It seems like every celebrity has been called gay at some point or another. Many of the gay rumors surrounding Joan BaezDiamonds & RustThe Night They Drove Old Dixie Down) seem to be tied to her obsessive attention to her body, like most singers.
However the poll suggests that a big majority – 77% – of respondents don’t believe that she’s gay.
Joan Baez: interview
Joan Baez’s haunting delivery, striking looks, po-faced idealism and much-chronicled love affair with Bob Dylan defined the American folk-music scene in the 1960s. Yet as she prepares for a British tour she explains how she doesn’t dwell on the past.
On a warm weekend in Newport, Rhode Island, Joan Baez is sitting in the garden restaurant of the Hotel Viking, doing her best not to surrender to sentimentality or nostalgia. The next day she will be appearing on stage at the Newport Folk Festival 50, celebrating the festival’s 50th anniversary, and, more poignantly, her first appearance there – by extension the birth of her career as a professional singer. An emotional moment, then? Baez gives it a moment’s thought. ‚Not really…’
Baez was a complete unknown playing in the coffee houses of Boston when she was invited by the folk singer Bob Gibson to join him on stage at Newport. ‚I walked on stage and it looked like the largest gathering of people on earth,’ she now says with a laugh. ‚I felt as if I’d been invited to my own execution.’ Within a year, she would be the most popular folk singer in America.
The Festival 50 performance will bring together a number of luminaries of the 1960s folk movement of which Baez would become the undisputed queen – her old friends Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie and the great patriarch of American folk music, Pete Seeger. (It was Seeger, now 90, whose appearance in 1954 at a fund-raising concert for the Democratic Party at Palo Alto High School in California first inspired the belief in the 13-year-old Baez that she, too, could make a life from singing.)
The Hotel Viking is one of the grandest in a town of grand establishments. It was where Baez stayed when she first appeared at Newport, and again in 1963, when she returned with Bob Dylan – the queen and her crown prince, prowling around the hotel pool cracking a 20ft black leather bullwhip which a friend of Baez’s had given Dylan as a joke. ‚Ah, yes, the bullwhip. We were pretty good with that.’
Baez gives a slight smile. Dylan, whom she famously loved, Woodstock, where she performed, the 1960s, which she helped to define – all of this is in the past, where Joan Baez does her best not to dwell. ‚I think I’m trying to strangle people into coming up to the present so much of the time, because people tend to live aeons ago,’ she says.
A figure of dignified, simple elegance, she is dressed in black trousers, a brown silk sweater and an ornate turquoise necklace. Her steel-grey hair is neatly cropped. She has huge brown liquid eyes that seem to hint at some perpetual, unseen amusement. For many years Joan Baez was in psychotherapy, and has recently become an avid meditator – 20 minutes a day every day – and her rosary of sandalwood beads is around one wrist (on the other is a silver bracelet stamped with Nelson Mandela’s prison number, a memento of her appearance at his 90th birthday celebrations last year). The practice lends her a tangible calm and serenity, as if she is hovering a few inches above the irritations and preoccupations of daily life.
At the age of 68 Joan Baez is enjoying something of a second summer in her career. There was a time in the early 1990s, she says, when she believed it was all but over. While she retained a loyal following in Europe, in America her record sales had plummeted to the point where she could not even find a record label. ‚Everybody said, “Oh she’s great, a legend,” but they did not want to sign me. If we’d sent out demos of what I was doing and put “Young woman songwriter” on it, we’d have had a better chance than putting “Joan Baez” on it.’
With the advice of her present manager, Mark Spector, she began to rebuild her career, connecting with a younger generation of songwriters such as Natalie Merchant, Ryan Adams and Mary Chapin Carpenter. An album last year, Day After Tomorrow, produced by Steve Earle and featuring songs by Earle, Tom Waits and Thea Gilmore, became her best-selling record since the 1970s and won her a Grammy nomination.
