NEW YORK -- The last time she saw Dylan, her old sidekick and motorcycle lover, everything between them was ashes and sand. This was years ago, and they were on a European tour, and it just wasn't working, and so finally she went to his room to tell him she was leaving. The joker and the jack of hearts was stretched out on a sofa. Was he asleep? She kissed his pale sweaty forehead. He came to -- and then tried to feel her up.
So long, Robert, she said, too angry to be disgusted.
"You don't wanna hang around and maybe do sumpin together later?"
"You mean sing?"
"Yeah, do sumpin together."
"Naw, I don't think so, Bob. Not that way. I wanted to do it right, you know, but it didn't work out. Maybe some other time. I gotta go."
"That's too bad. You bin enjoyin' yourself?"
"Yeah, Bob. It's been my favorite tour in the world."
This dialogue can be found on Page 250 of Joan Baez's new book about her much-lived life and times. It's titled "And a Voice to Sing With," and nothing else about it is downstated.
"Yes, and you should see what got left on the cutting room floor about Bobby," she says, pushing the endive around on her plate with a fork.
Joan Baez is 46 years old and has a teen-age son named Gabe working construction this summer. Phil Ochs is dead, and Dylan is, well, Dylan, the Sphinx of our time, and the new Madonna -- she of the glitter and wiggly ectoderm and bad-mannered husband -- is in the midst of a world tour. America has moved, all right.
Love is just a four-letter word. So is fame. An old folkie with stunning teeth is dining this afternoon in the Cafe Maurice of the Parker Meridien Hotel in New York City. Lunch can go $100 here, nothing to it. But the folkie, who isn't exactly a folkie anymore, is on a book tour and doesn't have to pay.
"The first thing you've got to believe in is yourself," she says, and from the serious way she intones it -- almost like a mantra -- you know right off there was a long time, between there and here, when she didn't.
And then: "I think it had to wait." She means her new album. It's called "Recently," and it took her eight years to get a label. The label, Gold Castle Records, has already successfully resurrected Peter, Paul and Mary without turning them into curio items.
Her hair is cut short as a boy's now, and has a big swatch of gray in it, right up front. Crow's-feet squat at the corners of her intense dark eyes, making her seem, in real life, far more Indian and exotic than she does in any photograph. (She's not Indian at all, actually; her father is Mexican, her mother Scottish, and the union produced, among other things, wonderful cheekbones and beautiful skin.) In person she turns out to be much shorter than you would have guessed, around 5 feet 6. Maybe it was those long raven tresses that always made the barefoot Madonna of the '60s, the so-called Virgin Mary of the protest song, seem like some lanky six-footer.
"I'll tell you this, I wasn't going to be somebody's damn retread," Baez says. On the new album she does a U2 number, a Dire Straits song, a gospel tune recorded with an 80-voice choir. She's also made a video to promote it. Somehow that seems reality-warping.
"It's much riper now," she says, and suddenly she is smiling broadly, as if wanting you to know that although she is talking about the one -- her voice -- she is really speaking about the other -- her life -- and the price she has paid for both in between. "A little more autumnal, maybe. The very high register isn't really there any more. The soprano's there, you could say, but not the sweet little pure girl soprano you might remember from 30 years ago."
The shoes she has on today are from Neiman-Marcus and have a big sexy yoke around the ankle. The hunk of silver on her right wrist she got at a junk shop in Chicago for $30.
"See this T-shirt?" she grins, pulling back her blouse to reveal what's under it. The color is somewhere between magenta and hot purple. "Got it from the Gap in L.A. They just went on sale for $4.99. I got six of them in different colors."
She says Don Johnson of "Miami Vice" gives her hot flashes.
And a moment later: "I'm still looking to serve humankind."
Part of her problem, she says, was that we always had her wrong. She wasn't the Virgin Mary at all. (In her book, she tells of a decade with "ludes," that is, Quaaludes, and also a lesbian relationship with a companion-secretary named Kim.)
Once this voice, lilting through its sail-away sopranos, could raise goose flesh on your spine without half trying. No matter what you thought of the political rhetoric, or of the seeming humorlessness about "the cause," there was almost no doubting the voice. The bridge at midnight trembles, Joan Baez sang with that fluttering vibrato, and the country trembled right along with her. That is a line from an old Dylan tune called "Love Minus Zero (No Limit)." It was never such a great hit, but those mystic lyrics are somehow ruefully fitting now:
People carry roses/ Make promises by the hour ...
