May 02, 2019, 06:29AM

Joan Baez’s Weird Iconic Status

The antiseptic Queen of Folk.

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I don’t despise one of Joan Baez’s most famous songs, “Diamonds & Rust,” even though it demonstrates her crummy songwriting. And I won’t encroach upon my friend Crispin Sartwell’s “Why They Suck” series (which has included The Beatles, David Bowie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen), because considering all the awful folk and pop music over the past 60 years or so, Baez isn’t even in the Top 50 of most grating musicians. But even as a kid, when Baez’s first two albums were on the turntable at home—my oldest brother, who saw her at a New England campus concert in 1961 was a big fan—that technically perfect voice got on my nerves. Reviewing her Town Hall Concert in 1961, New York Times critic Robert Shelton gushed: “That superb soprano voice, as lustrous and rich as old gold, flowed purely all evening with a wondrous ease. Her singing unwound like a spool of satin.”

Knock-off satin, if you ask me, since her high notes gave me the same reaction as squirrel claws on a chalkboard, the kind of voice that would send discriminating dogs into hiding until, say “Donna, Donna” or “Barbara Allen” was over.

In fairness, you have to give Baez credit, more than Pete Seeger or Peter, Paul & Mary, for catapulting Dylan beyond a cult following, introducing him at her sold-out concerts, and singing together, much to the consternation of her fans. By 1964, it was a different story, most tellingly captured on the recording of Dylan’s Halloween performance at the Philharmonic Hall, a remarkable album not only for the songs, but Dylan’s relaxed patter with the crowd. I’ve never heard him having so much fun. The nadir, though, is when Dylan brings on Baez, and when he temporarily flubs the words to “Mama, You Been on My Mind,” Baez caterwauls to fill space, sounding very Yoko-like. (I understand it’s not acceptable to trash Yoko any longer, but I don’t care, her solo material and spot screeching on Beatles’ songs in the late-60s and early-70s were the pits.

I’m reminded of all this after reading that Netflix will release a Martin Scorsese documentary on June 12—Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese—accompanied, naturally, by a 14-disc box set of the 1975-76 Dylan shows by a cash-grabbing Columbia Records. (Which I’ll buy, although I hope there’s a four-disc alternative.) Anyway, Baez’s “Diamonds & Rust” was released in the summer of 1975—just as Dylan’s upcoming tour was in its embryonic stage—and while she claimed at the time it was about her ex-husband David Harris, she wasn’t fooling anyone.

It’s not a bad tune, and the Dylan content is interesting, but the lyrics, like all of her songwriting, are mediocre at best. Really, just the opening is stupid: “Well I’ll be damned/Here comes your ghost again/But that’s not unusual/It’s just that the moon is full/And you happened to call/And here I sit /Hand on the telephone/Hearing a voice I’d known/A couple of light years ago/Heading straight for a fall.” The moon is full? She couldn’t do better than that? And while a lot happened with and to Dylan from 1965-’75 (Dylan notoriously treated Baez like shit as he was “shedding off another layer of skin,” going electric, choosing Sara Lownds over Baez, all documented in the classic film Don’t Look Back), it was hardly “light years ago.”

She sings, “We both know what memories can bring/They bring diamonds and rust.” Okay, not horrible. But she concludes the song, voice lower, going for the knockout punch, “It’s all come back too clearly/Yes I loved you dearly/And if you’re offering me diamonds and rust/I already paid.” Paid for what? What does that fucking mean? Anyway, she hadn’t written Dylan off, as the song implies, since months later she was front and center on the Rolling Thunder series of concerts, putting on whiteface like Dylan, and relishing the spotlight again as a Dylan adjunct.

I saw the Dec. 8, ‘75 “Night of the Hurricane” concert at Madison Square Garden, and while it was a terrific show—before the Hurricane Carter business went sour—Baez hamming it up, brutalizing The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” was a lowpoint. Much cooler seeing Mick Ronson playing guitar (his solo turn was “Life on Mars,” from his days with Bowie), an understated Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell with “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow” and a somewhat addled Muhammad Ali, going on stage, talking about Rubin Carter (who provided a taped message from prison).

