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AND A VOICE TO SING WITH: : A Memoir by Joan Baez (Summit: $19.95; 365 pp., illustrated)

June 21, 1987|Todd Gitlin | Gitlin is the editor of "Watching Television" (Pantheon) and the author of "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage," to be published this fall (Bantam)

A celebrity memoir has a difficult task. It comes equipped, or saddled, with a mystique it has to exploit and fight at the same time. Rare are the celebrities poised and accomplished enough as writers to produce a memoir that goes deeper than the ready-made images. It is not writing talent that has brought them celebrity, after all. The usual recourse is the peekaboo book that Promises All and Tells Some, letting prurience perform the work of imagination.

Joan Baez's memoir is not, alas, one of the rare works of literature to have stumbled out of the genre. But neither has it been simply tossed off in gushing Hollywoodese. "And a Voice to Sing With" is not especially well written, but it is not painful either. It is written in a human voice, and if the voice is a gushing and unmodulated one, at least it does not sound manufactured, "as told to." The memoir is honest enough to show its author in less-than-flattering moments; it is also marked by self-infatuation, the occupational hazard of stars. At its best, it is guileless, conveying something of what it must feel like to be Joan Baez. But it does not impart much insight into the difficulties of being a nonviolent activist and a star at the same time.

Baez tells tales that are revealing (Martin Luther King at unguarded moments), deflating (Bob Dylan's romantic games) and charming (how she picked up a gorgeous German boy at an airport). She satisfies (and whets) curiosity about her beginnings, romances, neuroses.

She reaches her vivid best when she writes about her visit to Hanoi during Christmas, 1972, when she found herself under the ferocious bombardment thatPresident Nixon had decided upon as an exercise in diplomacy. She starts off self-dramatizing, but her narrative takes on force as she sinks into details, glossing over neither her own fear nor the absurdity of her situation. On Christmas Eve, she carols for a hotel full of foreigners until the sirens sound; as she is being rushed off to the shelter, she tells another American: "Those bastards. If there's one thing I can't stand, it's being interrupted in the middle of a performance." But she knows that it is Vietnamese who bear the brunt of the bombing.

But Baez slides too easily from life-and-death gravity to triviality. A discussion of her work for Amnesty International is followed by an overblown account of how Bob Dylan and Bill Graham snubbed her on a European tour, this last redeemed, if barely, by some marvelously bitchy dialogue. Much of the book scoots from place to place, from topic to topic, like the singer on one of her whirlwind tours. Baez tantalizes with fragments on CIA sabotage of her Japanese concerts, on postwar Vietnamese brutality, on boat people. Then, breathlessly, she flits off to her troubles setting up a Paris concert. She shows some artistry on occasions when she writes sparely, but her stories frequently run to excess. She overwrites: "It was not till Tunisia that I understood the magic and sorrow of the Middle East. . . . "

The life of a star is the life of a star; there is no use pretending Baez is just plain folks. Some of her more valuable observations, in fact, concern the way in which a star's life is both enlarged and constricted. Stardom makes possible extraordinary experience, then cramps it. For example, Baez saw a North Vietnamese hospital in ruins: "I saw a dead woman laid out by the roadside. There were corpses around her, carefully covered with mats. She had not yet been covered up. She was old. I wanted to go and lie next to her and put my arms around her and kiss her. I would have done it if there had been no people around, but I was afraid that I would offend someone or that the press would take a picture and I would be accused of being theatrical."

Yet to live in public is her compulsion. She confesses that, to her husband's chagrin, she blurted out that she was pregnant in front of a concert audience. Yet, courting adoration, she can still be snide, in passing, about worshipers. Before the Live Aid concert, she sneers at some overnighters whose "bodies . . . look like rejects from the fountain of Lourdes." Occasionally she drops hints of a curious, problematic idea of what performance is about. The crowd can never be grateful enough. "Perhaps people don't thank old lions enough"--she is writing of Marlon Brando--"for having given away their entire youth to a million eyes they will never see." It is a pity she passes up the chance to reflect upon the strange l1870030112the audience.

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