And: Statues made of matchsticks crumble into one another.
If you didn't know who she was now, if you only glimpsed her as you passed by the table, or maybe saw her stepping off an elevator, you might think to yourself: I'll betcha some very hip executive for a cosmetics firm.
She was 18 when she stepped into the prenarcotic pop American night at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival. Can it be that long ago? She had learned how to flutter her voice by standing in the shower in her parents' home and bobbing her index finger up and down her throat. An old folkie named Bob Gibson brought her up on stage that night at Newport. People were going off for coffee. She and Gibson had earlier met and sung at the Gate of Horn club in Chicago. Come to Newport, Joanie. They sang "Jordan River." Suddenly it was as if a bell had just rung in a schoolyard of memory.
Three years later, at 21, Joan Baez was on the cover of Time. Nothing to it. She was right in the eye of the revolution. "Anything called a hootenanny ought to be shot on sight, but the whole country is having one," that 1962 cover story began, trying to suspend disbelief. Hootenanny, ha, what a musty word now. And the '60s, all that earnest scrabbling after change, ha, what a musty idea now.
"What's the point of singing at all if you don't have something beyond the moment to offer the audience?" she says.
Twenty years later, at the age of 41, Joan Baez could hardly buy a record contract in America. Behind were 50 albums, eight of them gold, and now secretaries were putting her on hold. Joanie who? Oh, I'm sorry, we're into heavy metal here. "I am a stranger in my own land, always looking to feel comfortable without selling my soul," Baez writes in her new book, and you get the idea it is a sentence that didn't come hard.
She also writes: "My growing collection of utterly pure, nearly sacrosanct folk songs was not something to be paid only partial attention to, and neither, apparently, was I. As my repertoire expanded, my rigidity stayed the same. Each song was as desperately serious as the last."
She was at Selma with King, she was in the bunkers of Hanoi with the little children when Nixon ordered the Christmas carpet-bombing, she was pregnant at Woodstock, her belly bulbed like a muskmelon. Her name, along with so few others', seemed to stand for the Zeitgeist. But then the Zeitgeist moved on.
"I am not a saint. I am a noise," she wrote in a school essay when she was 15.
"My life is a crystal teardrop," she wrote later, a star. Many hooted at that.
"Look," she says, "if I were really interested, I guess I could have gone into some pork-faced executive with fat fingers back there a little while ago and said, 'Hey, I'm ready, put me on, put me on "Miami Vice," gimme just one song, do whatever you have to do to get me back in the public eye.' You see, first, it was disbelief. Disbelief and then denial. Then you start to blame everybody: 'They don't have any taste, they're stupid, they have something against me.' Finally it begins to dawn on you that times have changed in 25 years."
Her marriage to beach-boy-handsome antiwar activist David Harris was supposed to be '60s perfect -- his fire, her music, together their glory. It didn't work out that way. Harris went to prison for resisting the draft, and then they couldn't get along, and then it was over.
My love, she speaks softly/ She knows there's no success like failure/ And that failure's no success at all.
Six or seven years ago, when things were at about their darkest, Joan Baez, of the aching soprano, went to get vocal lessons, just walked in cold one day to a Palo Alto studio not far from her home down on the Peninsula. First thing she heard was somebody's thin earnest voice, thin as string and earnest as your sister's, struggling to get up and down the scales. Oh, Christ, she thought, but kept on going.
"What seems to be the problem?" the teacher said after the other pupil was gone.
"Uh, my voice is not working right. I'm having trouble with the high notes."
"Do you sing professionally, or just for your own pleasure?"
"I sing professionally."
"I see. What's your name?"
"Oh, Christ," the guy said.
But it all worked out.
As she tells you this story now, her hand shoots across the table. It is a particularly fine hand -- long, slender fingers and cobalt-blue veins riding up the very brown back. And yet thrust out like this, the fingers spread wide, it looks suddenly like the talon of some fierce bird. Bird of prey? What does this abrupt movement, almost a reflex, signify? That she is still angry? That she understands about success in America? That she is caught, like any of us, somewhere between neediness and the knowledge that nothing is forever?
