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Songs without Sound
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- *** Diamonds minus Rust Over Visions of Johanna (And the Jack of hearts, Too)
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Diamonds minus Rust over Visions of Johanna (and the Jack of Hearts, too)
WARNING: This article is loooong. If you're just after a quick update, best jump directly to section 2. Enjoy!
I've been listening to a lot of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez lately. And watching movies about them. And reading their respective autobiographies. And song lyrics! And listening to their recordings. And watching performance videos on Youtube. If I get obsessed with something, I tend to do it thoroughly. You have to give me that.
It all started when I took out "I'm Not There" from the Featherston video store, along with "The Boat that Rocked (aka Pirate Radio)" – both movies I had wanted to see, just to keep up with my music history (after all, that's where I got my MA). The two movies exemplify the difference between an ok movie, and a great movie. "The Boat that Rocked" was fun to watch, told an interesting story about an interesting time in music history, had some good actors and performances.
Next to "I'm Not There", it seemed gimmicky and superficial. That movie hit me from a different angle (to steal an expression from one of Dylan's interviews). Something I could relate to on a whole different level. Something about the meaning of success and failure, and identity – how we see ourselves versus how others insist on seeing us – and, well, I guess something about being an artist. The movie also features one of the spookiest performances I've ever seen on the silver screen, Cate Blanchett as "Quinn", aka Bob Dylan in the mid-sixties. She does not so much perform as channel him, it seems – she is so convincing, you look at a Dylan documentary from that time afterwards, and you think : "Hey, he looks like Cate Blanchett!"
But what really sneaked under my skin and demanded that I pay attention, was the soundtrack. I have to admit – to my great shame, given the MA in music history and all – that up to that point, Bob Dylan had pretty much passed me by. It's like I've been missing a substantial piece of the puzzle when it comes to understanding the culture I myself grew up in, and suddenly it fell into place.
The Early Music and "World Music" movements which I was a part of in the '80s and '90s, are directly linked to the folk music revival in America in the '60s – the scene which gave Joan Baez and Bob Dylan their first boost of fame. It's rather like discovering that those two kindly old people living up the road, who you have been casually aware of but never paid much attention to, are in fact your grandparents. Well, they're a bit too young for that – just a bit younger than my parents – but I am speaking strictly in terms of intellectual parentage. :)
I have worked in New York, on and off, throughout the best part of the 1990's. On my first visit, one of my fellow musicians, Grant Herreid, took it upon himself to show me around. We went to Greenwich Village, but it didn't mean anything to me at the time. The burden of finding me a place to sleep had been distributed over several people's couches, and some of the time, I stayed at Grant's place, an artist commune some 50 miles out of town, across George Washington Bridge and up the state highway, perhaps half the distance to Woodstock. It was an assembly of various lightly built and curiously shaped bungalows in a maple forest, which was raining down bright yellow-gold leaves on everything at that time of year. Grant played me tapes of African kora music, which he had bought off some street performer – my first introduction to that repertory. The house had allegedly at one time belonged to John Cage.
The other part of the time, I stayed at Richard Stone's flat in Washington Heights, a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood. Richard is a bit of a geek, very intellectual, and he introduced me – in 1993 – to a newfangled thing called email. He was using it to communicate with his wife in another town, and he was convinced it was going to be the Next Big Thing. It's mostly thanks to him that I caught on to computers reasonably early! He also taught me how to use music editing software.
I very fondly remember my sessions and chats with Pat O'Brien, who has been a mentor to many an early music plucker, be it on lute or harp. There was an aura of awe about him because it was said he had been in prison at one time back in the '60s or '70s, I can't remember if it had been about Civil Rights or Anti-Vietnam protests. I reckon he would have been around when Baez and Dylan were playing the clubs in the Village, it's even likely he played with some of the same people. I wonder if he's heard them perform at the time. In any case, the spirit of the folk revival movement was definitely still hovering about, even if at the time I did not know or recognize it.
I knew some of Bob Dylan's songs, of course – after all, he's written about half the superhits of the last 40 odd years. Forever Young. Knocking on Heaven's Door. Mr Tambourine Man. Like a Rolling Stone. And so on. I also knew he had written the famous protest hymns, Blowin' in the Wind, The Times are A-Changing – we sang those songs, and a lot of the ones from Joan Baez' repertory, when we were marching in the streets of Germany during the "hot autumn" 1983, protesting against the nuclear arms race. And again in the late '80's, when the Wall was starting to crumble. Part of the same momentum of non-violent protest which had started with the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam protests in the USA in the '60s.
Dylan and Baez had been 22 years old when they stood right next to Martin Luther King Jr as he held his famous speech "I have a dream" in Washington in 1963. Then they stepped forward and sang a song. That's what surprised me the most, to realize how very young both of them had been at the time. I was 22 when I danced on top of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, just a face in the crowd. I still remember how that felt, remember that night in great detail. It's not something you're likely to ever forget if you've been a part of it, especially at that impressionable age.
I do own a Joan Baez record, "Honest Lullaby", which I bought when "record" still meant vinyl. I'd read a book where one of the characters listens to "her crystal-clear voice", and I'd gotten curious. I don't think I was overly impressed with the style of music – and I had no clue what half the lyrics were supposed to mean, drawing as they do heavily on some folk repertory I was not familiar with at the time. "Spending all my energy protecting my virginity" – that's a line which made sense, and stuck with me. Looking like she did – sorry, DOES, one should say –, perhaps she also became a little too good at warding off suitors?
I sure did like the voice. Who couldn't? Crystal-clear doesn't remotely do it justice, though. It's not just beautiful – there is a quality to it which is, I don't know, healing? Like a ray of light in the dark? A voice that takes you by the hand, wraps you in a blanket and tells you the world is not a merry place, but everything will be fine in the end? "A voice that drove out bad spirits", Bob Dylan has written. Thanks Bob. Could have trusted you to hit the nail on the head there.
I had also watched a documentary about Woodstock, and been deeply impressed by this lion woman who, in amongst all the giants of rock'n'roll bringing down lightning and thunder, walks on the stage just with her guitar – then even puts that away and confronts an audience of half a million people with her naked voice. I can see how she would inspire people to find the courage to stop a tank with their unprotected bodies.
Joan Baez' memoir, "And A Voice to Sing With", should be compulsory reading for any young woman stepping up to be a performer, politician, artist, writer, or any profession with a conspicuous public profile. She talks frankly and at length about the obstacles she had to overcome in order to be who she became.
From the outside, her early career looks like singularly smooth sailing. She was one of the lucky ones to have a family who both could, and would support her in every way, and she quickly achieved success and a substantial income from her performances.
Most of the obstacles were in her own mind. Her ideas of what happiness would be like. She talks about her fantasies of married life and having lots of babies (and saving the world at the same time). She talks about her first boyfriend, how ready she was to give up her own self just to be with him. When she began to be successful as a performer, it soon became apparent that he was jealous of her success. One day, when he whined to her that "Three thousand people you haven't met are more important than me?", she simply told him "Yes". Good on her! Show me the professional woman who has never had *that* conversation.
She also talks about her massive stage fright, bouts of anxiety and guilt over being a successful performer – all things which sound only too familiar to anyone who has ever picked up a feminist analysis. But in 1959, all that was still a decade away, and she had to go it on her own. There wasn't really anyone else around who did what she did, and who could have provided a role model. The young Bob Dylan had Woodie Guthrie and Hank Williams to look up to and imitate, but she was, and continues to be, alone in her own class. She has been sweet mama to a whole generation (going on two) of younger women folksingers and singer-songwriters, though, and is taking an active part in mentoring some of them. That must be a very nice place to arrive at.
