Joan Baez: Singer, activist, peacenik, lover, legend

Joan Baez has had an extraordinary life. Ahead of her appearance at the Royal Festival Hall, and at the age of 73, she talks to Lawrence Donegan

Angry wasps are swarming in the eaves of Joan Baez’s Californian home, but otherwise all is as it should be in the life of a woman who has devoted herself to the cause of peace. 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 documentary Don’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.

Are they still in touch? She smiles. “No one is ever in touch with Bob Dylan.”

BAEZ is part Spanish and part Scottish – a troublesome genealogical mix for a kid who spent many of her formative years in southern California. “The white kids weren’t really interested in me and the Mexican kids didn’t like me because I was quite different from them. So when I finally picked up the ukulele and started singing it was good for my self-image,’’ she recalls. “The white kids came to listen to me. I was like a little court jester. I liked the attention and I liked being accepted, even if it was only for that.”

Looking at Baez now, silver-haired and still beautiful at 73, it is hard to imagine she was ever driven by the need for the approval of others. For years she has lived in one of the world’s most affluent towns, where $30m mansions are the norm and there is a high-tech billionaire at every restaurant table. By contrast, her home is rambling and old-fashioned. The cars in the drive are modest and in need of a wash. She dresses like a hip Angela Lansbury. If she is rich she hides it well. She oozes the self-assuredness and calmness of an habitual outsider.

Yet she insists she was driven for a long time by a sense of doubt, not least about her musical talent. “I didn’t realise my voice was anything special for a bunch of years. I just thought that if anyone put their mind to it they could sing,’’ she says, laughing. Was there a particular moment when she realised she might possess a certain star quality? “Not really, but there were lots of little hallelujah moments over the years. I would go to a folk club and there would be all kinds of people on stage singing and I would notice that my voice was something a little special. And as the years go by and you make it on the golden railway to ‘legend-ism’ you just accept that maybe you do have something.”

She did indeed have something for the best part of five decades. And then she didn’t. “About three years ago I was ready to throw in the towel. My voice had gotten unmanageable. I didn’t hate it, but I hated being preoccupied with trying to get a high note right, not getting to what I wanted to hear. People wouldn’t come up and tell you the truth, they say you sound the way you always did. Don’t listen to them,’’ she laughs.

As a last resort she went to an ear, nose and throat specialist on the advice of a friend. The outcome was a revelation. “We concluded that I was so busy trying not to hear the current voice (especially the high notes) that I just locked everything up. He then sent me to his vocal therapist, a lovely young woman who opened up a whole new tool box. After two lessons I went on tour and the entire group noticed the change. The voice returned and the notes started to come back.”

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, 1964
‘No one is ever in touch with Bob Dylan’: Joan with Dylan in 1964 when they were lovers. Photograph: The Estate of David Gahr/Getty Images Photograph: The Estate of David Gahr/Getty Images

The notion of Baez the doubt-ridden folk singer could hardly be in greater contrast to her alter-ego, Baez the activist. When it comes to politics, she has always known where she stood. 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.”

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.”

Of all the leaders she has known, only the late Vaclav Havel measured up her idea of what a leader should be. “Aside from being a poet and a writer and a politician, he had this enormous brain. But the thing that made him for me was that he was willing to take risks. Risks, risks, risks.”

To illustrate she tells a story about a concert she gave in Bratislava in 1989 a few months before the revolution that chased the Soviets out of what was then Czechoslovakia. Havel turned up to give her support and offer ideas on how she might advance his cause. “My concert was being televised so he and I came up with this plan that I should learn some phonetic Czech, record it and put it on the headphone in my ear. At a certain moment I will say in Czech: ‘Now I would like to introduce you to my dear friend Vaclav Havel’.

“So that’s exactly what I did. The next thing you know, the TV broadcast clicked off and that was that.”

Protest singers have come and gone through the decades – mostly notably Dylan himself, whose devotion to radical causes didn’t last much longer than the proverbial five minutes – but Baez has remained true to her beliefs. She sacrificed much, not least in a musical sense. Expending so much time and energy on activism cost her commercially. Record companies were not exactly lining up to invest in an “act” so hell-bent on lecturing America about its failings. Mainstream audiences, too, were alienated by politics.

We shall overcome: (clockwise from above) with Martin Luther King in Mississippi, 1966
We shall overcome: (clockwise from above) with Martin Luther King in Mississippi, 1966 Photograph: Bettmann/CORBIS

Not that Baez ever cared about that. Her principal concerns were much closer to home, although it took her 20 years of therapy to get to the bottom of them. “I was aware that my relationships didn’t last, but I was going round in circles trying to work out what the problem was. I came to the answer through therapy. My therapist sent me to all sorts of places in an attempt to make me dig it up – art, dance – until we got there,’’ she says. “I was scared of intimacy. Many, many people have the same problem because when you are intimate that is when you open yourself up to another person. I was always looking for a way out. It wasn’t that I turned to cigarettes or drugs. I turned to something that I want to do (activism) and I was lucky that I was able to do good for other people. I was 50 when I decided I wasn’t going to live like that any more.”

This realisation allowed her to begin rebuilding her relationship with her son, Gabriel (Gabe), who will be one of the two musicians backing her when she appears on stage at the Royal Festival Hall next month.

“We worked together in therapy a couple of times because he really resented me being away all the time when he was younger,’’ she says. “I have regrets, but I try to hack away at them. If I’m going to sit here and worry about the time I did X and should have done Y, that’s not great for Gabe. I need to respect the fact that he felt abandoned. The hardest thing is forgiving yourself, but it is necessary to do that.”

As for the rest of the world and its concerns, Baez is willing to offer her personal support to causes that are particularly close to her heart, most notably the campaign against the death penalty in the United States. But she is no longer first to the barricades when the cry of radicalism is raised. “People ask me what I’m going to do and I say back to them: ‘No, the question is what are you going to do?’”

With her personal relationships rebuilt and her energies redirected, Baez has been able to devote time to her career. Six years after the Steve Earle-produced Day After Tomorrow, she is making tentative plans to record another album (“I’m constantly aware of the need to be current and to make sure that the next album is always better than the last one.”) There is also the concert circuit, with which she is currently smitten. Apart from anything else, it allows her to spend more time with Gabe. “A lot of mothers don’t get to hang out with their sons – daughters, yes; sons no. It nice to be able to say: ‘Hey let’s go out for dinner’,’’ she says. “And I think I owe it to the public to keep doing shows. More than that I owe it to myself and the voice. I am gifted in a lot of things, like painting and writing, but I think the greatest gift to me was my voice. There wasn’t one like it before and there won’t be another one like it again.”

Joan Baez plays the Royal Festival Hall, London, from 17-21 September (


Lawrence Donegan

The GuardianTramp

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