Or maybe she was just trying to illustrate her story, and her arm moved too quickly.
My love, she speaks like silence/ Without ideals or violence.
And: She doesn't have to say she's faithful/ Yet she's true like ice, like fire.
"Now here's a woman who blew all her money when she was young," she is saying. "You know, the counterculture thing. A lot of it was probably guilt."
Did she spend it or give it away?
"Well, some of both, truthfully. I've told people about the time I went downtown to buy a flashlight and bought an XKE instead. I couldn't tell you how many cars I bought for people in my time. You know, when there's a lot of cash floating around ... And by the way, Gandhi, whom I'm clearly not, well, as a friend of mine once pointed out, it took millions of dollars to keep Gandhi in poverty."
Even irreverently, she can't help sounding a little reverent: Gandhi is still one of Joan Baez's hugest heroes.
You could say without fear of contradiction, however, that she has little reverence for the late Al Capp, who had made her out back then, in his cartoon "L'il Abner," as Little Joanie Phoanie, the dilettante folk-commie who was quite fond of dough. Baez told another interviewer not long ago, "I learned you only get angry at somebody who touches you where you're vulnerable. He poked around at the point that I made a lot of money."
The headwaiter, possibly noticing the startling movement of her hand a moment ago, has rushed over. "Madam?" he inquires with the standard obsequiousness reserved for any kind of celebrity.
"Could you bring some tea?" she asks politely. "I know it's wonderfully air-conditioned in here, but frankly I'm freezing." She produces a smile, as if to say: Yes, yes, I'm the one who's weird.
"Uh, I think English Breakfast."
When the pot comes, she quickly pours out a cup and then curls her fingers around its china belly, hugging a little forward on this amazingly blue banquette.
Here is what Joan Baez, the nonviolent peace activist, has written about her "little sister" Madonna:
"What will happen to you, baby child, when the spotlights dim and the morning sunlight finds your eyes red from weeping? Come and see this old madonna, who will tenderly serve you jasmine tea and say quietly in response to the unformed questions struggling up from the ashes of your fiery young life, 'I understand, sweetie, I understand.' But for now, in the diamond glow of success, dance and sing and bump and grind in your jangling glitz necklaces and skintight mini bun-huggers. Someday maybe those handsome Playboy tits of yours will find a more earthly purpose and you, a more fulfilling life. Trips to the supermarket will not be easy at first."
Was that passage motivated by anger, or what?
"Absolutely," she says. "What do they mean, 'the Madonna'?" She fairly hisses this with mock seriousness. Well, sort of mock.
A moment later she circles back. "Was I saying her life was shallow? Well, I 'fess up to that. I assume the pressure she's under, to keep making it, and, really, that has to make you pretty shallow, doesn't it? And look how young she is, my God. You see, what she doesn't know yet is that it will end. And it will end, you can count on it. Oh, you can come back, if you're lucky. Like Tina Turner. Tina. I saw her at Live Aid. I said, 'Tina, you seem so happy, so fulfilled. How long this been goin' on?' She said, 'Honey, ever since I got away from Ike.' "
Beggars' nieces seek perfection, expecting all the gifts that wise men bring.
Here is what Joan Baez, the desperately serious dilettante folk-commie of the late lamented '60s, writes about Don Johnson and meeting him backstage at the 1985 Live Aid concert:
"Well, he is some charismatic hunk of maleness, with the disarming touch of everlasting youth, the boyish quality of Brando and Dean. He has all of their intensity and sex appeal, and what he may lack in depth, he makes up for in clothing."
She practically made a spectacle of herself trying to get close to him. "Christ, not since Kris Kristofferson, I think to myself, a man-man, not a boy-man, and I just say right out, to his sparkling eyes and Ralph Lauren hair and not entirely uninterested look of surprise, 'Hello, gorgeous. Could we discuss the possibility of rape?' "
Roaming with her backstage pass, she ran into the Hooters, a Philly rock band. One of the Hooters told her, "My mother has all your albums. Meeting you is a great honor."
"It wouldn't be if you knew what I was thinking about your cherubic little mouth, kiddo," she thought to herself.
Does Joan Baez really know who she is? In a way it's as if, having once proven to us how serious she was, she is now bent on making us see the other side.
