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Joan Ba ez

Contributing editor David Brow ne interviewed Jimmy Kimmel in February. 40 | R ol l i n g S t o n e |

people laugh, so I’ll probably just put it on YouTube” – but its mere existence is, for her, a hopeful sign after a decade or more of psychic turmoil. “Whatever it has been in the past has lifted,” Baez says. “Maybe I’m grateful for Trump, because otherwise it would seem very bland. I’m not agitating enough people. When I got respectable, I got creeped out.”


a ez h a s li v ed i n her house, a rambling place hidden behind a gate, for 45 years. A wood deck – a roofless treehouse – rests atop a tree in her front yard; chickens squawk in coops in the backyard. With its cozy rooms and maze of hallways, the interior feels like a lived-in but comfortable ship. On her refrigerator, along with three Peanuts magnets, is a photo of Baez when she received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys in 2007. “That’s the sign they’re getting ready to get rid of you,” she says with a devilish smile. Baez has been famous for nearly six decades. Born on Staten Island, the daughter of a physicist who rejected defense work for education and pacifism, she grew up in this area of California, moved with her family to a Boston suburb in the late Fifties, and began singing in local coffee shops. In 1960, when she was 19, she released her first album, Joan Baez. A collection of traditional ballads sung in a pristine soprano, it became one of the leastlikely albums to crash the Top 20. Baez became an icon and influenced a generation of rising singers. “That album was the reason I picked up the guitar and the reason I’m a singer,” says Emmylou Harris. “There she was, alone onstage, completely composed and in control. She emerged fully formed.” Baez stayed on the same folk-purist path for her first half-dozen records – so pure she refused to take part in a photo shoot for an album cover until 1965’s Farewell, Angelina. By then, she had moved into modern protest songs, introducing the world to the music of Phil Ochs, her brother-in-law Richard Fariña, and Bob Dylan, with whom she had a romantic relationship in the mid-Sixties. “Dylan’s songs blew people’s minds, and when Joan started interpreting them, it went to another level,” says Neuwirth. “They should give her the [Nobel] Prize!” Baez’s importance was more than just musical. She became the moral center of the anti-war and social-justice movements

that rose up in the Sixties. She sang at the 1963 March on Washington; opened the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, in Northern California; visited Vietnam during the war; and went to jail for 11 days for participating in a sit-in at a military induction center. But by the more apolitical 1980s, Baez hit the first of many rough patches, finding herself adrift without a record deal. She tried cutting an album with members of the Grateful Dead (she was dating Mickey Hart at the time), but it didn’t work out, partly because Jerry Garcia was deep into heroin at the time. “He couldn’t play comfortably because he wasn’t sitting close enough to the bathroom,” she recalls. “He wanted access. I didn’t realize why.” During that time, Baez tried her best to go rock & roll in other ways. She had used quaaludes in the 1970s (she blames that phase for the silly cover of her 1977 album Blowin’ Away, which pictured her in a flight jacket and aviator goggles). During her time with the Dead, she took “a little tiny line” of cocaine. Anything else? “Stuffed some opium up my ass,” she says, then pauses quizzically. “Is that possible?” The memories crack her up. “I wasn’t ready for my badass period. It was a total failure.” When she met Tina Turner, then in the midst of her comeback, Turner exclaimed, “Girl, what you need is a wig!” But a resurrection wouldn’t be so easy for Baez, who had come to be seen as a humorless scold – to the point of being parodied more than once on Saturday Night Live, such as the 1986 fake game show Make Joan Baez Laugh. “My name was like a jinx,” she says. “It took years to get past that.” Never a prolific writer, she found herself unable to compose new material. “When it stopped, the spigot went...,” she says calmly. “So I let it go.” In 1990, she dived into deep therapy. “I couldn’t stand my life,” she says. “It was seriously dark and painful.” From her earliest performing days, she had been paralyzed by a variety of phobias, like a fear of throwing up. For two years, she wouldn’t fly, opting for trains instead. “I’d be balled up in a corner in the dressing room, shaking and nauseated. Nobody knew. I would walk out there with that little placid whatever-you-wantto-call-it thing.” Slowly, Baez began working on rebuilding her career. In 2003, she cut Dark Chords on a Big Guitar, a scrappy collection of covers of songs by Ryan Adams, Natalie Merchant and other alt-rock-ish writers. Her next studio album, 2008’s folkier Day After Tomorrow, earned her

My name was like a jinx,” she says. “It took years to get past that.

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Baez, 76, loves to play against her image as the serene, hyperserious matriarch of folk music. Resting her chin on her hand, she flashes her recent metal-chick tattoo: a series of circles and arrows that rings her right wrist, from a recent visit to New Zealand with her son, Gabe. “Most mothers would say, ‘Oh, honey, really?’” she says proudly. “But I said, ‘Ooh, can I get one too?’” In 2010, when she was invited to perform at a White House celebration of music from the civil-rights era, Baez refused a request, from Michelle Obama, to sing “If I Had a Hammer.” “That is the most annoying song,” Baez says. “I told them, ‘If I had a hammer – I’d hit myself on the head. Ain’t gonna do it.’” “Joan has that rock & roll attitude toward life and freedom and love,” says singer-songwriter Bob Neuwirth, who has known Baez since her folk-club days in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the Sixties. “She has a kind of bravery that could just kick down the doors.” Baez was a fixture at marches and protests, especially in the Sixties, preaching a philosophy of nonviolence. “It took a lot of courage to be nonviolent,” says Neuwirth, “especially when people had clubs, dogs, handcuffs and all that shit.” On April 7th, Baez will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The timing couldn’t be more fitting. With Donald Trump in the White House, rock is entering a new protest era, and Baez is helping lead the way. Last fall, she performed at Standing Rock in North Dakota as part of the protest against the Dakota Pipeline. In January, she participated in two Women’s Marches on the same day, one in Redwood City and another in San Francisco, and she’s helping to plan a show to benefit illegal immigrants (her father was born in Mexico and came to the U.S. at age two). “So many people have said to me, out of the blue, ‘We need Joan Baez right now,’” says Joe Henry, who’s producing Baez’s next LP. “She’s been fiercely standing where she is her whole life.” When Henry told his sisterin-law Madonna he was working with Baez, he says, she texted him: “She’s a fucking warrior hero.” Until the 2016 presidential race, Baez hadn’t written a song in 25 years. But with Trump in office, she’s cranked out five-andcounting verses of a tune somewhat in his honor. Sitting in her kitchen, she grabs a guitar and begins fingerpicking a Guthrieesque melody. She starts singing – about a wall, lies, a missing wife. “Here’s what I think/You better talk to a shrink,” she sings. “You’ve got some serious psychological disorders.” When she finishes, Baez grins sheepishly. She’s not sure she wants to release it – “It’s not a good song, but it will make

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