Baez recently finished filming a documentary about her life, in the ‚American Masters’ series for the American Public Broadcasting Service – which amounts to being enshrined as a great national institution. The film includes a clip of a press conference conducted in the mid-1960s, in which she is introduced as ‚the folk-music star, Joan Baez’. With the mixture of haunting virginal beauty and deadly earnestness that defined her, she retorts that she doesn’t think of herself as a star: ‚If people have to put labels on me, I’d prefer the first label to be human being, the second label to be pacifist, and the third to be folk singer.’
Baez’s pacifist convictions were instilled in her from an early age. Her parents, Albert and ‚Big Joan’, as she was known, were Quakers – Albert a physicist who turned down the opportunity to work on lucrative defence programmes to pursue a career as a lecturer. Joan was the middle of three sisters. They were an intensely close and happy family in which independence of thought and non-conformity were encouraged.
When Joan was 10 Albert was sent by Unesco to work in Baghdad. It was her first awareness of real poverty, she remembers, and the first step in what she describes as her journey towards a sense of social justice. Reading Anne Frank’s diary at the same age was the second. ‚I identified with it so strongly, her feeling that people are basically good at heart.’ The third was as a 16-year-old, hearing the young Martin Luther King speak about civil rights at a seminar run by the American Friends Service Committee in Palo Alto, where the Baezes were then living. ‚I’d heard these discussions in my family for years, but he was actually doing what I had heard and read about,’ she says. (Only a few years later she would find herself marching beside King in Grenada, Mississippi, to integrate local schools, and performing on the platform at the March on Washington in August 1963, when King made his legendary ‚I have a dream’ speech.)
Baez went to Boston University in 1958, although she would pursue her studies for only a few weeks. It was there that she began to perform in the burgeoning coffee-house and folk-club scene around Harvard Square. One contemporary quoted in David Hajdu’s biography of Baez, Positively 4th Street, noted that ’she gave off a kind of vulnerability, which made her singing appear like kind of a brave act. Like a beautiful bird that is terrified and doesn’t quite know why.’ The terror was real, Baez says. Performing filled her with dread, and she was sometimes so racked with nerves that she would have to leave the stage in mid-song, to splash herself with cold water and compose herself.
Baez’s emergence coincided with, and to a large extent propelled, the folk-music boom of the early 1960s. Her first two albums were of traditional songs, melancholic ballads about love and murder, which, Baez recalls, she ‚had the sadness in me to sing’. Both went gold – unheard of for folk music. Time magazine put her on its cover; from every corner she was beatified as ‚the Madonna of folk’.
Baez was not interested in entertaining people so much as in moving them, making them feel. And in this she was true to the spirit of the times. It was Bob Dylan who would turn her into a protest singer. Dylan was a virtual unknown when he and Baez first met at a Greenwich Village club, Gerde’s Folk City, in 1961. Dylan initially antagonised her by trying to pick up her younger sister, Mimi. It was Mimi’s boyfriend, the songwriter and author Richard Fariña, who supposedly told Dylan that what he needed to do was ‚hook up with Joan Baez… She’s your ticket, man.’
For her part, Baez was smitten by Dylan’s anthems of protest and social change. ‚It was as if he was giving voice to the ideas I wanted to express, but didn’t know how,’ she would later recall. She began to include his songs in her own repertoire, and invited him to tour with her. They became lovers, and his fame blossomed under her patronage. But once people began anointing him the ‚king of protest’ he quickly declared his abdication, abandoning what he called the ‚finger-pointing songs’ and refusing to lend his name to any cause. The growing distance between her political convictions and his apparent lack of them would eventually become the fault-line dividing them.
In her 1989 autobiography, And a Voice to Sing With, Baez remembers once asking Dylan what was the difference between them; simple, he replied, she thought she could change things, and he knew that no one could.
‚I would say we both were. Certainly for him, he’s right. But he’s not in the business of changing things. He never was. And that’s where my mistake was with him. I kept pushing him, wanting him to want to do that. Exhausting for him, and futile for me. Ridiculous. Until I finally put it together in my head that he had given us this artillery in his songs, and he didn’t really need to do anything aside from that. I mean, he may resent it, but he changed the world with his music.’
