Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Bells at Mimi Farina's Funeral

     April of 2001, and the world was yet pacific, and hopefully heading into a new millennium. Mimi Farina, the younger sister of Joan Baez, had just passed away the week before. I am the sort of person who rarely goes to funerals other than for friends and family, and so for me this was the first time to ever attend one in any third-person reference. However, I felt that a gentle soul such as hers deserved my respects. There were a lot of things I felt were passing from the world with her.

     In the first place, it would have been unlikely for me to be attending had it not been for the influence of her husband Richard on my early life. Dick (as friends called him) had been one of the most promising literary lights of the mid-sixties, cut down in his prime on the very day of his celebration and welcoming into that world- on Mimi's 21st birthday, he was attending a party in honor of the publication of his first (and only) novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me. He went out on a spin as the passenger on a motorbike driven by a friend, to score a bottle or two more of wine for the party, which was well attended and apparently, enough fun that it demanded a little more libation. The motorcycle ran off the road on the Coast Highway not far from the party- Richard was killed, and Mimi herself recalled hearing the distant ambulances. Dick never made it back to the party, which would take an overcasting pall. Great promise cut off mid flight- such sometimes is fate.

     As I was saying, his influence on my own life- I had come across a collection of his songs and poems in my sophomore year in high school, and those led to an exploration of the albums that Richard & Mimi had made for Vanguard. They featured a wonderful guitarist named Bruce Langhorne- his own guitar work being quite influential on my own developing style. The songs also featured Richard's dulcimer playing- up to that point, I think he was really the only person I'd ever known of who played one. Jean Richie, and Laura Allen, were names I'd get familiar with later on, but Richard was the very first. The dulcimer was always accompanied by Mimi's guitar work, which couldn't be described as "Hendrix-esque"- not the least! But was always spare, elegant, and to the point. Sometimes, simple works better than spectacular.

     That interest eventually led to my own picking up the dulcimer - at least for  a few years- as I was already into banjo, auto-harp, and an occasional borrowed moment on a friend's mandolin. Joni Mitchell would take the instrument to a new popularity in a couple of years, but at the time I discovered Richard and Mimi, she was strictly a 12-stringer. Almost all of the instrumentals featured on The Best of Richard and Mimi Farina- the album which piqued my interest then- are still melodies I live with and enjoy. But the thing I loved most of all was Richard's poetry. Songs like Raven Girl, The Falcon, A Swallow Song, and Another Country conjured images of exotic people and places. They're still as vivid as they seemed then. Like Phil Ochs, he could veer down the blind alley of the topical song, but when he did, even then, the poetry was to the point as well. Bold Marauder and Michael, Andrew and James were both excellent jabs at the Ku Klux Klan... and racist mentality. Maybe the poetry was the point- certainly more so than it was with Ochs.

   I shared a pew with Greil Marcus, the Rolling Stone critic. There were a lot of folks there- Her famous sister, of course, spoke for some time, and brought some well-needed laughs to the crowd. You could tell that Ms. Farina had been a force of nature in her own way- all her work with the Bread and Roses charity performance group had given her many supporters, whom probably would have not come to notice her otherwise. But then, the aura of Joan no doubt brought many of these other people to the event as well.
The service ended with a tape of her laughter echoing through the church, and you could tell, few people were sitting through the entire thing with dry eyes.

   Most notable for me however, was when it all ended, and people were filing out. Bells were ringing, light, happy, joyous bells, as though a dove had been set free to soar the skies above the city. It was a crisp cold spring day, clear and not hardly a cloud in the sky, and the bells sounded like falling spring water to my ear. Life goes on, as go on it must. One life leaves us to join the ancestors, and somewhere, some new soul is crying forth in birth. The bells spelled happiness, they didn't know how to spell sorrow.

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