Mimi Farina gave me my first gig and my first Greek salad.
I was an aspiring 20-year-old singer-songwriter, and she was 29, famous, and pursuing a career as a solo performer. I was booked to open for her at The Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, Calif. With her straight, raven-black hair, petite dancer's body and huge almond eyes, she was the most intoxicating woman I'd ever met. She offered to share her dressing room and a Greek salad, which she had made and brought herself. I never liked Greek salad, but I ate it; any man would have.
I don't remember much about my set, but I remember watching her performance and being enchanted by her beauty and her pure soprano. It lacked the quavering vibrato of her sister, Joan Baez, but it was at once a more straightforward and fragile instrument.
I stood in the wings, right behind the curtain, when she stepped offstage. I said something asinine like "God, you were great." She looked at me and asked, "Do you know 'Amazing Grace'?" "Sure," I mumbled, all moony-eyed, "but . . . God, you were good." Which meant, of course, that I didn't know "Amazing Grace" at all.
"Come on," she said, taking my hand and dragging me onto the stage. I stood there beside her, nervously chewing a piece of gum. "Steve's going to join me for this next song," she announced to the crowd. "As soon as he gets rid of his gum."
Like a scolded schoolboy, I obediently spat out my gum -- unintentionally into the lap of a young woman in the first row -- and the place exploded. And then the strangest thing happened. As Mimi began singing a capella, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound" -- my hand holding onto her's for dear life -- I suddenly knew the song, a song I had never sung before. I fell into harmony, as if by osmosis. The audience was singing too, swaying back and forth like waves of wheat in a slow-motion wind....
The next time I saw Mimi was about a year later, in 1975. Living in Mill Valley, on the Marin County side of the Golden Gate Bridge, she had just started an organization called Bread & Roses, through which she and other performers volunteered to bring free entertainment to confined or institutionalized audiences. We played several gigs together -- driving all over Marin County in a not-always-trusty Volkswagen micro van, playing in hospitals, halfway houses, rehab centers, convalescent homes. Mimi could bewitch anyone from age 7 to age 70 with her wit, beauty and energy, and she always picked up the tab for the post-performance pizza.
As her commitment to Bread & Roses escalated, her own performing career took a back seat. By the '80s, Bread & Roses was a Bay Area institution, with such volunteers as Robin Williams, Boz Scaggs, Lily Tomlin, Willie Nelson and Neil Young donating their time and talent.
She told me once that when she was still under contract with A&M Records, she had seen an interoffice memo referring to her as a "marginal" act. Oooh, how she hated that word forever after. By the time she passed away last week after a long battle with cancer, Mimi had touched and enriched thousands of lives, many of them in a profound way. If that's a "marginal" act, then we should all be living such marginal lives.
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