‚Well, just because he doesn’t want to think about that sort of thing. He doesn’t want the responsibility. On the other hand, I have enough intelligence to know I don’t understand him, and that’s why it’s so futile to keep talking about him.’
Her affair with Dylan finally ended in 1966 after an unhappy British tour, when he spent much of the time ignoring her. The problem was, she says, that even when it was clear that things were over between them, she ‚didn’t have the brains to leave’.
While they remained somehow forever connected – she joined him on his ‚Rolling Thunder’ tour 10 years later – you sense they have long since lost touch. Baez doesn’t say.
Dylan is the ghost at the banquet in any interview with Baez, the one subject interviewers can be guaranteed to raise, the subject she most loathes talking about. When I ask why she thinks people are still fascinated by the relationship, she fixes me with a look. ‚Well, that must be some sort of deficit in their lives. It’s like Woodstock. People measure their lives by it – were they there; were they born yet; were they stuck on the freeway; did their parents say they couldn’t go. They’re obsessed by it. And it was a wonderful three days; the music was great. I’m glad I was there. But it wasn’t the f***ing revolution. So I don’t really know the answer. I mean, [Dylan] and I were not just two people – we were thousands of people, everybody else’s images of whatever we were, none of them true. But why it was so huge I don’t really know.’
Dylan may have abandoned protest, but Baez did not. ‚Someone had to change the world,’ she notes wryly in her autobiography. ‚And obviously I was the one for the job.’
In 1964 she publicly refused to pay the proportion of her income tax that went to the defence budget, in protest against America’s deepening involvement in Vietnam. And the following year, with a friend and mentor, Ira Sandperl, she established the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in her hometown of Carmel, California, to teach peace studies.
The writer Joan Didion was among the visitors, writing a celebrated essay, ‚Where the Kissing Never Stops’, in which she waspishly described Baez as being ‚a personality before she was entirely a person’, taking note of the various roles that the media had assigned to her: ‚the Madonna of the disaffected… the pawn of the protest movement… the girl ever wounded, ever young.’
Baez says she remembers being hurt by that – not the part about her being a personality before she was a person, ‚that was perfectly true. I didn’t like that she didn’t take my politics as deadly seriously as I did. Which means, of course, that she was probably right. I was pretty young.’
So does she look back on that younger self as idealistic and naive?
‚Not really. If you look at stuff I said, it was usually pretty right on. You might say idealistic, or you might say it was impossible to realise in this lifetime; but it was correct.’
‚Too self-certain. But that came from the uncertainty about myself.’
‚I think I kept it under wraps. Because I was hysterical when I was with my family and friends. But pretty humourless in the face of the cameras. And desperately soul-searching, talking to people like you – desperately wanting to be real, you know, and not phoney.’
‚I don’t think I was particularly happy. I think I was sort of dreamy.’
She thinks about this. ‚I make a joke in concert now, when they’re clapping and clapping – “Oh, I was never interested in the money; it was the adulation.” But it’s the truth.’
In 1968, at the age of 27, Baez married David Harris, a leader of the movement resisting the draft for Vietnam. They had met in the Santa Rita Rehabilitation Centre in California, where she and her mother had been incarcerated for 45 days for blocking the doorways of the Armed Forces Induction Centre in Oakland. Harris, she recalled in her autobiography, ‚was wearing a cowboy hat and looking six foot three, which he is. His smile was one of the sweetest in the world, and his eyes were a shade that a friend of mine calls “unfair blue”.’
Time called it ‚the wedding of the century’. In July 1969 Harris was imprisoned again for refusing induction into the draft. Baez was pregnant with their son, Gabe, by then; shortly afterwards she performed at Woodstock. But within three months of Harris’s release from jail they separated, and were divorced in 1972.