I was surprised to spot Joan Baez on the documentary "Don't Look Back", filmed during Bob Dylan's 1965 tour of the UK. I'd had no idea she and Dylan had been so close, had been lovers – and I was intrigued to see not the serious, self-assured woman I remembered from videos and record sleeves, but a young girl, teasing, mischievous, funny, and vulnerable. She reminded me a lot of one of my fellow Multimedia students at Natcoll. Perhaps not an accident – a girl in a boy's world, where usually, if a girl was invited backstage or to private parties, it was because she was sleeping with one of the band, not because she was a fellow professional.
The filmmakers had been given wide access – onstage, backstage, hotel rooms, press conferences, car rides, train rides, screaming fans, interviews, even a glimpse into the haggling that takes place between manager and concert promoter. Most of the scenes are very public, full of people, and Dylan is either playing absurd theatre with the press, or running away from screaming fans, or trying (and sometimes failing) to be polite to all the various people who want a slice of his time – or he is gearing himself up for the next performance. Sometimes several of these things at the same time. He is usually sardonic, mostly under stress, and always the center of attention. On occasion we see him strumming on his guitar, trying to avoid a conversation someone is forcing on him, as if the music would offer him some refuge and shelter, and he seems to desperately wish for all those people to go away, so he can have quiet and listen to whatever words or music might be in his head.
There is one scene in the movie though, which struck me as utterly beautiful. A late night party in the hotel room. For once, there is only a handful of people, all friends, sitting and chilling, someone is doing a painting. Joan Baez plays the guitar and sings. Everyone listens to her, while Dylan, back turned to the room, is busy clicking away on his typewriter. He seems relaxed for once, happy even, and absorbed in whatever he is writing.
You might think that's a bit rude, to keep typing away and ignore Joan's performance, until you notice that his typing is keeping time with her music. It seems he's using the typewriter not so much as a writing tool, but a sort of odd, haphazard rhythm section, and mouthing along with the song. He can't have gotten much down on the page! To me, it seems he's listening with every fibre of his body, letting the music take him along and whatever comes out of the typewriter, comes out of the typewriter.
There's nothing spectacular about that little scene. If we didn't know that the two young people in the room were called Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, it could be a hundred college dorms, student flat shares, after concert private parties. It reminds me of something completely familiar. Late nights hanging out with musician friends, bouncing ideas, playing music, flirting, goofing. The kind of space where music and love and poetry and companionship and being young and being on top of the world all merge into one big warm fuzzy inseparable whole, and new things are born out of it. You didn't know it then, but some of the things which are born in those spaces may carry you through an entire lifetime.
What exactly passed between them, and what they felt for each other, only they will ever know, and that is just as it should be – private. The only thing that seems fairly certain, is that it was anything but superficial. That one aspect of it was that they sparked off each other's creativity in a major way, I don't have any doubt.
You only need to listen to the 1964 live recording (available as a CD release), which includes some of their duets. Throughout the whole concert, Dylan is on a high. He jokes, laughs, his "talking blues" performances are funny as hell. He flings himself out there with an intensity that can find me, fifty years later, sitting in my living room in New Zealand listening to a recording, and I can't help laughing and getting high with him.
You can't miss the utter delight in his voice when he announces Joan Baez to join him on stage. When they sing together, they just soar. They're not even "together" in the classical musical sense of the word – in the first song, at one stage they forget what the next verse is, but it doesn't throw them, they just carry on. It's as if they don't even have to pick up on the other's cues, as you usually do in an ensemble performance – they both launch into it head on, with a complete trust that the other will be heading in the same direction. There's a bit of competitiveness, even – not in the sense that they're trying to up each other, rather that they're each giving it their absolute 250% best for each other. Listen to "Silver Dagger" – sung by Joan Baez, with Dylan on harmonica – to see what I mean. "For I've been warned, and I've decided to sleep alone all of my life", she sings. Yeah right – we're SO going to believe that, my dear.
It seems incongruous that their two voices would even mix – her "achingly pure soprano" and preference for slow, lyrical tunes, and his nasal, half-spoken, fast and rhythmical twang. As far as performance style goes, they seem like polar opposites, but as a duo, they enhance each other. They each provide something the other is missing – she gives his performance more polish, and he makes her loosen up a bit and have some fun – and the result is exhilarating. Dylan speaks of a "thin, wild mercury sound. It's metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up" in relation to his later album "Blonde on Blonde", and that seems about a good description of what they achieve together. Hearing them perform solo after being exposed to this, sounds like something is missing.
Sadly, there seem to be precious few recordings of their duo performances – no studio recordings, as far as I am aware, but there are some Dylan/Baez duos on the "Dylan Live 1964" and "Dylan Live 1975" bootleg series CD albums, and video recordings of their performances at the Newport festivals in 1963 and 1964, and the "Rolling Thunder Revue" 1976.
It's no wonder these performances have left such an impression that 50 years later, people still think of these two performers as an item – no matter how many other musicians they have each worked with since. On the director's commentary to "The Other Side of the Mirror", a documentary of Dylan's performances at the Newport Folk festival from 1963 to 1965, the now-grizzled filmmaker still has to smile when he reminisces about them doing Dylan's anti-relationship song "It Ain' t Me, Babe" at each other, when it was well known and perfectly obvious to everyone that at that time, they were all over each other.
They look like a couple of rebellious kids who have run away from home together. Dylan, at that age, is the perfect androgyne, and it's no accident that in "I'm Not There", this period in his life is portrayed by an actress (and extremely successfully so). Definitely not your average macho male star! And Baez, with her spare frame and barefooted appearance, and in the way she acts, seems boyish rather than girlish, let alone anything like a glamour femme fatale. At that time, she was the one who was more famous, and she was the one who bought him outfits and made him presentable and took him by the hand and led him up to the stage and a share of her audience and her fame.
Amongst every other thing about the status quo that they question, in their very appearance, and the way they relate to each other, they question all sorts of assumptions about male and female gender roles and preconceptions. The ballsy, outspoken, extrovert girl, and her frail, emotional, introvert vagabond poet. At the same time, they were the two coolest kids on the block in the Folk Music scene and they knew it – not to mention two of the most charismatic human beings the century has seen. Together, they had already helped give momentum to a wave of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience which would be forever associated with them, and which would continue to build and crest until it swept away the Iron Curtain – there even was a "Singing Revolution", in the Baltic countries in the late 1980's!
They do seem very happy, on those 1964 video recordings from Newport – Dylan especially, who at that time had no walls, had not learned to protect his private feelings from prying audiences when he was performing. It comes across even on the black and white video, he positively glows. It's probably the only time in his career when he actually looks his audience in the eye! Three years ago he had hitchhiked to New York with 10 dollars in his pocket, a complete nobody, sleeping on people's couches, and now he had made three records with the biggest record label around, his audiences loved him, and the most breathtaking girl in the country, whom he says he'd seen and admired on tv before he ever even came to New York, wanted to be his lover. He may well have wondered if he was really real.
His early work may have been angsty and angry, his later work for the most part sad and sort of tormented, and the wave of excessive public attention was soon to crash over him and drown him, but that one year at least, it looks like he was dancing down those garden pathways of the sun and then some. Seems such a horrid pity that the come-down would seem to have taken him the best part of the next 30 years.
