar (in "The Folk Song Army", Tom Lehrer had fun by pointing out that his piano was hardly a traditional folk-song instrument: "Imagine, if you will, that I am playing an 88-string guitar"). Mimi played guitar and her strong, confident vocals contribute powerfully to most of the songs.

My favourite tracks are definitely "The Falcon" and "Reflections in a Crystal Wind", but there are many other gems on this album (some of them unobvious). "Pack up your Sorrows" is a swinging traditional number, balanced by traditional Irish songs such as "Michael, Andrew and James" and "Bold Marauder". To boost his 1960s street cred, there are a number of overtly political or satirical songs including "Mainline Prosperity Blues" and "House Un-American Blues Activity Dream". The album's basic dilemma shows up clearly in "Hard-Loving Loser", which somehow falls squarely between being tuneful, cool, and funny. Somehow I just can't imagine Dylan singing a number quite like that.
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