In that same year Baez travelled to Hanoi for three weeks as a guest of the North Vietnamese and to deliver mail to American PoWs. On her third night in the city the Americans began what became known as the ‚Christmas bombing’ of the city, which continued for 11 days. She remembers fortifying herself with a French saying, ‚Je n’ai pas peur – je tremble avec courage.’ But the truth was she had never felt more scared. ‚It was the first time I’d ever really felt mortal. ‚All of my disguises for fear of death went poof! in the face of real death. Then as soon as I was in the airplane heading home, my fear of vomiting in the airplane comes back, and as we were circling the airport at home to land all my stuff was back, because I was allegedly safe from bombs.’
The maimed and broken bodies lying in the streets after the raids, and the frightened and confused American PoWs, were the most shocking and heartbreaking spectacle Baez says she has ever seen. For years she suppressed all of the horror she had felt. It was not until 2005, when she joined a peace march to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, that it finally came out.
‚I put my hands on the wall [where the names of all the servicemen who died or went missing in Vietnam are inscribed], and I just wanted to go into it, and I just screamed my lungs out, and I couldn’t stop screaming. And that, so far, is how I’ve dealt with Hanoi.’
Baez was much criticised by the right for visiting Hanoi, and then, five years later, attacked by the left when she organised full-page advertisements in four major American newspapers criticising human-rights abuses by the new communist Vietnam government. Jane Fonda was among those who excoriated her for that. ‚Not a heavy,’ she says briskly. ‚She wrote me this terrible letter – it was not even spelt properly. But it was not pressure.’
I sense, I say, that she does not have much time for Fonda.
‚Not for her politics. I met her a couple of months ago, and she embraced me so hard. And she was teary. And I embraced her back. I think she has so many regrets and she got hit so hard for that stupid thing she did in Vietnam [when Fonda visited Hanoi in 1972 she allowed herself to be photographed seated on an anti-aircraft gun]. I was sad for her over that. I think her heart was in the right place, but she wasn’t made to be political.’ Baez smiles. ‚All the stuff they say about me…’
Baez never remarried following her divorce from David Harris. Had she known then what years of psychotherapy have taught her since, things might have been different, she says; but her marriage had been ‚doomed’ from the start, not because of any failing on Harris’s part – ‚it was the perfect match’ – but because, as she now puts it, she ‚was completely promiscuous’.
The psychotherapy has lent Baez a perspective, and a vocabulary, to talk about this with a disarming candour: ‚I was terrified of any intimacy. That’s why 5,000 people suited me just fine. But one-on-one, it was either completely transient – after the concert and be gone next day, and then my participation would make me sick – or it was something that I thought was real but just turned out to be heartbreaking.’
She was close to Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple (‚briefly’); and to Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead. But she is at a stage now, she says, where if ’something walked into my life that made sense’ she doubts she would recognise it. ‚It certainly is not something I’m going to go looking for, because it seems like an enormous amount of work to construct something I’ve never known.’
This is not necessarily a sad thing, she says, ‚if I’m happy, which I am. And if it didn’t – whatever it is – come my way, then maybe someday I’d be terribly lonely, or maybe I won’t be terribly lonely, because I will have constructed my life in a way that it makes sense.’
Her son, Gabe, is now 39, married with a daughter, Jasmine; Gabe is a percussionist who plays in Baez’s band. She says she has always been haunted by the fact that in the years when he was growing up she was often away, either performing or lending her name to a myriad humanitarian causes – supporting the mothers of the ‚disappeared’ in Chile and Argentina, performing for Lech Walesa in Gdansk during the Solidarity period.
‚It nags me all the time – and he always says the same thing: “Mum, you were there at a time in history when you were the only one who could have done what you did, and I had experiences in my childhood that no other kid could have had.”
I say, “I know that Gabe, but I need to know that I was also a mom.” And he says, “Yes you were a mom.” So it’s my problem.’ She pauses for a moment. ‚As we know, forgiveness of oneself is the hardest of all the forgivenesses.’
