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1 May 2024

Joan Baez haunted by heartbreak

Poring over the lyrics to Taylor Swift’s new album, I’m reminded of another tortured muse.

By Tracey Thorn

All this talk about Taylor Swift has got me thinking about Joan Baez. I spent last weekend listening to The Tortured Poets Department, and – even more fun – reading long online threads stating confidently who each song was about. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to enjoying every minute of this. But the fixation on Swift’s muses reminded me of the film I’d seen just the week before, a new documentary about Baez, called I Am a Noise.

The title is taken from a line in her teenage diary, “I am not a saint, I am a noise,” and the film is enriched by some great early footage – of Joan becoming an overnight folk sensation, playing Carnegie Hall and appearing on the cover of Time magazine; and then of Joan meeting Bob Dylan. The photos and film clips of the two of them together are just wonderful: joyous and heartbreaking in equal measure.

Back in 1963, she was more famous and successful than Dylan, and onstage at the Newport Folk Festival she introduced him to the world. He’s still a chubby-faced vagabond, sweet and wickedly funny, and the two of them are at that stage where everything – love, music, the whole shebang – is just playful fun. They’re both beautiful, they’re both talented, everything is bathed in a golden glow of youth.

Until suddenly it isn’t. Joan talks about how she went to visit Dylan in London in 1965, when he was playing those gigs featured in DA Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back documentary. When I saw that film decades ago, it contributed to my feelings about Baez: that I didn’t particularly like her voice, that she seemed a bit pious and goody-goody, and, worst of all, that she was clingy and needy, hanging around Dylan when he didn’t want her there. He’s cruel to her in the film, and perhaps I was too young to note that fully, or understand the context.

Here, in this new documentary she admits that he broke her heart. They had been so close that his coldness to her was devastating. He had moved into a new phase, and had a new crowd, and she knew she couldn’t and didn’t want to keep up – with the drugs and the fame and the new hint of darkness around him. She made her escape, but took a deep wound with her, and in 1975 released Diamonds & Rust, which I find myself listening to on repeat after seeing I Am a Noise.

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The lyrics are so heart-on-the-sleeve, so shattering in their admissions. “As I remember your eyes/Were bluer than robins’ eggs/My poetry was lousy you said… Ten years ago/I bought you some cufflinks/You brought me something… Speaking strictly for me/We both could have died then and there…”

There’s no doubting the song is about Dylan – she paints a clear portrait of him – but here’s the thing: she has also described, in her memoir, the moment when she blankly denied this fact to Dylan’s face, saying instead that the song had been written for her husband.

“For your husband?” Bob said.

“Yeah. Who did you think it was about?” I stonewalled.

“Oh, hey, what the f**k do I know?”

“Never mind. Yeah, I’ll sing it, if you like.”

I find this scene so poignant; its noting of the fact that it can be humiliating to admit to the person who broke your heart that your feelings went deep enough for you to write a song. Along with the film, it all made me warm to Baez more than I ever had before.

And it made me think again of the way we speculate about song lyrics, and what that feels like for the writer. I’ve had my own small experiences of this. A very long time ago I wrote a song with the opening line “Hello Mark, long time no see”, and all my friends spent years trying to work out which Mark it was about. No one ever guessed right.

It didn’t matter much anyway. The song wasn’t about him, but his friend. And no, even after all this time I’m not telling you.

[See also: Why we make art]

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This article appears in the 01 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Forward March