Unfortunately for Joan, the song about the Silver Dagger proved to be prophetic – sometime around that time, Dylan met and started dating the woman who would become his wife and mother of his children, Sara Lownds. Joan didn't find out about Sara's existence until sometime toward the end of the 1965 UK tour, when she unsuspectingly knocked on the door to Dylan's room, and Sara opened. Everyone had carefully avoided telling her. Yup. Been there, done that – and boy it hurts. Makes you feel stupid, for one – like you've been living a dream that only existed in your own head, and everyone is going to point the finger and laugh at you. Like being reduced to the status of just another groupie.
Perhaps I can derive some selfish comfort from finding out that she who is arguably the classiest woman alive, wasn't any wiser when she was as young as I was then. Perhaps it has nothing do with wisdom, or stupidity. But it seems that this was only the final straw in what had already become a tense relationship. When Bob Dylan asked Joan Baez to come along on the UK tour, she was expecting that he would invite her up on stage to perform with her, just like she had invited him a couple of years earlier, when she was famous, and he was not. Now she felt that he wanted all the attention for himself, and she felt used. Fair enough – I would have felt the same, under the circumstances!
How much of a say Bob Dylan really had in this, is another question. He was being managed by Albert Grossman, a star maker who had approached Joan Baez several years earlier. She had declined, preferring to go a less overtly commercial path. That can't have been a very healthy situation. Incidentally, the mysterious Sara Lownds, about whom not much at all is known, was a friend of Grossman's wife Sally – I can't help but wonder if they might not have given that relationship a bit of a helping hand.
Baez also observes, with piercing insight, that Dylan didn't have much of a choice when it came to being the center of attention. She writes about the hordes of sycophants and yes-men who would surround him, jump and clap at every line he was peeling off the typewriter, and how everyone (herself included) wanted to be the one who made him laugh, or share a special moment. Sound familiar? Sounds very familiar to me. Seeing this happen to a friend, is not nice. You know it isolates them, distorts their view of themselves and their own importance, but there is absolutely no way to have a healthy, normal friendship under those circumstances – either humiliate yourself and play along, or step away. She chose the latter. I once did the same.
What's for sure, is that she would not have become the Joan Baez we know, if at that time she had allowed herself to become an appendage to the Dylan phenomenon – or if he had allowed her. It was all too easy for her to step back, let Bob the Genius take center stage and reduce herself to background singer – it had already happened at the Newport Festival, when Dylan was asked to do the closing performance, and the other star acts, including Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, and Peter, Paul and Mary (quite the band!), did the background vocals. In the end, it turned out that she already had her own following in Europe, and didn't need any boost from performing along with Bob Dylan. She reflects on these things in her autobiography – there is lingering anger, but she is also clearsighted enough to know that in the end, as far as her career was concerned, it may have turned out for the better that way.
Dylan, at that time, was desperately trying to distance himself from being typecast as a "protest singer", or for that matter, a "folk singer" – he wanted to play rock'n'roll and be a star, but he most definitely did not want to be a "spokesman for his generation", an oracle who was supposed to have all the answers. Frankly, the people who expected answers from the man who had written "The answer my friend, is blowin' in the wind", must have seriously missed a point!
There is a recording of a press conference he did in December 1965 in San Francisco – an exercise in absurdist performance art. Evidently Dylan just couldn't bring himself to take the whole situation seriously. He still grins about it when Martin Scorsese interviews him for his 2004 documentary "No Direction Home". "You ask me why I write surreal poetry", he says, "well, that sort of activity is surreal!" – At the press conference, the first question is put to him by a very serious young man in glasses and beard, about "the philosophy behind the photo on his new album cover", which shows Dylan wearing a motorcycle t-shirt. The journalist states that he has thought about it a great deal. Dylan just cracks up, but there is a hint of desperation in his laugh. (Incidentally, this press conference also reveals why on earth Dylan would agree to appear in a "Victoria's Secret" commercial in 2004. There is a certain consistency to the madness, you have to give him that.)
His relationship to Joan Baez was very much wrapped up in all this. Their main dilemma at that time was that Baez felt strongly it was Dylan's moral obligation to continue writing political songs, and was very disappointed when he verged off in a different direction. Hearing some of Dylan's topical songs was what first inspired her to address social issues in her own performances, and at that time, she was becoming more serious in her political engagement. She set up a school for non-violence, and was actively involved in the Anti-Vietnam protests, using some of her stage time in her concerts to talk about these issues. Baez and Dylan had done some performances together in the South in 1963, to support the Civil Rights movement, but it seems Dylan always felt a bit uneasy about this.
Baez was always the one who was outspoken and politically active, and quite happy to leverage her fame as a performer to achieve political goals. If people were looking for a volunteer to lead them into the streets, banners blazing, to fix the evils of the world, she might have been quite happy to step up to that position – but no, it was Bobby everyone latched on to, and he really was not interested at all. There's probably another feminist essay in there somewhere, but I'll leave that for another time, eh.
Baez has written that she considers herself first a person, second a political activist, and third a singer and musician. Her autobiography reflects that stance, with its focus on her significant personal relationships, and the people she has met on her political campaigns, as well as fellow musicians and performers. "The personal is the political" might well be the subtitle to her book.
Dylan, in his autobiography, writes largely about his musical and literary influences, and his creative process. If he writes about people, it is because he has learned something from them, or because he owes them gratitude for supporting him on his path. He lives and breathes music, that's who he is and wants to be, as far as I can make out. In a way, perhaps he also sees deeper, or further – he was criticizing corporate structures and the brain control the media exert, at a time when everyone else still thought the country was actually run by the President of the United States, and social and political issues could be fixed by marching on Washington. He also takes a brutally honest look at relationships and the plethora of feelings that go along with them: yearning, expectation, excitement, exhilaration, frustration, sadness, boredom, anger, rage, fear. Not your average love songs, those! He seems to be asking, if we can't even handle our own personal and intimate relationships, how are we ever going to abolish war and inequality, aggression and oppression? In that sense, at least, they are both on the same page, if perhaps on opposite corners.
If Joan Baez, like Martha of Bethany, chose the active life, then his choice would be Mary's, a life of contemplation and observation. One wouldn't be able to say that one choice is more valid than the other – I guess as it turns out, they both made the right choice for themselves, but it wouldn't have been the right choice for the other one.
If Dylan inspired Baez to be more serious about her political activities, ironically, Dylan's poems become more introspective, his writing more experimental and more personal, around the time they lived together – 1964 was the year he wrote his mindbendingly surreal "Gates of Eden" and "It's Alright, Ma (I'm only Bleeding)", as well as a number of songs about relationships: "To Ramona", "Mama, you've been on my mind", "All I really want to do", and "It Ain' t me, Babe", which is more of an anti-relationship song, and one that he and Baez often performed as a duo. The year also marks the first appearance of the Gypsy (aka Egyptian) girl with flashing diamond teeth (in "Spanish Harlem Incident"), who would continue to dance through his songs for years to come. I'm refraining from any interpretation. But hey, I mean "motorcycle black madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen", isn't that laying it on a bit thick?
Of course I'm not saying that I think I have any more clue than anyone else, what those songs might "mean". If they "meant" anything that could be expressed in regular, logical, syntactically structured language, there would have been no need to write them as surreal poems. If art ever "meant" anything as definite, we could do without the bouts of insomnia, spells of drunkenness and drug abuse,* dysfunctional human relationships, economical insecurity, and otherwise unhealthy lifestyle that comes with being an artist (some more, some less, but most of us to some degree some of the time) – and write up ledger books instead, go jogging each day at 5 pm straight, have healthy meals, watch tv news, and raise five children. Each.
