Sharps & flats

Mimi Fari

Published October 13, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Mimi and Richard Fariqa's "Pack Up Your Sorrows: Best of the Vanguard Years" contains some of the strongest music of the 1960s, songs as adventurous and one-of-a-kind as the man who wrote them. Back then, Richard was a songwriter as well as both a novelist and former gunrunner/revolutionary. Mimi was his child bride, kid sister of the Queen Jane of American folk music, Joan Baez.

Richard was born in 1936 to an Irish mother and Cuban father. As a teen, he smuggled rifles for the IRA, then moved to Cuba and fought alongside Fidel Castro. By 1959, he was part of the Greenwich Village coffeehouse scene. He also went to Cornell University upstate in Ithaca, where he befriended misfit student Thomas Pynchon. Fariqa then married Carolyn Hester, a folk singer. In Eric Von Schmidt's memoir of his folkie days, "Baby Let Me Follow You Down," Hester recalls an idyll with Fariqa on Martha's Vineyard during the summer of '61: "He was afraid the English were going to avenge themselves [on him] because he'd blown up a torpedo boat in Ireland. He was always carrying a .38 around. He thought the Protestants were going to bump him off. I couldn't believe it."

The next year they drifted to Paris, where Fariqa fell in love with Mimi Baez, a lovely piece of 15-year-old jailbait. Fariqa would eventually divorce his wife. Von Schmidt says Richard and Mimi then had a "secret" marriage ceremony. Other accounts name Pynchon best man. (Neither item cancels out the other.) What is known is that the two Fariqas began singing as a duo and released two spectacular folk records, "Celebrations for a Grey Day" (1965) and "Reflections in a Crystal Wind" (1966). "Folk" music usually refers to limp white folks' music, but the Fariqas' music was not tedious strum-strum-strumming like famous sister Joan. The Fariqas played weird Appalachian dulcimer music as well as Dylanesque electric folk-rock. Fariqa certainly followed in Dylan's electric footsteps -- he even used Dylan guitarist Bruce "Bringing It All Back Home" Langhorne. As a songwriter, however, Fariqa was not sitting in anyone's back seat.

The Vanguard collection contains some of his best songs, such as "Bold Marauder" -- a harrowing account of the malevolent "white destroyer" Klan. Be warned, however, that the record starts tame. Have patience. The songs get progressively more lyrical, electrical and sophisticated -- climaxing with "Morgan the Pirate," Fariqa's biting take on Dylan during the days when he was an amphetamine prick. (That's my term. The sanguine liner notes from the original '60s album sleeve says the song is Fariqa waving "farewell" to Dylan.)

So what happened to Richard Fariqa? He died in California. On May 1, 1966, Fariqa crashed his motorcycle on the way to the autograph party for his first novel, "Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me" at the Discover Bookshop in San Francisco. A posthumous album called "Memories" was released a little later. Although "The Vanguard Years" contains two cuts from this album, a handful are missing (including a live version of "House Un-American Blues Activity Dream" recorded during a rainstorm at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, a day before Dylan went famously electric).

As for Fariqa's connection with Pynchon, the latter dedicated "Gravity's Rainbow" to his dead friend. Reportedly a double biography of Fariqa and Dylan is in the works that documents a romance between Pynchon and Fariqa's widow. As for Mimi herself, she's made several folk records over the past 30 years, but none is worth finding. Together, however, they had something that still reverberates, 33 years after his death.

By David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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