Joan Baez: protest and survive

Rock: Now 54, the folk-singing queen of Sixties activism is making a comeback, with a new, gentler image. Rose Rouse met her
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The Independent Culture
THOSE delicate, brown, bony feet. Synonymous with her years of radical, pacifist action, not to mention her old hippiedom, there's a sort of erogenous softness about Joan Baez's feet.

They are resting on the bottom rung of a stool on stage at the Bottomline in New York, where Baez is recording a live album. Strangely for her, historically more of a man's woman, this is a cosy, all-smiling women's affair, with guests ranging from Mary Chapin Carpenter to Janis Ian.

Baez, who was plagued for years by a severe stage phobia, looks relaxed. "Did someone pay the audience to be here?" she asks as the fortysomething, partisan crowd yell compliments at her in the gap between an obscure Phil Ochs number and "Drive Old Dixie Down". It has to be said that "bony Joany", as she used to call herself, has still got that incredible soprano voice.

And an imperious attitude, if the nervous glances from her two sidekicks, bass player Fernando Saunders and guitarist Paul Pesco, are anything to go by. At one point, after a break, they tentatively return to the stage. "He who hesitates is wise," laughs Joan, apparently sending up her own regal reputation.

For Joan Baez's reputation is big. On the one hand, she is the goodie- goodie Girl Guide who relentlessly supports humanitarian causes - from the Vietnam protests in the early 1970s to singing in Sarajevo in the 1990s. But on the other, she has been known as something of a bitch. How would I find her?

At 54, close-up in a downtown Manhattan hotel room, Baez looks amazingly good. With cropped grey hair and a long plait tucked down the back of her black polo-neck, she's still got slim hips and taut skin. And you can be sure our Joan doesn't go in for any of that HRT nonsense. Not that I actually dared to ask.

Immediately slipping off her stylish patent-leather shoes - Joan may be an avid campaigner for human rights but she is also an ardent shopper - she reveals those feet again. Are they a symbol of her continuing support for the underdog? "No," she says with the air of undergoing a mild endurance test. "I take them off because it's more comfortable."

Interviewing Joan Baez is not easy. She has been down this route many times before, and journalists all want to ask her the same three questions: 1) how does she look back on the early Seventies, when she went to Hanoi as part of a peace initiative; 2) does she still see Bob Dylan; and 3) who is her present lover?

The results, in my case, sound like this: 1) "Proudly," she says. "I know my image is of a radical malcontent, but I was following my heart. I was abrasive, I didn't have much in the way of diplomacy, but I didn't regret anything in Vietnam. It changed my life. Being in such close contact with bombing made me face my own mortality." 2) "I run into Bob at festivals," she says minimalistically, "and he's very sweet." 3) "At the moment, I'm comfortable alone, but I don't feel as though it's pre-destined any more. I'd given up because I'd been so terribly disappointed; now, after six years of intensive therapy, I'm open again."

Ah, there's the nub. Stage fright, insomnia, panic attacks, promiscuity plus all manner of other phobias and attendant illnesses have long blighted Baez. In conventional therapy for years, she nevertheless viewed it as a sticking-plaster rather than a cure. "I was too terrified to really face my demons," she says. So six years ago, she decided to take the plunge. Yoga, visualisation techniques, hypnosis - Joan tried them all, and reports that they worked.

Joan Baez in the Nineties does seem a much more contented being. There is also an unexpected softness. As well as doing yoga, she can apparently be found occasionally Roller-blading through Central Park with a woolly hat pulled over her ears. Her skinny form can also be seen dancing wildly to her 26-year-old son Gabriel's African drumming at her Californian home. Mother and son did go through a sticky, non-communicative patch in the Eighties, but that's over now. "I was basically MIA [missing in action]," she says about her early mothering, which coincided - or collided - with her main protest era. "I wasn't there and I didn't know it. But I am now."

The mid-Eighties also saw her career disappear almost into oblivion, although she was always in demand as a supporter of protests abroad. "I decided to keep at it,' she says, "but I wasn't going to ride an elephant down Madison Avenue to get publicity." She actually refused to do a Gap advertisement - "it may have been trendy but it was bullshit," she says.

More recently, she has produced the successful Play Me Backwards (1993), followed by the recent release of the live album Ring Them Bells (Grapevine). "I'd like to be lazy in the Nineties," she smiles, "since it has dawned on me I don't want to be in the rat race. I've become instead a brook next to the mainstream. Nine months ago, I decided I wanted to write a book of prose and poems. Now I can do that."

However mellow her new persona, she refuses to accept that she was/is tyrannical in any way. "I don't see that in myself," she says. "I just didn't know how to listen." As for being a man's woman, she says that has changed. "I wouldn't have done an album like this five years ago," she says. "I would have felt threatened or competitive. But I'm very happy and comfortable about it now."

Happy, comfortable and with an image that is undergoing a transformation - Janis Ian recently referred to her as a hot babe/lesbian-chic role model - at 54, Joan Baez is in danger, at last, of being hip.

! Joan Baez: Manchester Apollo (0161 242 2560), 22 Oct; Empire, W12 (0181 740 7474), 24 & 25 Oct; then touring.