But it does seem to me (as a totally inexpert opinion, and not claiming any in-depth knowledge of Dylan's oeuvre or all its influences and connections) that ideas, allusions and images associated with Joan Baez and his relationship with her, wind themselves through his poems for many, and indeed very many years to come. Whether it had to do with any real feelings for her, or whether she'd become some sort of abstract scheme or archetype in his mind, is perhaps beside the point. Perhaps, if Sara was the woman to live with in a house with a white picket fence and pink roses in the backyard and have babies with, then Joan was still the woman to go on wild imaginary goose chases to Egypt or Mexico, and have songs with. That would be my humble interpretation, at least.
I am going to firmly resist the temptation to enter into the debate around some of Dylan's better known love songs, and who they are "about". They might be about Sara, or about Joan, or about Suze, or about the groupie he slept with last night, or they might be about Sulamit. I reckon they are probably about Dylan, and with a bit of luck, they might just be about that four letter word which starts with an l. To anyone who listens to them, they had better be about someone of their own acquaintance. The best ones among them make about as much sense as "Your eyes are doves behind your veil, your hair is like a flock of goats moving down the slopes of Gilead" – or, "I come into my garden, my sister, my bride; I gather my myrrh with my spice. I eat my honeycomb with my honey, I drink my wine with my milk." And that is a high achievement indeed.
There is, however, "Visions of Johanna" – written sometime in late 1965, and featured on Dylan's 1966 album "Blonde on Blonde" (arguably one of the finest records ever produced). Dylan has never admitted that this song has anything to do with Joan Baez (nor has he denied it – he probably would have thought the whole discussion extremely silly), but she understood it that way (as well she might). To me, it sounds more or less like something of an apology, sort of. It is eerie, empty – the nighttime musings of a man who is kept awake by the ghost of an absence, even while he is spending the night with his girl. It has the emotional impact of a Mahler symphony, just with a guitar and a mouth organ and a bit of sparse percussion. No, that's not a good analogy – a Mahler symphony runs you over like a truck and leaves you flat and depleted. This song pierces like that silver dagger, splits you open like a coconut. Schubert has written things like that, but not anyone since, I don't think.
Dylan wasn't having the best of times, the rest of that year 1965. In July, he famously alienated his fans at the Newport Folk Festival, by "going electric". The Scorsese documentary shows some footage from that event. After the boos, Dylan is asked to come back for a short acoustic set. As he walks on stage and begins to play, the camera (always disrespectful of people's private feelings) reveals a big fat tear rolling down his cheek. When he took his new band on tour to the UK again in 1966, they would be booed in every venue, while people would still enthusiastically applaud the acoustic set which constituted the first half of the concerts.
I have listened to a live recording from that tour, Dylan Live 1966. The contrast to the 1964 live recording could not be greater: in this performance, you can cut his misery with a knife. Dylan performs an acoustic set of his most, err, upbeat and optimistic songs (NOT): She Belongs to Me – Fourth Time Around – Visions of Johanna – It's all Over Now, Baby Blue – Desolation Row ... he even manages to make "Just Like a Woman" sound like the bluest of blues. I got into a funk the other day just from listening to this bundle of sadness on an empty stomach. Perhaps he was just tired from touring. Very likely, he wanted desperately to be home with his new wife and new baby. But strangely, most of these songs deal with a breakup – and they can all be read as making reference to Joan Baez. I don't know, but it strikes me as an incongruous thing to do for a recently married man. Wouldn't you expect him to sing some of his happy love songs instead? But hey, what the heck do I know how Bob Dylan might have ticked. All personal feelings aside, loosing someone who's been such a perfect artistic partner from your life, is never a trivial thing. Any artist knows that.
In the summer of 1966, Dylan had his mysterious motorcycle accident – no one knows how seriously he really was injured, but it offered a welcome excuse to get out of touring, and stay home with his young family. He'd done a lot of growing up in that year, and not in a good way: In 1965, he's 24 and looks ten years younger. Photos from the 1966 tour show him thin and wasted, and looking ten years older than he is. The change, in such a short time, is shocking.
After the accident, he holed up at his home in Woodstock for the next several years, and proceeded to systematically demolish his "icon of a generation" image: He deliberately turned out poor records, showed himself in public appearing to be drunk, and generally made a point that he was no fit role model, let alone spokesperson for anyone. "I don't know what everybody else was fantasizing about", he writes, "but I was fantasizing about a nine-to-five existence, a house on a tree-lined block with a white picket fence, pink roses in the backyard. That would have been nice. That was my deepest dream. After a while you learn that privacy is something you can sell, but you can't buy it back".
He writes how he was beleaguered by fans who came on pilgrimages to his home, people who wanted to talk to him about anything from politics and religion, to organic gardening ("What do you know about organic gardening?" an interviewer asked him once. "Nothing," he replies resignedly, "absolutely nothing at all.") They weren't the greatest crowd, either: he says many of them seemed mentally unstable, drifters, freeloaders, not to mention that they seriously compromised his family life. There must have been very real fear behind his concern to protect his privacy, too: J F Kennedy had been shot in 1963, Martin Luther King in 1968, and he himself had been a very public figure in the Civil Rights Movement. John Lennon was going to be shot in 1981 – so the fear was not unjustified.
Meanwhile, Joan Baez continued to campaign against the Vietnam War. Dylan must have heard it on the news when she got arrested for draft resistance in 1967, when she married David Harris, a leader in the draft resistance movement, when he went to prison for refusing the draft. When she went to Hanoi in December 1972 and got stuck there during the Christmas Bombings, putting herself in serious danger. Her marriage didn't survive her husband's prison spell – they were divorced in 1973. Baez writes about this time, that she tried hard to live out her fantasy of being a good housewife and mother, but eventually found that she was suffocating. Her son Gabe was born in 1969. She recorded a double album of only Bob Dylan songs in 1968. He was a musician out of work and living on royalties at the time, with a family to support, so that was a kind thing to do in more than one way.
Dylan most certainly did hear it on the radio when Baez recorded her song "To Bobby" in 1972, trying to coax him out of the woods and join her peace protests. He mentions it in his autobiography, that it got a lot of airplay and "called to him like a public service announcement". If he was resentful, he had some reason: I find this song very manipulative, with its refrain that goes: "Do you hear the voices in the night, Bobby? They're crying for you. See the children in the morning light, Bobby? They're dying." – but it was also a personal outcry saying, I listen to your music and I don't think you're happy, and there is always a place for you if you want to come back.
She would write several more songs which refer to Bob Dylan, openly or obliquely: "Winds of the Old Days" was allegedly written to ward off reporter's questions, when Dylan returned to touring in 1974, after he had made only very sporadic public appearances over the intervening years. Write a song and put it on the radio, then they don't have to ask!
At times, the constant interview questions about "Bobby" must have gotten a bit taxing, especially when she expected the interview to be about her, not him. Time Rag was written in reaction to a not-so-great experience with a well known magazine in 1977, when she was beginning to feel the pressure of flagging record sales, and need for publicity. If anyone had any doubt that this woman is a virtuoso in using the media to get her messages, public and private, across to all and sundry, watch this. Wow. In one fell swoop, she advertises her new album, makes it clear that she is musically up to date and a force to be reckoned with, lets the press know that she expects them to be respectful (which includes being on time) and not ask questions about Bob Dylan, and lets Bobby know that she hasn't blabbed about his private affairs, and won't blab until the sun ceases to go down in the west, and that he better show some gratitude, because she's missed out on a feature in Time Magazine for his sake. That's virtuosity. That is really quite something.