Baez’s sister Mimi died of cancer at the age of 56 in 2001. Mimi had a modest reputation of her own as a folk singer, but she was always under the shadow of her elder sister. When Mimi was 18 she married Richard Fariña, a mercurial and charismatic figure who was to die in a motorcycle accident two days after the publication of his first novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me – on April 30, 1966. It was Mimi’s 21st birthday, and just three months before Bob Dylan was involved in the motorcycle accident that was to prove a watershed in his career.
Baez and her sister were very close, she says, and her untimely death was ‚hideous. Towards the end, she gave me the gift of being so awful to me, almost to make it less hard.’ Her father, Albert, died in 2007. Both of these deaths seemed to have the effect of sharpening Baez’s awareness of mortality, made her mindful of the fact that, as she puts it, she had ‚work to do’ in that regard.
She has started spending time at the Spirit Rock retreat of the distinguished American Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, with a view to preparing herself, she says, for her mother’s passing. Big Joan is now 96 and lives with Baez in California.
‚I’m watching the ageing process,’ Baez says. She laughs. ‚Actually, she’s really impossible a lot of the time. She still has her sense of humour, and she still loves men. We take her to hospital, and she’ll flirt with the Indian doctor, “Ooh, you have such lovely brown hands.” They ask her, do you know who’s the President? “Abraham Lincoln”. No, it’s Barack Obama. “Oh, but they have so much in common…” She is wonderful.’
She wants to prepare herself for being with her mother when she dies, she says.
‚I’m really, really attached to her and I will miss her terribly; but then I was thinking, you know what, maybe it doesn’t have to be some terrible, dark sinking hole of depression – maybe it can be in some ways a wonderful experience.’
The following afternoon, Baez walks out of the hotel, a change of clothes over her arm, her young assistant beside her toting a guitar case, and climbs into a car waiting to take her to the festival site. She is wearing black jeans, sandals and a shimmering silk bolero jacket, like a matador’s suit of lights. The ‚American Masters’ documentary about her life is being previewed in Los Angeles, and Baez has arranged to do a press conference via satellite link in a yacht club near the festival site. The presenter introduces her as ‚the woman who has rightly been called the conscience of her generation’.
The very first question from the floor is, ‚What is your relationship with Bob Dylan these days? Baez smiles serenely. ‚Well, I don’t really have one…’
Someone else asks her if she still considers herself a protest singer. ‚The foundation of my beliefs is the same as it was when I was 10,’ she says. ‚Non-violence.’ If there is something she can do, then she will do it, she tells me later.
When the civil uprising occurred in Iran earlier this year she recorded a version of We Shall Overcome with a verse in Farsi and posted it on YouTube as a gesture of solidarity. The response, she says, was overwhelming.
She has always been guided by optimism, ‚but nowadays the state of the world doesn’t look terribly good, does it, especially with global warming hanging over our heads on top of everything else.
I look at Gabe, his wife and daughter, and think, what’s going to happen?’ She pauses. ‚I’m a little concerned about offering hope. But one has to bash on regardless, as you British say.’ She laughs. ‚I love that.’
Backstage it is like a gathering of old friends, as Baez embraces Pete Seeger and Judy Collins in a warm hug. The audience is some 15,000 strong, a profusion of grey beards and ponytails, younger families. The air is permeated by a warm sense of sentiment and expectation. ‚Fifty years later!’ says Baez as she walks on to the stage. ‚My goodness gracious. And we really are putting one foot in front of the other!’
She sings old songs – Silver Dagger, which she first sang 50 years ago – and new ones, her voice as pure as ever it was. Singing Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, she falls into a teasing impression of his nasal twang during the final verse:
‚I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind/You could have done better but I don’t mind/You just kinda wasted my precious time…’ – bringing a roar of recognition from the crowd.
At the end, all the performers crowd on to the stage for a grand finale of When the Saints, followed by a Cajun hoe-down. And as the tempo increases and the temperature rises, Joan Baez kicks off her sandals and dances and dances, as if she hasn’t a care in the world.
What do you think about the gay rumors surrounding Joan Baez?
The poll results are based on a representative sample of 1522 voters worldwide, conducted online for The Celebrity Post magazine. Results are considered accurate to within 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.