Joan Baez’s Fighting Side: The Life and Times of a Secret Badass
The Sixties icon helped invent the idea of the protest singer – more than five decades later, she’s still at it
By David Browne
When Joan Baez shared a bill with the Indigo Girls about 20 years ago, a young fan approached, asking for an autograph – for his grandmother. “Tell your grandmother to go fuck herself!” said Baez, who saw the show as a way to connect with a new generation of fans. Today, in the airy kitchen of her home near Palo Alto, California, with its view of the Santa Cruz Mountains and a painting of a nude woman above the fireplace, Baez winces at the memory. “I felt so awful and said, ‘I’m sorry – of course I’ll sign it.'”
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 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 Friday, 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 sister-in-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-and-counting verses of a tune somewhat in his honor. Sitting in her kitchen, she grabs a guitar and begins fingerpicking a Guthrie-esque 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 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.”
Baez has lived in 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 least-likely 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-want-to-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 a Grammy nomination. Steve Earle, who produced the album, remembers her rejecting his suggestion that she tackle a song about Muhammad Ali. “She didn’t want to sing a song about a boxer,” Earle recalls. “She has a real-life commitment to nonviolence. What’s important to her is that she isn’t accused of being inconsistent. She was a trip.”
Today, Baez’s younger fans include Rhiannon Giddens, Sturgill Simpson and Marcus Mumford. When Baez took her granddaughter Jasmine to see Taylor Swift in 2015, she found herself with Julia Roberts in the VIP section, where Swift told Baez how much she admired her, then invited them onstage during “Style.” Baez has no illusions about whether the screeching fans in that arena knew who she was. “Maybe a small percentage went home and Googled me,” she says. “But it was Taylor’s show. It was gutsy of her.” For her part, Baez shimmied down the runway for the crowd: “Probably embarrassing my family. But when I hear music, I can’t not dance.”
Every 30 minutes or so, a cougar sound blares from Baez’s cellphone, a reminder to drink water – essential to help preserve her voice. Whenever Baez wondered when it would be time to stop singing, she’d always recall the advice of her first vocal coach: “Your voice will tell you.” It may be telling her now. A decade or so back, as she reached her mid-sixties, the high notes became harder to hit. She learned how to reach those notes fast, then sing lower. “It’s all smoke and mirrors,” she says, “getting back up there and down before I make an ass of myself.”
She has been playing some 60 concerts a year, but not for financial reasons. She’s invested wisely, although she adds, “Nothing to do with weapons or destroying the planet.” Even that part of her life is wrapping up. She’s planning one last worldwide tour, next year, right after she finishes her in-progress album, for which she’s already cut covers of songs by Tom Waits, Richard Thompson, Josh Ritter and Anohni. “There’s a feeling that things are winding down, and I wanted to do one more studio effort,” she says. She’s even recording with the same acoustic guitar she used on her first album (it has been refurbished several times). “She’s at peace with it,” says Joe Henry. “She has other things she’d like to focus on, like her painting. I didn’t feel like it was with any regret.”
With the help of a vocal therapist, Baez is learning how to loosen up her throat. “All those years you think, ‘I want it to sound like it did 10 years ago,’ ” she says. “It ain’t gonna happen. The upper voice gets less and less power to it. If the public has a problem with it, it’s their problem. I said, ‘This is it, this is me.’ ”
She’s learning to isolate the high notes, and at her kitchen table, she demonstrates the bursts of power she can still deliver. “Go ahead and plug your ears,” she advises. “I mean – seriously. There’s a noise I do.” The loud, penetrating burst of sound erupts from Baez’s throat for a few seconds – an almost operatic blast of lung power.
When she finishes, she smiles mischievously. “I probably broke your tape recorder,” she says.
Baez’s house has few obvious mementos of her career: no wall of gold records, no photos with famous friends. Instead there are paintings, by Baez, of musicians and activists. Some are in her living room – Emmylou Harris; Baez’s late sister Mimi – and more are in a converted pool house that’s now her painting studio. There, you’ll find portraits of David Crosby and congressman and civil-rights icon John Lewis.
