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Joan Baez Raising Her Voice Again

June 14, 1987|DENNIS HUNT

WOODSIDE, Calif. — Singer Joan Baez's house in this affluent, woodsy community just south of San Francisco is right next to a road. But it's still easy to miss. The house--made of wood, of course--is obscured by a forest of trees and assorted greenery.

It's the kind of unpretentious house you'd expect Baez, who's never been trendy or flashy, to own. The kitchen is like something in a Norman Rockwell painting--warm and rustic. To complete the cozy picture, her mother was making lemonade and a dog slept on the floor.

One got the distinct feeling that not too many people--media people in particular--had been to this house.

"I've been very private, especially in the last few years," Baez noted. "But that's changing."

The reasons for the change are her autobiography, "And a Voice to Sing With" (Summit: $19.95), which is out this week, and the release of her first studio album in eight years, "Recently," on Gold Castle Records next week. Both should put her back in the limelight and stop those whatever-happened-to-Joan-Baez questions. In addition to touring this summer, she'll do extensive media promotion for the book.

Baez, 46, has aged well. But sitting at her kitchen table, she joked, "Gravity is taking over and things are starting to droop." There's one unmistakable sign of age. Her hair, once coal-black, is streaked with gray. That hippie-style long hair is also long gone.

"I'm not a kid anymore," she said, laughing. "Aside from physical things, I'm the way I used to be, but maybe a little toned down. Age does that to you."

Baez, who surfaced at the 1958 Newport Folk Festival, became very popular in the early '60s, her Time magazine cover in 1962 affirming her superstardom. Simplicity has always been one of her trademarks. In those days, she would come out on stage, barefoot and in a peasant dress, armed with only an acoustic guitar, and charm huge crowds with her folk ballads sung in that famed soprano.

Though she became a major recording and concert star in that decade, she was equally well known for her political activism. One of her means of protesting the Vietnam War was paying only part of her income tax.

"I started paying (back) the IRS," she said. "I'm not terribly happy about that."

Baez hasn't been a major figure in music since the '70s. Her record sales, huge in the '60s, tapered off in the '70s. In this decade, she didn't even have a record contract until recently.

"The '80s haven't been great for my career," she said. "Things should change this year. It's about time."

Baez started writing the book three years ago, when the lull in her recording career was unsettling her: "I wasn't doing albums. I had to do something . There was this creative volcano inside me, building up. I needed an outlet. I had always wanted to write prose."

Baez's life after she became famous in the early '60s is the focus of the book, including extensive coverage of her political activism. But many will buy it looking for juicy gossip, particularly about her marriage to activist David Harris, her affair with Bob Dylan and her lesbian relationship, which she first publicly acknowledged in a 1972 interview in a Berkeley newspaper.

The activism chapters are interesting and enlightening, but it's the gossip that will sell the book. But this isn't a down-and-dirty, tell-all book. The details of her personal life are presented tastefully.

"There's no smut in the book," Baez said. "This doesn't mean there was no smut in my life. If I wanted to do a smutty book, I could do one. There's enough information to do that, but I chose not to."

Baez discusses her early romance with Dylan as well as their stormy relationship during the Rolling Thunder tour of the '70s. The surprise is that Dylan often comes across as selfish, arrogant and insensitive.

What will Dylan think of this negative portrayal? "I don't really care," Baez replied. "He may even get a laugh out of it." Then she added: "I say many positive things about him, too. I'm not out to get him. If I wanted to bury him, I could have. If you think what's printed is bad, you should see what was left out."

Surprisingly, Baez devotes quite a bit of space to her lesbian relationship, at the age of 22, with a young lady named Kim. "There would have been a big hunk missing if I hadn't put that in," she said. "Besides, since I revealed it years ago, many people have come up to me and told me that coming out in the open with it inspired them to take a step in their lives that they might not have taken otherwise."

Since her marriage to David Harris ended in 1974, Baez has been mainly alone, devoting much of her time to raising their 17-year-old son Gabe. Rumors of her lesbianism still surface occasionally. In the book, she lays those rumors to rest.

Baez emphasized that she is not a folk singer any more: "People who think they know a lot about me don't know much at all. They still call me a folk singer. I haven't been a folk singer for 15 years."

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