October 18, 2008
Joan Baez is singing protest songs again claiming the Bush regime put
her back in business. Now 67, she has lost none of her graceful fire
SHE CALLS HIM an idiot, a hypocrite, a sociopath, and a lying
bastard, but Joan Baez admits that George Bush has made her relevant
again. "I am a pacifist that is my job but for years I didn't
sing protest songs because they'd just become nostalgic," she says.
"That has changed now."
She's started to sing Dylan's With God on Our Side again. "Bush and
his cohorts think they are going to heaven and they don't care about
the rest of us," she says. "I think we came close to having martial
law in America. I feared for my family. But people have started to
see through him."
A lot of the new protest songs are, she says, "too preachy". However,
the title song of her new album The Day After Tomorrow (originally a
Tom Waits song) is a subtle and poignant ballad that could have been
written for Baez. About a young American soldier in Iraq, it is
implicitly anti-war. "It's about a soldier longing for home, but it
is also about the human condition," she says.
She's on the road again, and her new songs include I Am a Wanderer,
written for her by Steve Earle who produced this album as well as
playing on it. Other songs include Scarlet Tide, written for the
American Civil War film Cold Mountain by Elvis Costello and T-Bone Burnett.
"I love ballads," she says. "I started with them and now this album
is like a bookend." She loves working with Earle, whose politics are,
she says, considerably to the left of hers. "I call him Mr Pinko,"
she says. "He calls me Boss."
She's backing Barack Obama. "It is the first time I've not just voted
against someone. I think he could make a community out of black kids
in the ghetto and us. He's a statesman and we haven't had one of
those in decades," she says. "It isn't that comfortable for me -
after all, he'll be the commander in chief of the army." Back in
1969, Baez went to jail, along with her mother and sister, for
organising draft resistance against the war in Vietnam.
The new album is her 24th and, astonishingly, marks the 50th year of
her career. She's 67 and looking wonderful, with lean and glossy,
short, silver hair swept back from a face dominated by those big,
dazzling, brown eyes.
She speaks softly and I have to listen intently to hear her over the
soaring Sinatra that's playing far too loudly in the lounge at the
Clarence Hotel. "Wouldn't be my cup of tea," she murmurs. She drinks,
as it happens, peppermint tea. "Boring, I know," she says.
Her father was Mexican, her mother Scottish, and her early years were
spent in southern California. "There was a lot of prejudice. I was
seen as a Mexican, an inferior being," she says. Then her father, a
professor of physics, was sent to work in Baghdad by Unesco for a
year. "I guess, it wasn't very considerate of him to move my mother
and three young children there, but it gave us a social
consciousness. My nature is very sensitive."
There were stints in France and Italy, too, before the family settled
in Massachusetts. She was just 18 when she appeared at the Newport
She was dubbed the Virgin Mary, and there was always a stern and
rather puritan side to Baez. "I disappointed my son in that respect,"
she says. "I had to say to him at one point, 'We're going to have to
do something about your drug taking'. And he said, 'You're a fine one
to talk'. I said, 'No, I didn't do drugs'." She laughs. "I thought I
was better than everyone else," she says. "I was just scared. I was snooty."
She was already famous when she introduced Bob Dylan to the world in
the early 1960s. In her superb love song Diamonds and Rust, she
sings, "You burst on the scene, already a legend; the unwashed
phenomenon . . ." Yes, she admits, it is true, she did wash his
sweaty vests. "Somebody had to." Did he wash yours? I ask. "Hell,
no," she says. "I don't sweat that much."
In 1968 she married fellow activist David Harris. "I remember I was a
wife and very proud of it," she says. "I had a visit from some
women's libbers and everything I said was a faux pas. I offered tea.
I didn't get it."
Men in the 1960s, she agrees, were not the best when it came to
feminism. "But if you're an entertainer, people don't care about your
sex. You can be man, woman or Michael Jackson."
HER PARENTS WERE Quakers. "What stayed with me was the meditation,"
she says. "I'm good friends now with some Buddhists who were monks
and I practise Vipassana meditation. It is very important in my
life." She believes in "a spirit out there", she says. "As we say in
Al Anon, a power greater than myself."
Yes, she says, she was in Al Anon. "Twenty five years ago". There's
been a lot of therapy, too. "I went for a thousand years to good
therapists who pasted me together," she says. "Then about 10 years
ago, I said I needed to go to the core, and I went to a therapist who
suggested that maybe what I needed was to fall apart. So I did. I was
never so frightened in my life. But if you are suffering a lot of
pain, you need to do it," she says.
Things are easier now. "I don't want to go far from home," she says.
"I didn't have much time with my family before. I'm spending serious
time getting to know them now." She lives with her 96-year-old
mother, Joan, back in California. Her son, Gabe, his partner and
their five-year-old daughter live nearby.
She has regrets about putting her activism before spending time with
Gabe when he was little. "I was bemoaning this to him the other day
and he said, "Mom, you were to the forefront of your generation . . .
you don't need to feel guilty."
She likes the idea of older people being regarded as "elders rather
than the elderly". She hates being called grandma, and has taught her
granddaughter to call her the Mexican name instead. "Grandma just
sounds a little old, and everything that I am not," she says. "She
greets me now, 'Hey, Abollita!'".
THE NEW ALBUM IS dedicated to her mother, who, until recently
accompanied her on tour and danced in the audience under a spotlight.
"Yes, and her memory is so bad now that I can show the dedication to
her over and over and she is delighted," says Baez.
Her own memory isn't, it turns out, entirely reliable. At her recent
Dublin concert, she had to rely on a fervent audience, many of its
members silver-topped like herself, for the words of songs like
Cohen's Suzanne and even Amazing Grace. She made light of it. "Have
you heard of ginkgo biloba?" she asked the crowd. "Don't spend the
money. If your brain wants to slough off those cells, it's going to do it."
There is no shortage, though, of great memories. Meeting Martin
Luther King in 1956 changed her life, and she later "worked and
prayed with him".
Others include: Woodstock, getting a lifetime achievement award at
last year's Grammy awards and meeting Nelson Mandela at his 90th
birthday celebrations earlier this year. She marched with the Peace
People in the North in 1978, but didn't keep up a connection with
Ireland. "That's what I do best I go to a country and lend my
notoriety in the best way I can figure," she says.
"But I don't maintain relationships. I think that's left over from my
isolated days." She looks troubled. Baez sings her back catalogue,
but not all of it. Diamonds and Rust is there, but with the last line
given a cynical twist. It is obvious that the Dylan question bores
her. She doesn't do We Shall Overcome. "It is too strongly associated
with the civil rights movement," she says. And shall we? "We already
have, in many ways," she says.
"I look at a black kid walking into a store in the south and being
served by a white boy, to whom he says, 'See you later at practice'.
People tend to forget the way things were."
• The Day after Tomorrow is on Proper Records