The most prominent painting in the canvas-crammed room is one of a grim-faced Dylan, based on a vintage Eighties photo. “I call it his happy face,” Baez cracks. Their on-again, off-again romance in the Sixties lasted less than two years, but for fans it had serious symbolic weight. Dubbed the king and queen of folk (often to Dylan’s displeasure), they made for a commanding presence, sharing microphones at rallies and exuding a New Frontier vigor. “Her voice was like that of a siren from off some Greek island,” Dylan said recently. “Just the sound of it could put you into a spell. She was an enchantress.”
By 1965, though, Dylan’s desire to move toward rock and his waning interest in protest songs helped drive them apart. Baez thinks her distaste for drugs distanced her from Dylan in the Sixties and later, during their reunion on the 1975–76 Rolling Thunder Revue. “I was the only one who didn’t do drugs,” she says of those shows. “It was the same as that trip to England,” she adds, referring to the 1965 Dylan tour documented in Don’t Look Back. “I couldn’t connect with what their brains were doing.”
The specter of Dylan hovers around Baez. His and her albums are intertwined in her LP collection. She says “Diamonds and Rust,” a 1975 song about the happiest time in their relationship, is her finest creation. “The really, really good stuff comes from down deep,” she says, “and that was how strongly I was affected by Bob in the relationship and everything. It’d be stupid to pretend otherwise. If the only thing to come out of that relationship was the best song of my life …” She still sings his songs onstage. “They’re the easiest and most pleasurable to sing. There’s a quality other people didn’t get to, for the most part.”
In her 1987 memoir, And a Voice to Sing With, Baez recounts the last time she and Dylan played together – on a few dates on Dylan’s 1984 European tour – and includes a vignette in which Dylan comes on to her backstage, sliding his hand up her skirt. Does she regret writing that? She waves it off: “Pffffft. . . . What’s to lose? Nothing.” She says he’s never commented to her on the book, but adds sharply, “I made two records of his music and never heard from him.”
The last time Baez glimpsed Dylan was at that White House civil-rights night seven years ago. She saw Dylan and his bodyguard walking through the crowd, and a friend suggested she stroll over and say hello. Baez declined. “The chances of him just walking past me would be too awful a scenario,” she says. “It would just bring up feelings that aren’t necessary.” As for theories about why Dylan declined to personally accept his Nobel Prize last year, Baez draws a blank. “I think he’s shy. But I don’t really know. I have just enough sense to know that I won’t understand him.”
Propped against a living-room wall is a painting of another of Baez’s famous exes: Steve Jobs, whom she dated for a few years in the Eighties. “We were an interesting item,” she says about Jobs. “We disagreed on almost everything. But he was sweet to me. He had a sort of boyish charm and was so alive with his discoveries. He just didn’t understand people.” Baez tells the story of the time Jobs called her in need of help: One of his employees had asked him for an opinion on a project and Jobs had told him, “It’s shit,” resulting in an upset underling. “I said, ‘There are probably other ways you could have said it,’ ” Baez says. “But he really didn’t know that’s not something you say without hurting someone’s feelings.”
With a shake of her head, she dismisses the theory that Jobs dated Baez because of his Dylan fixation. “It’s so bizarre that you have to find some reason for it, I guess,” she says. “I was doing an interview for a film, and the guy said, ‘So what do you think the attraction was?’ I said, ‘Me – I’m very attractive.’ Do you really need to have a Dylan connection?” She and Jobs remained in touch until his death in 2011, and right after he died, a new iPhone 5, which she’d asked him for, showed up at her door.
These days, Baez isn’t rushing into finding another partner. (She was married for five years to activist-writer David Harris; they divorced in 1973.) “I’m not going to spend a minute of my time looking for something. How would I find that – hang up a sign?” Her daughter-in-law and granddaughter bugged her to try online dating, and begrudgingly, Baez answered questions (but didn’t use her full name or a real photo). “Jasmine said, ‘One guy seems really nice – he’s in a wheelchair, and in a home, and loves poetry,'” Baez recalls with a burst of laughter. “I said, ‘Are you serious? Ain’t gonna happen.'” She hesitates to use the word “happy” (“It seems dippy”) but will admit, “A lot of my life is joyful and pleasurable, as opposed to depressed and angsty and all the things I spent my life being.”
A few days later, Baez calls back with a few additional thoughts, like her concern about global warming. Then she adds that she has a gold tooth with a diamond in it, which she had implanted a decade ago after she’d chipped a tooth.
“Serious bling,” she says, deadpan. “It’s very badass.”