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05 October 2009 @ 09:11 pm
Diamonds & Rust  
This week's column is dedicated to my mum, who first played me the Joan Baez song 'Diamonds & Rust'.  Happy birthday mum, sorry I still haven't found out exactly what that title means.

“Well, I'll be damned,
here comes your ghost again,
but that's not unusual
it's just that the moon is full
and you happened to call.”

– 'Diamonds & Rust', Joan Baez

1960, Joan Baez releases her first album, to immediate critical acclaim. Praise is piled most heavily on her beautiful soprano voice, apparently untrained.

1968, Joan marries David Harris, leader in the national movement to oppose the draft. He serves two years in prison for refusing to respond to his draft summons. Baez was jailed twice the previous year. They divorce in 1973.

1972, Joan is in Hanoi, delivering Christmas presents to American POWs when the US Military targets the city with the most intense bombing of the war. Joan recounts the events in the title track of her next album, Where Are You Now, My Son?

It's four in the afternoon on a Sunday, in the late summer, the air warm, but the breeze cool as we drive with the windows down. Somewhere about ten minutes back up the interstate we crossed the Mason-Dixon line, over the border in West Virginia, with 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' playing loud on the radio.

The Joan Baez version.

And some days it must seem like all the South will ever be is slavery and bigotry and close mindedness, because we live in a world of pre-packaged political identities, where complexity and contradiction are just fancy words for liberals. But that's not why we're here. We haven't crossed the Mason-Dixon line to talk about the old South, or politics, or God. We're here because West Virginia is beautiful in the late summer, and four in the afternoon on a Sunday is a lovely time for a drive.

After all, isn't that the point?

1963, at the Newport Festival, Joan Baez, the queen of protest, unleashes her new lover, Bob Dylan, upon the folk scene. He is almost instantly heralded as the standard bearer of a generation of change.

1964, Dylan appears a Newport a second time. Instead of protest songs, he performs personal missives of the type that would define so much of his later catalogue. The folk purists are less than impressed.

1965, at Newport for one last time, Dylan walks out on the folk scene, and then the folk scene walks out on him.

As the night air blows across our faces, we must take the time to consider that few people have lived as utterly without compromise as Joan Baez. She embodied every passion, every insurrectionist spark of the sixties. She lived out the power of protest, lived out her ideals, saw herself and her loved ones imprisoned for what she believed in. She reached out to others, and taught them to do the same.

“I have always considered politics just part of the illusion. I don't get involved much in politics.”

– Bob Dylan, Playboy interview, 1966

1975, Baez goes on stage with Dylan for the Rolling Thunder Revue, one of the most amazing, ridiculous, and brilliant tours ever devised. The chemistry between the two on stage is incredible. There is an obvious physical and emotional closeness between them, that only fuels desperate rumours that the couple might get back together again.

Backstage, Dylan tells Joan, he wants to hear her play “that song about robin's eggs and diamonds.”
She takes him by the chin, and looks him in the eyes; “You mean 'Diamonds & Rust? The song I wrote for my husband, David. I wrote it while was in prison.”
“For your husband?” Bob says.
“Yeah, who did you think it was about?”
“Oh, hey, what the fuck do I know?” Bob mutters.
It's a lie, of course. “I have to keep him spinning,” she says, to an interviewer, “in order to keep my balance... Those duets are a hazard.”

Such is the danger of the confessional, and the personal. To be honest and approachable is not always easy.

Up on stage, Dylan sings 'Sara', a song dedicated to his wife.

“What would have happened if we'd married?” Joan asks him, backstage.
“I married the woman that I'm in love with.” Dylan replies.

1966, Dylan opens his tour with a live set, before bringing The Band onstage, that frequently includes 'Visions of Johanna', a song about trying to forget an old lover, and in his croaky voice 'h' in 'Johanna' slips so easily.

“Louise, she's all right, she's just near.
She's delicate and seems like the mirror,
but she just makes it all too concise and too clear,
that Johanna's not here.”

But then, the song could just as easily be about Johanna Gezina van Gogh, sister in law of Vincent Van Gogh, who almost single-handedly crafted Vincent's post-humous rise to fame. It could be. Maybe it means whatever you want it to, if you like to think that art works that way.

1975, Joan Baez releases Diamonds & Rust. The title track is a song to Bob Dylan, in which she conjures up his ghost in the form of a phone call, from some place on the road, in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps he's riding in the car with us now, on our strange journey.

'Diamonds & Rust' remains one of Baez's most popular songs, and one of the most talked about. It's been covered by Judas Priest, giants of heavy metal, and their version has in turn been covered by their imitators, probably without ever knowing it's provenance. Just as so many of their fans will never know that “Judas Priest” is a reference to a Bob Dylan song. Music has strange roots, and takes you to strange places. Heavy metal grows out of folk, and blues, and these things grow out of roots so old and deep that we would have to work very hard to trace them. There's Muddy Waters in your Red Hot Chili Peppers, and you should never forget it.

luvlymishluvlymish on October 6th, 2009 05:16 pm (UTC)
I love Baez. This post was fantastic.
Peter Bruntonpetemonster on October 7th, 2009 01:54 am (UTC)
Thankyou. Honestly, I don't listen to nearly enough of her music. Doing the research on this, I was reminded of what an incredibly powerful song Diamonds & Rust really is, and just what an amazing voice Baez has.
(Anonymous) on October 11th, 2009 06:38 pm (UTC)
Your Mum
Thanks for that.
Tim tried Wikipedia and found this: Time turns dirty coal into Diamonds and shiny metal into Rust. That satisfys my curiosity.