Folk: Protest and survival: the return of Joan

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Joan Baez is back with a new album. She has undergone therapy, overcome her legendary status and finally found peace. But don't, she

insists to Ian Phillips,

mention the Sixties.

Before you get to interview Joan Baez you are treated to a short pep talk from her publicist. She is certain that you will understand and all, but Joan would much prefer to speak about her new album and has absolutely no wish to talk about the Sixties. Last year, for example, Baez interrupted a radio journalist who refused to move beyond 1962 and firmly told him that he was boring her to death. "I can't talk about that stuff. I have a life now. Do you want to hear about it or do you want me to leave?"

For Baez, the era of hippiedom and flower power is quite clearly in the past. "It is over and will never return. I do not miss it," she wrote in her candid and touching 1987 memoir, And A Voice to Sing With. For those who do want to know about her early career, the book recounts it in detail - how she began by singing in Boston coffee houses, became famous overnight at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival, made the cover of Time magazine at the age of 18, sang at Woodstock when six months pregnant and partied with The Beatles. And then there was Bob Dylan. The pair were romantically linked for a few months.

We met in a restaurant in Paris's Saint-Germain-Des-Pres during the French stretch of her current European tour (her first British date is tonight in Crawley). When I ask about Dylan, she says that they have had very little contact in the past 15 years, but that "I admire him at the moment. I don't think his last disk is the millennium. But, I like what he's written."

The walls are covered with graffiti as well as two drawings Baez has done on past visits (she is a talented artist). She recently told Rolling Stone magazine that "when one is relatively at peace, there's something that reflects beyond the wrinkles". Yet, at 56, there hardly are any wrinkles and from behind the few there are, an incredible radiance not so much reflects as dazzles.

If Baez is now "relatively at peace" with herself, this has not always been the case. At the end of the Eighties, she undertook therapy to rid herself of the insomnia and phobias which had plagued her life until then. "That stuff really ran my life," she says, "although nobody would have known because I'm so strong on stage. But I paid a lot."

She says that she broaches the subject in interviews because "I've gotten letters all my life from people who have similar problems to mine, asking did I think they could get better."

However, she hesitates about going into detail because "it's the sort of indulgent American talk and I know that it turns the stomach of people in Europe".

Baez's honestly actually makes her an extremely engaging and human figure. She freely expresses her opinions and criticisms. They are often strident ("Governments are run by greed and murderers") but never bitter. Her conversation is littered with references to her inner journey - her son is "a real spirit boy" and Ephesus in Turkey "one of my spirit places".

But, what she really wants to talk about is, of course, the music. During the Eighties she very much put it to one side and concentrated on anti- nuclear and human rights causes. However, the beginning of her therapy also coincided with a decision to get herself back on the international music map. "I realised that the vocal chords don't last for ever and that the voice is a major gift," she asserts. "But the work to get back into people's consciousness has been absolutely daunting. To get past those barriers of the legendary status has been monumental."

Now, slowly but surely, she seems to be getting there. Her latest album Gone From Danger, the third since her comeback, is the finest and most contemporary yet. Baez's voice has always had a soothing, vibrant quality to it, but with age, it has also grown in complexity and sophistication. On the album she interprets a first-rate selection of folksy songs with inspirational lyrics by a selection of little known young songwriters. "They tell me that I had an influence in their lives and I say `perfect, now you can have an influence on my career'." Two of the songwriters, Betty Elders and Richard Shindell, have joined her on the present tour, which in Britain will culminate next Saturday with a concert at the Royal Festival Hall.

"I want to keep it simple," she says. "I heard Dar Williams [one of the songwriters on Gone From Danger] on the radio and somebody asked her what she wanted her music to mean. She said that society is going to hell with television and violent movies and crime, but there are some things in our cultural heritage which remain clean and good and that she wants her contribution to put its weight in that slot. And that's exactly how I feel."

The focus on her career has also led to her decision to abandon (at least for the moment) the human rights activities, for which she became almost as famous as for her music. In the Sixties, she sang at the 1963 Washington rally where Martin Luther King gave his famous "I have a dream" speech.

"At the moment, I don't want any more responsibilities apart from making the most beautiful music I can. I have really retreated like a turtle. I mean, I just refuse to deal with it."

Instead, she has decided to devote more time to her 27-year-old son, Gabe, to her farm in northern California and quite simply to herself. "I was so frenetic during all those years and I never really had a routine. Now, I want to allow myself to be quiet. I'm really proud of the things I did, but I never stopped to replenish myself."

A joan baez Biog

Born: 9 January 1941 in New York

1959: Achieved instant fame at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival

Made the cover of `Time' magazine at the age of 18.

First album, `Joan Baez', went to number three in the American charts.

Sang at the Woodstock Festival when six months pregnant and partied with The Beatles.

Covered songs written by Tim Hardin, Donovan, Phil Ochs and Dylan.

Romanced Dylan after meeting him at Gerde's Folk City in Greenwich Village in 1961. She launched his career by adopting his songs and inviting him to share her concert stages. He went off with another woman.

1963: appeared at the Washington rally where Martin Luther King gave his famous `I have a dream' speech.

Became increasingly political. Marched and campaigned with the civil rights leader in the South and took a year out to organise a branch of Amnesty International.

In the Seventies she sang in the bomb shelters in Hanoi during the Vietnam war, in the Laotian refugee camps in Thailand and intervened personally with former American president Jimmy Carter to get him to send a fleet to help the boat people.

In the Eighties and Nineties she spent considerable time in therapy.

Comments