Then there is "Diamonds and Rust". The story goes that Joan Baez wrote this song after Dylan had called her up one day and read her the lyrics to his new song "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts". Whatever it meant to them, it evidently triggered something: "Diamonds and Rust" is a poignant reflection on lost love and memories, and it stands on its own even if one doesn't know it is Bob Dylan she is speaking about. It is one of the more beautiful love songs ever written, and it became Joan Baez' signature song. It later got covered by Heavy Metal band Judas Priest, and became one of their hits. What an endorsement, to see these gaunt grubby tough guy rockers make this very personal, very female piece their own! I love their rendition: they allow the lyrics to sound just a tad angry.
It is a vulnerable thing, to go out and record and publicly perform a song which says, in essence, yes I really loved Bob Dylan. It might easily have exposed her to ridicule, a dumped lover harping on a lost relationship. But to me, what the song says is: "I have a right to my own side of the story, and my own feelings, no matter what you think or feel. And I'm not prepared to consider this as something trivial, or give up on you easily." Seems to me that compared to the drawn out divorce cases and child custody battles that some marriages wind down to – including Dylan's own – there is a lot more dignity in this.
For Baez, this was the beginning of a period when she would concentrate more on her own songwriting, rather than performing primarily traditional or other people's material. Her album "Diamonds & Rust " (1975) contains both the title track, and "Winds of the Old Days", as well as a cover of Dylan's "Simple Twist of Fate" from his 1975 album "Blood on the Tracks– complete with a "Joan Baez sings like Bob Dylan" impression, which, I have to say, she has down pat.
By that time, Dylan's marriage was giving way under the strain of being perpetually on the run from prying reporters and obsessive fans. His going back to touring can't have helped either – not to mention the ex-lover singing him love songs on the radio ... In 1975, Joan Baez joined Dylan on the "Rolling Thunder Revue" – a carnivalesque affair featuring a number of different acts, appearing unannounced in small venues throughout the US. Baez' and Dylan's revived duo performances were one of the key items on the program.
During the tour, Dylan was also shooting material for his movie-masterwork-to-be, "Renaldo and Clara" – a combination of concert footage, behind-scenes documentary, and acted-out scenes, casting Dylan himself, his wife Sara, and Joan Baez in some of the main "parts" – as far as there can be said to have been parts. Apparently there was never a script, either. Mostly, they seem to have dressed up as each other – Joan as Sara, Joan as Bob, Bob as an unknown musician pitching a song to Joan playing Bob, Sara as a prostitute in bed with Bob, and Joan as Sara bursting in on them and creating a scene, Joan, as Bob, singing a song she had written for Sara -- jolly times. Whatever he thought he was doing, to me it sounds suspiciously like a great big (and expensive!) group therapy session dealing with their relationship issues. Apparently, the film is modeled, among other things, on the French classic "Les Enfants du Paradis". O-kaaay. And who might you have had in mind as Garance to your Pierrot, Mr Whiteface? That's a bit unsubtle.
I haven't seen the film – apparently it runs to four hours length and got universally panned, it's not even available on DVD as far as I know. Some excerpts are floating around on Youtube. I think I'll pass on watching the whole thing ... though I would love to get hold of some performance videos from that tour. Sounds like great fun was had by all, despite the weird personal tensions. Maybe because. Joan Baez seems to have derived enormous pleasure from dressing up as Bob, and would throw in "Bob impressions" in her performances even outside the tour. At the final concert of the 1975 tour, they performed a duo as Bob and Bob. She claims that from ten rows back, they were indistinguishable. I believe her. They even have the same nose.
"Diamonds and Rust" was also on the program, Dylan explicitly asked for it. She seems to have pretended to him that she'd written it about her husband ... I doubt that she fooled him. I imagine they would both be quite adept at reading the other's poetic images. After all, they both came out of the same poetic folk tradition, and they were both of them strong lyrical poets. And they shared a bit of a personal history.
Reading their respective song lyrics throughout the years, I can't shake the feeling that there is some sort of oblique conversation going on between them – no better place to have a perfectly private talk, than via public radio and tv broadcasts, eh!
Baez' lyrics are relatively easy to read in this way – they are generally autobiographical, and deal with specific people or situations. She gives abundant clues in her autobiography to the events and people that triggered some of her songs. O Brother is a rather peeved-off reply to Dylan's O Sister: "And would you kindly tell me, mister, how in the name of the Father and the Son did I come to be your sister? … So, little brother, when you come to knock on my door, I don't want to bring you down, but I just went through the floor. My love for you extends through life, and I don't want to waste it. But honey, what you've been dishing out, you'd never want to taste it".
Then there is the disillusioned Time is passing us by, written sometime during the 1976 Rolling Thunder tour. In her autobiography, she calls it "a dumb song about Bob". It has the lines "We haven't got too much in common, except that we're so much alike." She calls Dylan her "street twin, mystic brother, bound together by times and circumstances". He would write, in his autobiography in 2004, that "to think that she was probably more like me than me would have seemed a little excessive". Ok he's Dylan. You never know precisely what he means, but the thought is there.
Dylan's lyrics are far more difficult to pin down in this fashion (perhaps mainly because he hasn't written up a guide!): "You who are so good with words, and at keeping things vague", Baez writes in "Diamonds and Rust". Perhaps none of his songs were ever "about" anyone in particular (with the possible exception of "Sara") – Perhaps he never quite kept the different women in his life entirely apart in his mind. But she must have felt, on occasion, that he was thinking of her when he wrote that. For instance: "I see a lot of people as I make the rounds, and I hear her name here and there as I go from town to town, and I’ve never gotten used to it, I’ve just learned to turn it off "? That's a line from "If You See Her, Say Hello", on "Blood on the Tracks", the album which is generally agreed to be inspired by the breakup of Dylan's marriage. Sara is not the first person in Dylan's life who comes to my mind when I read those lines, though.
More often, it is a question of bouncing images, key words or bits of lines to and fro. One of my favourite Dylan songs (so far) is "Ring them Bells" from the 1989 album "Oh Mercy". It is a deceptively simple song, modeled on a well known spiritual, "Ring them Bells, St Peter", and it brings to mind Dylan's 1964 song "Chimes of Freedom". Joan Baez has recorded it and made it the title track of her 1995 live album – one of my favourite performances of her's, in duo with Irish singer Mary Black. I was so impressed by this song that I went and found a chord chart on the internet and started to learn it.
The musical climax is on the lines: "Ring them bells for the time that flies, for the child that cries, when her innocence dies". That's cool I thought, sort of a delayed rhyme, the way it's built up you'd expect "Ring them bells for the child that dies"... then I thought wait a minute, these rhymes ring a bell (for lack of a better expression ...) – where have I heard this recently? Ah. "To Bobby". Remember? "Do you hear the voices in the night, Bobby? They're crying for you. See the children in the morning light, Bobby? They're dying." – I had to smile at that: bit of one-upmanship there, turning her verses around, saying: "look I can use those rhymes and do it much more interestingly".
Far fetched? An accident? From a wordsmith of that caliber? I doubt it. Subconscious, perhaps, at least initially – but that's not the same as accidental. After all, this particular song had apparently eaten at him enough to merit a mention in his autobiography, another 10 odd years later.