Despite the on-again, off-again rift with Dylan after their romantic bust-up, a buck’s a buck and Baez went whole hog in covering his songs. The 1968 double LP Any Day Now (which went gold) is especially egregious, with 16 Dylan songs mishandled to various degrees. It was said back then—and perhaps today—that no performer could interpret Dylan like Baez, but that’s hogwash. For example, her rendition of the wrenching “I Shall Be Released” (a Basement Tape song not yet released by Dylan) is just another Joanie song, warbling away in that “lustrous” voice. An equally sterile “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” doesn’t come close to the Byrds’ track on the magnificent Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

There was a single redeeming feature of the album—which I owned—and that was her inclusion of “Love is Just a Four-Letter Word,” a song that Dylan wrote in 1965 and, inexplicably, never included on any album. It’s said he never even recorded it, which seems strange, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a “lost” demo of the song is discovered in the next 10 years. I find Baez okay on the composition—though when she pronounces “absurd” as “abzurd” it bugs me no end—but that’s because there’s nothing to compare it to.

One stanza sticks out: “Though I never knew just what you meant/When you were speaking to your man/I can only think of me/And now I understand/After waking enough times to think I see/The Holy Kiss that’s supposed to last eternity/Blow up in smoke, its destiny/Falls on strangers, travels free/Yes, I know now, traps are only set by me/And I do not really need to be/Assured that love is just a four-lettered word.”

It’s very possible that Dylan was singing about Baez, given that it was written around the time they broke up (although the song isn’t as devastating on that subject as “Visions of Johanna”), but Holy Joanie apparently didn’t care, milking her simple twist of fate for all it was worth.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1955

  • Moan groan whine bitch - out doing your self with dumb worn out phrases

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  • Clearly he knows nothing about music and is a total ass

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  • I think I understand what you're saying in your article. Growing up I was impressed with her voice. Another artist of the time, Judy Collins, sang a Leonard Cohen song "Joan of Arc" which resulted in me crying hysterically each time I heard it. Diamonds and Rust did the same thing. I was 15 at the time. Now approaching my 7th decade, I listened to these 2 songs again, recorded back in the day. Nada on the hysterical crying. They had pitch perfect voices and at the same time, lacked the passion one would expect from the songs content. When I heard the 2 songs performed by 2 other artists, I could feel truth in their effort. I could feel the pain. It was authentic. Not selfaggrandizing. I feel that is due to the maturation of the people who sang for and from their core being. This is my opinion, to which I am entitled to here in the USA. My mile walk. I respect the right of others to express their thoughts. But not to belittle or bully another for theirs.

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  • Thanks for the well-balanced comment. A good example of Judy Collins (who I like better than Baez) emotionless rendering of songs are "Me and My Uncle, which the Grateful Dead performed with more feeling, and "Pretty Saro," a traditional folk song that Dylan does a beautiful job with, unlike Judy's straightorward reading.

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  • It’s totally fine if you are not a fan, but to those of us who are, there is a beauty and magic that Joan Baez brings to a lot of fans. She, to this day, never claimed to be a great songwriter, and that’s why she picks songs from powerful songwriters that move her. In a recent interview, she noted that she has not written in decades. Over the years, I have been introduced to so many different artists that I would have never known of without her: Steve Earle, Ryan Adams, Richard Shindell, Dar Williams and countless others. She is at her strongest when she is performing by herself with just a guitar. The power in her voice with incredible & precise guitar playing has always been so impressive to me. I’ve seen her mesmerize the entire crowd at venues like the Academy of Music in Philly many times…. Even stepping away from the mic to sing acapella in a huge hall where you can hear a pin drop. As good as she is with her own traveling musicians, it is the solo moments that truly shows how powerful she is. As far as the “fitting in with others” (like Dylan & The Dead), I always felt that it was like trying to fit a “square peg in a round hole”. She certainly wanted to do it, but I don’t think that she was ever built to be a “cool” rock star……. It was never in the stars…. : ) As far as “Diamonds & Rust” goes, it was my introduction to her music in 1975. I was just learning how to play the guitar and I happened to catch her on the Johnny Carson show. The curtain opened and she walked out and launched into D & R. I was blown away (to say the least) and the very next day I ran out and bought the album. From then on, her voice and guitar rang out through my stereo speakers and I was hooked. To this day, that recording is still so hauntingly beautiful to me. Now that she is 78 years old, her voice may be quite a bit lower, but just as it always has, it still sends me into the middle of next week. Sadly, I will miss her now that she’s played her final concert in Philly, but I will always have the many recordings and sweet memories.

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  • Okay, but leave Joni Mitchell alone!

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  • She did some great stuff. And I like how, in 1982, she thought she might engage the Police as backing band for her next album because she thought they had a piquant sound.

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