'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
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Saturday, August 30, 2014
Lawrence Donegan - Joan Baez: Singer, activist, peacenik, lover, legend
"I went to jail for 11 days for disturbing the peace; I was trying to disturb the war." Joan Baez, 1967
Photo by Matthew Rolston (1987)
The breeze is warm, the incense sticks are billowing out smoke and the conversation is mellow. “Clear,” Baez says when asked to describe her current state of mind. Her eyes glow with the light of a teenager. “Very clear.”
Ask a silly question.
For more than 50 years, Baez has been a central figure in the cultural and political life of the United States. A singer, an activist, a peacenik, a beauty, a lover (of some iconic men, it must be said). She is far too self-aware to utter the phrase “been there, done that”, but if she ever did, no one would take issue. Name a significant date in American politics since the early 1960s and she will either know the characters involved or have been involved in some way herself. “Oh Lou, I knew Lou,’’ she says casually when the name of the late Lou Reed comes up.
“I didn’t know him until we ended up doing a show together in Prague. I bumped into him as he was wandering around in the hotel lobby and I said to him, ‘Come for dinner with us Lou’, and so he did. He grumbled all the way to the restaurant because we decided to walk there. I knew then what we had adopted, but by then it was too late.”
Ask her about songwriting (she hasn’t written a song of her own for 25 years) and she says: “So I called Janis Ian and I said: ‘Janis, I can’t write – what shall I do?’ And she says: ‘It’s very simple. Look around the room, pick an object and then just write whatever comes into your head.’ So I did. And I wrote one of the best songs I have ever written.
“It’s called ‘Coconuts’. I wanted to start performing it, but my manager was horrified. He thought people would really love it and I would become known as the Coconut song woman.”
Then there was the time the late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, a near neighbour and a former lover, called to ask if she would give him a piano lesson. “I told him I wasn’t much of a piano player, but I knew where middle C was, but he said, ‘Come on over’ so I did. When I got there it was just Steve in the big, empty rotunda of his house – there was no furniture – sitting behind a Bösendorfer (a particularly expensive make of piano). He couldn’t play a note.”
Baez doesn’t tell such anecdotes to impress but to amuse both the listener and herself. She is aware of her own status – legendaryness, she mockingly says – and finds it vaguely absurd. “I once had this Australian journalist call me and she said to me: ‘Has it ever occurred to you that you are the only woman in the world to have seen both Steve Jobs and Bob Dylan naked?’ I told her: ‘But not at the same time.’”
The mention of Dylan provokes a solitary note of reserve as Baez looks back on her life. Famously, she and Dylan were lovers in the early 1960s, when she smoothed a path for him around the folk clubs of New England and New York – a debt he later repaid by snubbing her on the UK tour famously captured in DA Pennebaker’s 1967 film documentaryDon’t Look Back. Dylan later apologised for the way he treated Baez. The nature of their relationship has been the subject of much gossip through the years.
Joan with Dylan in 1964 // Photograph: The Estate of David Gahr/Getty Images
Are they still in touch? She smiles. “No one is ever in touch with Bob Dylan.”.. .
The world has never measured up to her ideas of fairness and equality, not today and not when she was a 15-year-old refusing to salute the American flag. Eight years later, her schoolgirl radicalism had moved on to the national stage. She was one of the principal performers at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the day on which Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech. “The influx of people into the city was remarkable, like an ocean flooding in,’’ she says when asked for her recollections of the day. Then when asked about King himself: “What people don’t realise about him was that he was a very funny man.’’
The passing of the Civil Rights Act and King’s subsequent assassination robbed the movement of much of its power, while the onset of the Vietnam war turned the attention of activists towards events on the other side of the world. Baez, again, was at the forefront of a protest movement.
In 1972 she travelled to Hanoi with a peace delegation and was caught in the middle of an American bombing campaign on the North Vietnamese capital that lasted 12 days. “We spent the whole time in the basement of our hotel,’’ she recalls. “I have never been so afraid in my life. I thought I was going to die. But I learned something – when the flames start coming towards you everyone starts praying, even the atheists and the agnostics, but when the flames start fading away we all go back to the structures and beliefs that we had before.” For Baez, the Hanoi experience made her even more determinedly radical than she had been. What kept her going? “The belief that what I was doing was right.”
Martin Luther King in Mississippi, 1966Photograph: Bettmann/CORBIS
For Baez, no political leader measured up to King until Barack Obama came along and ran for president. But the reality of his victory has been a disappointment. “I wish that Obama had a different enough personality that he would have stayed on the streets. If he had done that then he would have been the closest thing we ever had to King. He had the attention and support of hundreds of millions of people and now there isn’t much of anything.”...