The final verse is addressed to St Catherine, and the song finishes on the line "they're breaking down the distance between right and wrong". In his "Chronicles", Dylan mentions that this line troubled him, and that it was about the difference between something being legally right, and morally right. Civil disobedience then? – Yes, and I did look up St Catherine, too – turns out she was one of the saints who appeared to Joan of Arc, and inspired her to save France. And sweet Martha? She of the active life? Ah Mr Whiteface, NOW we're talking subtle. So maybe that's more subtle than Dylan himself was aware of or intended, but what the heck. Let the academics have some fun, too! :D
Would she have picked up on it? Well – she did choose to record the song, even name an album after it, didn't she. What would she have thought? I have no idea, of course – but I know what I would have thought: I would have thought someone is wanting to bury an old grudge.
Dylan and Baez would work together again in the early 1980's – he appeared at a Peace concert organized by her in 1982, and she joined his European tour with Carlos Santana in 1984. This last event must have seemed like a replay of the disastrous 1965 tour. Dylan refused to rehearse or perform duets with her, and she was eventually reduced to opening act, despite the fact that the whole thing was touted as a "Dylan/Baez reunion tour". She left the tour prematurely and bought herself out of her contract, rather than continue what she felt to be a thoroughly demoralizing experience.
Both Baez and Dylan were struggling throughout the 1980's. They had been around long enough to be something of a living legend, already then, but music styles had moved on and they were beginning to be relegated to music history, rather than being seen as fresh and up to date performers. Baez was also struggling to find a direction for her political engagement, after the burning issues of the 1960's and 1970's had been more or less resolved, and a certain political complacency settled in in the US in the 1980's.
She must have started working on her autobiography, "And A Voice to Sing With ", not too long after her last disastrous tour with Dylan – perhaps she thought it would be therapeutic! The book was published in 1987. It is extremely well and vividly written, in turns lyrical and very funny, a work of art in its own right. She writes about her "turbulent, and very public" relationship with Dylan at some length. Of course she knew that her readership would expect to read about it, but it also comes across that she still retains passionate and contradictory feelings for this man, and genuinely considers him to be the Significant Relationship in her life, more so it seems, than her ex-husband. Mostly, she seems to be asking herself why on Earth does she care!
Much of what she has to say about Dylan is not very flattering – especially their then last encounter in 1984. Some people have called it "vitriol", but I don't read any vitriol there, just an honest account of what it has been like to live and work with this person, who has been idolized beyond reason, not through his own doing, in fact against his own will. She is also pretty hard on herself, especially when she speaks of their time together in the 1960's, and she makes it clear that anything that happened or didn't happen, is as much her responsibility, as his. If there is anger, she is also quick to put the blame where it belongs, on circumstances more than any particular personal decisions. Underlying it all, I sense a great deal of concern – seems to me, she would very much like to see him happy, and instead she has had to watch him trundle down a self-destructive path ever since that 1965 tour.
In some sense, the whole book reads like an open letter – to Dylan, and various other significant people in her life. Perhaps she felt he needed a wake-up call, and this was the only way she could still hope to reach him. Perhaps it even worked. In any case, this woman is far too astute a public person and politician, to publish a book containing unflattering details about her relationship with a public idol of that size, simply in order to satisfy her own peeves and wash some dirty laundry. Also, I imagine she or her publishers would have been cautious enough to run the relevant passages past Dylan's lawyers, so I assume that anything that went in the book, was at least with his knowledge. She doesn't accuse him of anything, except perhaps ambition and a degree of selfishness, and lack of self-control, but then she concedes that she is no different in most of these respects. If she puts any blame on anyone, it would be the music industry and the social dynamics of fame and money, which can take a socially disruptive raw talent like Dylan's and smother him in his own success.
The way she saw him on that tour in 1984, must have broken her heart. She might have thought of Janis Joplin, she might have thought of Jimi Hendrix, she might have thought of Brian Jones. She might have thought of a plethora of others, and she might have worried.
By the 1980's Dylan was in a tailspin – in his own autobiography, he devotes a chapter to the period in the late 1980's when he wrote and recorded "Oh Mercy", and he makes no particular attempt to disguise the fact that he was crawling out of a deep depression. He had been busy deliberately demolishing his own image ever since he retired to Woodstock in the mid-sixties, and by that time, he had pretty much succeeded. He'd been turning out poor albums, played uninspired shows, and couldn't find the inspiration or the drive to write any new material. "There was a missing person inside of myself, and I needed to find him", is what he writes. He'd "gone to Jesus", become a born-again Christian, in 1979, but by that time, had apparently decided that this wasn't the answer, either. In a way, he had reached a point where he could, and needed, to start all over again from scratch. "O Mercy" turned out to be a success, and it is a beautiful album – it is also profoundly sad. But it doesn't have any of the anger one finds on so many of his earlier albums, and it has its glimpses of light, too – "Ring them Bells", the song I mentioned earlier, is on this album.
It's like he had put something behind himself and was now ready to move on – and that's just what he did. In 1988, he started what has been referred to as the "Neverending Tour" – playing about 100 or so concerts each year, all over the world. He's still doing it – he played Auckland earlier this year. He can now be the hard working song and dance man he always wanted to be. The three albums he wrote and recorded between 1997 and 2006 have all been lauded by the critics (I haven't gotten round to listening to them yet, so I can't comment) – and he finally got to make his movie: "Masked and Anonymous". According to the blurb on the DVD (I haven't watched it yet but plan to as a reward, if I ever finish this newsletter) the action is set in a fictional future America, torn by civil war. "From amidst the turmoil comes an idea to bring peace: a concert featuring one time legend and rebel musician, now prisoner, Jack Fate" (played, you guessed it, by Dylan). – What Joan Baez might have thought of the movie, is not on record. :D – He also recorded an album of Christmas songs in 2009, the proceeds of which are to benefit charities which feed hungry children.
Joan Baez has been equally productive during the last two decades, and has recorded a good number of albums. She has collaborated regularly with Steve Earle, and made a point of including younger upcoming songwriters in her repertory, like Dar Williams or Sinead Lohan. She continues to perform Dylan's songs, though she seems to mostly stick to his older repertory, and the songs which have been long associated with her. She has added a verse of her own to "Love is just a Four-letter Word", a song she says she stole from Dylan as soon as he finished it, back in 1965 (he has never recorded or performed it). And she still performs "Diamonds and Rust". "Ten years ago I bought you some cufflinks", the original lyrics went – she has now updated this to "40 years ago" ("get this", she interjects). Since she shows no sign of wanting to retire, I expect she'll yet bring it up to "50 years ago". At least. That will be something.
Throughout this time, she has been very actively involved with various political organizations and causes. She was instrumental in setting up the American branch of Amnesty International, and founded her own human rights organization Humanitas in 1979. In 1989, she gave concerts in Czechoslovakia, and has been credited by Vaclav Havel as a great influence in the subsequent non-violent overthrow of he communist regime in that country (which in turn triggered the events in Germany in the second half of 1989 – thanks Joan). She has continued to be involved in causes ranging from gay/lesbian rights to environmental issues. In 2008, she decided to set aside her mistrust of party politics, and officially backed Barack Obama's election campaign.
Both she and Dylan were invited to perform at a White House gala celebrating the "Music of the Civil Rights movement" in 2010. Despite a flurry of excitement in the press about a "Dylan/Baez reunion", they performed separate sets – which was just as well. She now does not have to make a particular effort to achieve that raspy Dylan sound, and he hasn't got much of a voice left at all. They have both sung themselves hoarse over the last 50 years to help bring this about, and I hope it is gratifying to them to see that yes, the times do change.
