To see Joan Baez
For some time now, I have adored Joan Baez. It never mattered that she was my grandmother’s age. Joan Baez was ripe for idolatry: beautiful, passionate, intelligent and talented.
I bought up all her albums. So many, in fact, that I ventured into that phase of collecting when you start to look at it in terms of negative space: I carried with me at all times a list of Baez albums I didn’t own.
I’ve read and re-read both of her biographies. (If you’re curious, 1968’s Daybreak is less guarded and more poetic.)
For me, Bob Dylan seemed at times a successful accessory, a lucky beneficiary of Joan’s generosity. She did after all introduce — and occasionally defend — him on some of her tours.
I loved everything about her: from her political stance — encouraging action without ever engaging with party politics or endorsing a specific candidate — to her fashion choices — epitomized for me in the famous “Girls say yes to boys who say no” poster campaign.
And yet, for all the adoration, I’d never seen Joan Baez perform live, and in fact, never considered it. She was far away, a Californian mirage.
Far away, that is, until a few weeks ago, when I opened a birthday card and found two tickets to see Joan Baez perform at Roy Thomson Hall.
I was thrilled. I was also terrified.
I’d never seen Joan Baez because for some reason I’d never believed it was quite possible, and in some way, it’s not. In my mind — and on the records that I listen to most — Baez is the first lady of folk, a powerful voice. She is impossibly young, bare feet and big guitar, a vision of full and untouched health, maidenhood, righteousness, idealism, naivete. She is not quite of this world.
It’s not possible to see that Joan Baez live in concert anymore, if it ever was.
But it is possible to see who Joan Baez has become and grown into. She’s been through ups and downs of popularity. She’s still incredibly beautiful (no need for that faintly damning modifier “for her age”), with short, gray hair. It’s been 52 years since she walked onto the stage at Newport. She’s 70 years old.
And last week’s performance in Toronto? It felt authentic and meaningful.
She started with a newer song written by Steve Earle (who produced her most recent album, Day After Tomorrow), and finished with John Lennon‘s “Imagine”. Accompanied only multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell, she performed all the old hits — “Farewell, Angelina,” and “Joe Hill” and “There But for Fortune.” For the last few lines of “Don’t Think Twice,” her voice took on an unmistakeable nasal, Minnesotan accent, and we all laughed together.
Baez doesn’t take herself as seriously as she once may have done. Her intense interest in the state of the world has perhaps taught her that you can either laugh or cry — and she’s choosing to laugh. And at the same time, she’s aged (matured?) into that wise, iconic woman she was always hoping to project.
Joan Baez is still thoughtful with her political opinions — she said she had to be “delicate” about how she speaks of the individuals involved with the current Occupy movement. It may be that she’s learned something over time about the long range, the ebbs and flows of things. Her voice, which critics have always called shrill, simply isn’t anymore. It, along with her proclivity to preach, has mellowed. Everything seems to sit a little more comfortably.
And so it is possible to see Joan Baez. She’s not so far away, after all — only the distance from where I sit to where she stands.