Joan Didion, apocalyptic American author, writing on Joan Baez in a now-famous profile in "Slouching Towards Bethlehem": "Joan Baez was a personality before she was entirely a person, and, like anyone to whom that happens, she is in a sense the hapless victim of what others have seen in her, written about her, wanted her to be and not to be. The roles assigned to her are various, but variations on a single theme."
Perhaps no one who hasn't experienced the vicious down-drafts of veneration and visibility could possibly know what she is really feeling now, as the currents seem to be riding her up again, ever so slightly. What has to get you through, then and now, is your character. One thing she says she did in the middle '70s and early '80s was start attending Quaker meetings again. Her father had introduced her to Quakerism. Al Baez is a retired university physicist -- who passed up lucrative defense work, or anything that had to do with bombs.
She had hated Quaker meetings as a child, all those drab faces on those drab benches. "But then suddenly I was ready to try and start listening again for the small still voice within me. My friend Jeannie also helped get me through. She would ease the truth in on me. 'Joan, concentrate on the music, not on trying to win 13-year-olds, or 18-year-olds.' Then from there it was a matter of saying to myself, 'Okay, maybe all you'll ever be playing from now on are halls and pavilions of 1,500 people who happen to be your own age. What's so terrible about that?' And then from there it was the old thing of turning the question around and asking yourself, 'Is the glass half full or half empty?' "
She has been haunted by a recurring nightmare all her life. It is her demon, and when she talks of this she is suddenly very sober. Sitting right here in the Cafe Maurice of the Parker Meridien Hotel, she can suddenly see, as clearly as if it were a photograph, a little girl with slept-on braids and a groggy pout "and a ribbon of worry troubling her black eyes." As she has written in the book, this is the fragment of the dream that keeps coming back: "I am in the house and something comes in the night and its presence is deathly ... I scream and run away, but it comes back at my nap time and gets into my bed. Then a voice says angrily, 'Don't look at me!' as I peer at the face on the pillow next to me, and I feel very ashamed."
"The demon was here just a minute ago," she says. "I have no idea what brings it back ... I think it was the shape of this table."
Lunch is over. Out in the lobby are throngs of Duran Duran fans -- blue-haired fans, green-haired fans, chartreuse-haired fans, all under 16, it seems. Duran Duran played the Garden last night. Surely half of Jersey and Queens were there. The band is staying in this hotel. Baez has been passing among the fans for the last several days as she makes her publicity rounds for "And a Voice to Sing With."
"I actually saw John Taylor today!" screams a girl.
Then she sees Baez.
"Joanie! My parents are going to flip when I tell them I saw you."
Another Duran Duraner sees a reporter scribbling.
"Fake fans! Write that down. F-A-K-E fans. We hate fake fans."
Well, what does Duran Duran have, anyway?
"Energy," says one.
"Uplifting," says another.
"Great live show," says another.
"Great live music," says another.
"Great bods," says one more.
Baez says, "Well, listen, a 45-year-old can think John Taylor's gorgeous too, can't she?" (She's 46.) "You know, I danced with him backstage at Live Aid."
"We must do lunch next time, Joanie," says a fan, breaking the group up.
Out in the limo now, speeding toward LaGuardia -- uptown, not downtown toward the Village, where Joan Baez met Bob Dylan in 1961 for the first time, at Gerde's Folk City. No time to go to Gerde's, she has to be in Boston to do a talk show by 7 tonight.
She has her right hand on the leather strap above the limo door. She is studying a speeding landscape. "What I call the ashes and the silence," she says, almost talking to herself. "Out of the silence and the ashes of the '60s, what did we know? I'll tell you. The Bee Gees. I mean, I like listening to the Bee Gees. I even like dancing to them. But, come on, they make a point of saying that they're saying nothing, that there's no message."
Suddenly: "You know what pisses me off? These groups nowadays who give interviews and say, 'Yeah, man, it's really hard.' They don't know from hard. Here's what's really hard. Being in Chile is really hard. Being with the mothers of the disappeared in Argentina, that's really hard. Or living in Poland, and trying to find out how you can stretch your intellect without landing in jail, that's really hard. Those kids we saw back there a moment ago, I mean, they're wonderful and exuberant. But they don't know anything about anything. And that worries me."
Joan Baez, after all these years.