Still, their performances were poignant, Dylan's definitely a highlight of the program, with a melancholy slow waltz rendition of "The Times, they are A-Changing". She did a sing-along performance of "We Shall Overcome", and while it may not have been the musical highlight of her career, she did get all the congressmen and the President of the United States to sing along, and only Joan Baez can do that. I'd trade 50 of the glitzy polished youngster musicians who carried most of the rest of the program, for one Joan Baez at age 70, and even if her guitar is out of tune. Among every other thing that between them, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan have done, they are now teaching us an object lesson about ageing fearlessly, and oh so gracefully.
Dylan published his own memoirs, "Chronicles: Volume One" in 2004. If Baez' prose writing is light, witty and lyrical, his is more like a dark molasses rich and slow blues. As you would expect, the writing has a musical quality in its own right, and it abounds in strongly drawn images of telling detail. He hardly ever goes into abstract philosophizing mode: his writing is all about everyday observations which somehow add up to a point he is trying to make.
He focuses mainly on his intellectual explorations, his musical influences, and his creative process, and on the people who have helped him along with it. As far as his personal life goes, he does talk just a little about his childhood, family, friends, and his relationship with Suze Rotolo, his first steady girlfriend in New York, a graphic artist who introduced him to the paintings of Paul Gauguin and other modern artists, and to the works of Bert Brecht – she's been forever publicly associated with him because she appears on the cover of his second album, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan". He mentions his "wife", not by name, in the two chapters that cover the early 1970's and late 1980's. If you hadn't looked him up on Wikipedia, you wouldn't know that they are two different people – he married a second time in the 1980's, a background singer from his touring band, which may have been largely a marriage of convenience, but he does find warm words of gratitude for her being there while he was struggling through yet another difficult period in his life.
Joan Baez only figures very briefly, toward the end of the book – when you'd almost given up on the thought that he'd mention her at all. He devotes a total of 2 1/2 pages to her, but they are such 2 1/2 pages. He talks of her mainly in terms of a fellow professional, but she clearly straddles that line between the professional and the private which he is so keen to keep. If you had any doubt that she affected him just a deeply as he did her, that condensed prose poem there ought to convince you otherwise.
He speaks of her much along the same lines in the Scorsese documentary, "No Direction Home" – says he'd seen her on tv and heard and admired her first record, before he even came to New York, and that even though on the one hand she seemed unattainable, like a religious icon, in some odd sense he had her in the back of his mind, was convinced that they would eventually meet up. If that is accurate memory, or a mythologization after the fact, does it really matter? He certainly does not sound as if he objects to having his name forever connected with hers whenever people talk about the 1960's.
They have both made themselves available to be interviewed for each other's biographical documentaries. I have not been able to get hold of the Joan Baez documentary, "How Sweet The Sound" (it seems to be only available as region 1 DVD, bummer), but she has contributed quite extensive interview sections on "No Direction Home". She lights up when she talks about Dylan, cracks up into laughter a few times at their past follies, appears to enjoy talking about their work and times together. If she held any grudges, she seems to be well past that now, and admits that some of the things which used to vex her about him – for instance, his reluctance to rehearse, and spontaneity in changing things around in performance all the time – are actually quite admirable, if a pain in the behind.
Dylan himself speaks with careful deliberation, as if he wants to make sure that every word is exactly the right one. Compared to his earlier reluctance to be interviewed, he opens up quite a bit in the Scorsese interview, smiles, once bursts out laughing mid-sentence in exactly the same way that Joan Baez sometimes does. You can't help thinking that they would make a perfect old married couple. I guess in a sense, they are, if they like it or not. Whatever you might call their relationship, it has certainly outlasted all of their respective marriages, by many years. What, after all, is a marriage vow, compared to being Fellow Living Legend?
Well, it looks like I got bit carried away there ... but what a fascinating story about two fascinating people. I was doubtful, at first, if I should write and publish this at all – there has been so much prying into the personal lives of these two people, and what right do I have, sitting here behind my computer in New Zealand making up a story about real living human beings, from books I have read, and movies I have seen, and things I have inferred from their writing and their performances.
The reason I decided to write this anyhow, is because it has given me so much to think about. I am not claiming anything than that it is my version of their story, filtered through my own preconceptions and experiences, and I may have gotten it utterly wrong. Perhaps the best approach would have been what they do in "I'm Not There", split them up into different characters and call them different names, and make it clear that this is a fictional account, though hopefully expressing something about their reality – or someone's reality, at least.
I have grappled with a number of the issues that come up in Joan Baez' autobiography – like her, I have also put whatever artistic career I have over my personal relationships, and I also find that I need to live in a house by myself. I wonder if it has to be that way. I have grappled with the intricacies of maintaining a personal relationship with people whom I also admire as an artist and creative partner – how much of it is love for the person, how much of it is admiration for their art, and is there ever a clear line to be drawn?
I have also experienced some of the ways in which someone's fame and public profile can make it impossible to relate to them in any normal, healthy way. I did not think there was a road map available for these kind of things. They seem a new and recent phenomenon, to do with the changes which are taking place in our society since the second half of the last century – pretty much, the span of Dylan's and Baez' creative careers. They stand right at the beginning of it, and they had to go this road and figure it out themselves, and I am so grateful that they have been talking about their experiences, and putting up some signposts for others to follow.
Somehow, I find it hard not to wish that their story will yet have a "happy end". That they'll put their differences behind them, don their Bob Dylan and Joan Baez masks so nobody will know it is them, and get secretly married in Las Vegas. Or at least that they will occasionally sit down for a quiet glass of wine and reminisce about the old times – I picture them like Tenar and Ged from Ursula Le Guin's "Earthsea" books, who, their battles fought, finally have time to be with each other. For all we know, they might be doing just that. For all we know, they might have no inclination whatsoever to do anything like that. But I'm sure they are well aware that in the public consciousness, they have become something like folksong characters themselves (I would hope it amuses them!), and it's easy to fall into the trap of the expected narrative structure and wait for the Ballad of Bobby and Joanie to end with the ringing of bells – seeing that they have so far successfully avoided dying of love!
Perhaps the thing is, that they have already had the best relationship they could possibly have had, as the two people they are, and under the circumstances. The least that can be said, is that they have retained a lifelong loyalty to each other – and despite their different views on how to go about it, in the end they have both been pulling the same sled in the same direction, and hard. Their biographies will forever be standing on the same library bookshelves, separated only by the Bs, Cs and Ds.
Speaking of narrative traps: Both Dylan and Baez have talked about how they used to entertain dreams of happy family life, living in a house with a white picket fence and roses in the backyard, playing perfect husband/father or perfect wife/mother, and having lots of babies. It hasn't really worked out for either of them. Baez says she felt "stifled" after only a year or so of marriage. Dylan has hung in there for longer, and was heartbroken when it all came apart. They may have been happy years for him, but – just like a woman, I am tempted to say – he bought them at the price of stifling his creativity. And "no singer is silent by choice".
Judging from some of the songs he wrote around the time he was living with Joan Baez at her house in California, relationship dynamics must have been on his mind. He has been called a "misogynist" by some, but I don't read that into his lyrics at all – at least if songs like "It Ain' t me, Babe", "All I really want to do", or "To Ramona" are in any way indicative of his attitude. Quite the contrary, really!
To me, the most incongruent part of the story has always been why Dylan would run off and fall in love with another woman, when it seems he and Joan Baez had such a deep connection, and he wound up apparently really suffering from losing her. Believe me, there is a whole lot of personal frustration pent up behind this question. Why do guys do these kind of things? Was it just easier? Safer? Was it the "unattainable" thing? Fear factor? Did he think she was going to drop him somewhere along the line anyway? Did she mother him too much? Or was it really just their professional competition and/or political differences getting in the way? Did he not realise just how badly he would hurt her feelings? Or his own feelings, for that matter? Was it something to do with male role expectations, peer pressures perhaps? Was it just being young and stupid? Or was he stupid? O well, I'll never figure that one out. Maybe he tried to figure that one out, too, and that's why he wrote all those songs.
Perhaps on some level he did know that if he wanted to have a conventional relationship with Joan Baez, one of them would gobble the other up. He clearly didn't want to be gobbled, but perhaps he simply respected her too much to want to gobble her, either. As to Joan Baez, she remembers that at one stage there had been talk of marriage, and she was the one who said no – she knew full well that it would have restricted her. She might have been keen to try something a little less committed, but would it have worked?
John and Yoko tried it. It may have worked for them on a personal level, but let me put it this way: If you think of Yoko Ono, do you think "Ah, the famous composer and avant-garde artist", or do you think, "Ah, John Lennon's wife"? – And Joan Baez? Do you think "Ah, the famous singer, songwriter and peace activist", or do you think, "Ah, Bob Dylan's lover?" – See.
That's a different kind of narrative.
"Half of the people can be part right all of the time
Some of the people can be all right part of the time
But all of the people can’t be all right all of the time"
Mae West said that. Or somebody.
"I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours"
Bob Dylan said that.
* Disclaimer: I don't do drugs, and I wasn't very drunk when I wrote this. :P
Songs without Sound
The music in my mind has been silent for the last several years. When I was a child, I cannot remember a time when I was not listening to something playing in my head, a catchy tune that stuck (it sometimes got a bit obnoxious, when it was a tune I didn't particularly like), or perhaps, I suspect, some of the songs and melodies I might have given shape to if I had had the tools. I don't think I was able to formulate that urge even to myself until fairly recently, so strong has been the bias against people – and especially girl people – writing their own music, rather than painstakingly performing that of old men 300 years dead, in the culture I grew up in.
I used to play pieces on my desk lamp (one of those old-fashioned jobs with big metal springs and hollow pieces of metal, you could do great sci-fi movie soundtracks on these things), for lack of another outlet! I had a recorder, and sometimes would pipe my own stuff on that, but I always seemed to run out of notes at the bottom end far too quick, so that was frustrating.
When I came to New Zealand, and eventually decided to give up performing and concentrate on my painting and photography instead, I thought I was ok with it. I haven't even been listening to music any more, those last few years. Too much pain, I guess. Unadmitted pain, which is always the worst kind.
Instead, was starting to get rather scarily hypersensitive to any sort of noise. Well, that's gone now, too. I got something else to listen to: For the past few weeks, there has been a wild mercury mouth organ playing in my head, and something will need to be done about it all. I am not entirely sure what.
I have moved my Casio keyboard into the lounge, next to the wood burner, and have already spent a few evenings making up some sounds and recording them in Garageband. The other night I had to weep at just how easy I find that.
I also got drunk the other night and sang my own rendition of "Ring them Bells" and recorded it, after obsessively listening to Joan Baez's version on Youtube and learning it by ear. It's not Joan Baez, but it's not so bad either. Suits my voice. And hey, if Dylan can sing in public …
I've had bits and pieces of verse running through my head, and have started writing them down in a little notebook I have lying about. They just came. Brought on by that Dylan thing, I suppose. He talks about "finding a song on the garden pathway of the sun", and that makes perfect sense to me – I guess that's where I find mine, if and when I find then.
I don't know what it all means, or what I am going to do with it. But I have learned, over the years, that when something hits you in that fashion, you better drop everything and pay attention, for you will ignore it at your peril. I've always thought I might make another album one day, preferably one with my own material. Perhaps, unbeknownst to myself, I have just started working on it.
In other news, in the last few weeks I have been contacted about licensing one of my harp music tracks for a sampler CD to appear in Germany, had yet another email from someone who bought and absolutely loved my Travels in Middle-earth CD (and wanted to know if there is sheet music available), and I have been hired to play harp at a private party in February. I have been trying to avoid these sort of things in the last few years, but this time, I am actually sort of looking forward to it. Besides, my Spanish harp is bound to arrive in the next couple of weeks, let's hope in one piece. Might play some of those Bob Dylan and Joan Baez songs ... sometimes it is hard to believe that the universe does *not* work in weird and mysterious ways.
The Middle Earth New Zealand calendar sales have been going quite well so far, especially considering how little effort I have made. I have already nearly covered the production costs: two more calendars sold, and that will be it! They continue to be available from my online shop, and I will start listing them on Ebay next month (at the same price – so you're better off ordering them through my site, really! )
And I have some new artwork to present! I have been working on a few new oil paintings simultaneously over the first half of the year, but Song in Green Sharp Major is the first one I have finished since I had the Fantastic Journeys exhibition last year.
It's a bit of a new thing for me, verging away from very literal illustrations, into something more abstract-y and surreal – and as the title implies, it has something to do with music. Mostly, I've been interested in creating some rich textures and colours, and a rhythm that would flow backward and forward through the piece. Part of the picture appeared to me in a dream a while ago (which does not happen very often, and I think when it does, it's a moral obligation to get off one's butt and paint it) – and it connected with a place, and a sketch I had done on my trip to Switzerland a couple of year's ago. There is also a quote from Paul Klee, see if you can spot it! :D
It's the first time I have worked with gold leaf: I have always been fascinated by medieval paintings with gold background, there just isn't anything else that brings the colours out so vividly. Recently, I've come across the work of Jackie Morris, an illustrator from Wales who works in a beautiful, medieval-inspired style, and uses gold background quite a lot – and since she is a friend of a friend, or rather two friends, of mine, I have her on my Facebook account and could pester her for a few technical hints direct from the horse's, err, professional's mouth. Ain' t that handy! :D
The other piece of work I have done is a riff on Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and some of their songs. It started from a fairly literal pencil sketch I did of that one scene in the documentary "Don't look back", which I have mentioned in my looooong article above.
I played around with the composition a bit, then inked it in Photoshop, and put in some colours and textures. The first idea was to refer to Joan Baez' song Diamonds and Rust, which talks about her memories of her time with Bob Dylan. Consequently I found some stock photos of rust and diamonds... which resulted in the textures and colour scheme of the first image.
Then I thought I should do another version, the same memory from Dylan's point of view, and yes there is a song to go with it, Visions of Johanna: change the key to blue, and make it much more tormented.
Given that playing cards (and gypsy fortune tellers) are a recurring theme in Dylan's songs, I thought it would be neat to try if I could fashion this into a playing card type image. It worked very nicely, I thought, very yin and yang. The song "Diamonds and Rust" was (or so the story goes) inspired by Dylan's calling up Joan Baez one day and reading her the lyrics for "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts". Jack of Hearts seemed quite appropriate for Dylan, and she is always the Queen – of folksong, of hearts, or of Diamonds, so there you go. Depending on which way you turn the image, it's called "Queen of Diamonds and Rust over Visions of Johanna", or "Jack of Hearts with Visions of Johanna over Diamonds and Rust" -- or something --- I think. Can never be too sure what something is called, eh.
Arohanui, from Asni