AND A VOICE TO SING WITH -- A MEMOIR
In 1975, with the encouragement of Bernie, at that time my road manager/laughing buddy/ex-lover (also the young man for whom "Love Song to a Stranger" was actually written), I decided to record an album that was decidedly "nonpolitical." In the making of Where Are You Now, My Son? I had personally edited fifteen tapes, written one entire side, played the piano, and helped sequence bomb raids and music.
With Diamonds and Rust for the first time I became deeply involved with the music for the sake of the music alone, composing and playing the synthesizer. I wrote a little jazz ditty on the guitar, and when the band obviously liked it went home and wrote three verses of words and turned it into a real song, "Children and All That Jazz." I did not fight producer David Kirschenbaum and his suggestions about what would sell and what would not. I made my com promises and relaxed with them. Inevitably a discussion took place about finding "up" songs. You gotta have some "up" songs. "Up" songs are not a part of my musical history and they don't come naturally unless I'm hanging out with someone else's band, having a drink or two, or singing in Spanish. We looked through twenty or thirty "up" songs and the one I disliked the least was "Blue Sky," a pleasant little number, written by Richard Betts of the Allman Brothers Band, that didn't interest me but was not offensive. I had to admit that it rounded out the album very well and that in many ways Diamonds and Rust is the best album I've ever made. It eventually went gold.
If I did not want to have a wide, international audience, I would not have had to bother ever making compromises. The fact was then and is now, that I am not willing to accept being on an obscure label with limited distribution. Until recently, that decision kept me out of a record company in the States. Back then I did not know how difficult it would be to survive, as an artist, through changing musical trends. Folk music, on a commercial scale, was now a thing of the past.
I began a decade of taking the only unprescribed drug I've ever used. I loved Quaalude, and found that a tiny dose would decrease stagefright and enhance lovemaking. I stopped taking it only when it became impossible to get. I miss it, but am relieved that it is no longer accessible.
Bernie was becoming more and more of an influence on my life, encouraging me to lighten up arid have fun and sing for the sake of singing. When I went out on the road in the States with a band he even introduced me to a gorgeous roadie named Carlos. Carlos was a curly-haired Mexican ten years my junior who had skin like silk, big black eyes that would melt a glacier, a way of joking that kept me laughing for days at a time, and stormy mood changes that kept me properly on edge. The tours were successful, all things considered- such as weeping folk purist fans who felt betrayed, politicos who felt dismayed, and new, updated fans who felt I still wasn't loose enough. We recorded From Every Stage on tour, and released it in 1976. It was a double album, two sides of acoustic and two sides with band and vocals. It's not a bad album, but it's dotted with embarrassing little statements like "The best way to look at this is ... that I'm having a vacation. I haven't had a vacation in ten years." In other words, I feel guilty for eating three meals a day, not living in a jail cell, making money in concerts and making love to Carlos.
About this time I began having trouble with my voice. It had never occurred to me that anything could go wrong with my "achingly pure soprano." Now two things were becoming apparent. One, I was no longer a soprano, and, in fact, was having difficulty hitting any high notes at all; and two, I was clearing a constant tickle out of my throat between notes. Assuming I was indestructible, I ignored these problems for the next three years.
On the Rolling Thunder tour in 1976, I wrote a number of songs, the best one being "Gulf Winds," which was what we titled my next, and last, record for A&M. An album of all my songs was, in fact, not terribly exciting, but the cover was beautiful. It was taken in a studio and superimposed on a Santa Monica beach with a Hawaiian sky. Bernie succeeded in wooing me away from Manny. Manny was, and is, essentially a folk music impresario. I wanted to be updated. Without knowing it, I had begun the race against time and age, and suddenly wanted to be hip and groovy and cool and all the things"! had not been in the past. Encouraged by Bernie, who had been right about a lot of things but was wrong about this one, I made the stupidest "career move" of my life, leaving A&M and going to a hotshot little label called Portrait, which was supposed to become a subsidiary of CBS.
I recorded Blowin' Away, a good album with a terrible cover. Bernie and I parted ways, to become friends again years later. Nancy, the old friend who eventually traveled with me throughout Europe and the States as business manager, took over. The fact that I had no manager was becoming evident to everyone but me. Blowin' Away came out with a picture of me wearing a silver racing-car jacket, World War II flight goggles, and an American flag on my jacket sleeve. It was supposed to be funny but only reflected my state of total confusion about my music and the direction of my life.
In the thirty-ninth year of my life, I decided I needed a vocal coach. Three people recommended the same person, so I trotted down to Ramona Street in Palo Alto, and when I heard a stringy voice struggling up and down the scales, I walked in without knocking. When the pupil with the stringy voice had gone Robert Bernard gave me his total attention.
"What seems to be the problem?"
"My voice is not working right. I'm having trouble with the high notes."
"Do you sing professionally, or just for your own pleasure?"
"I sing professionally."
"Ahh. I see. Well, why don't you fill out this form here ... what's your name?"
'''Oh, ha ha, Joan what, Sutherland? Ha ha!"
"No, Joan Baez."
"Oh Christ! Oh my God! Oh, how funny! I had no idea!" He turned as red as a tomato and put his hand over his mouth, trying no to laugh out loud. Laughing is terrible for the singing voice. Maybe that's what makes voice lessons with Mr. Bernard so much fun: all the laughing we're not supposed to do.
As my voice began to come together my relationship with "the industry" began to fall apart. Blowin' Away hadn't done very well. I had a horrible evening with an executive from Portrait who was supposed to be a "great, great guy, you'll love him," who insulted me beyond my flimsy levels of tolerance by suggesting that the next album should be written by current writers who could sell. I was not included among them until I suggested myself, and he said, "Oh, sure, one song of yours wouldn't hurt." I went into a long, unyielding rage, hating the big slob from Portrait, who had fat fingers and bad manners.
I simply did not grasp the fact that I was no longer considered a "hot item." I went to Muscle Shoals to record Honest Lullaby. I killed myself over that album. Nancy and I went up to Ottawa in fifteen-degrees-below-zero weather so I could pose for a cover photo by Josef Karsh. It was a beauty. The choice of songs was mild, and the album might not have survived the changing times and the coming of heavy metal, but I went on every talk show available to present it. I hated pushing an album, but finally understood that I had to do it, and so I did.
There are varying opinions as to what actually happened to Honest Lullaby aside from my belief that Portrait dropped it the day it came out. One theory is that I paid dearly for a fight I'd had with the then-president of CBS records in New York.
I was going to sing in Israel. CBS had booked me into a famous festival, which sounded like a superb idea, until I found out that it was being held in what was at that time occupied territory. As a matter of principle, I cancelled my engagement there and instead sang two sold-out concerts in Tel Aviv and Caesarea, which were picketed by a few people and appreciated by more open-minded Israelis than I thought existed.
In New York, on the way back from Israel, I had called the president of CBS to talk about the record, and mentioned, almost as an aside, that his people (CBS) had tried to book me into occupied territory. He went berserk. What did I mean, "occupied territory"? That land had always belonged to the Jews and he would fight to the death to keep that land from the fucking Arabs who were going to push him into the sea.
"Don't you mean the Hudson?" I said stiffly.
One of us hung up, probably him. I didn't stop to think that I no longer had enough leverage to talk like that to a company president and also keep my job, though it wouldn't have made any difference.
It was around that time that I began the painful and humiliating process of discovering, ever so slowly, that though I might be timeless in the world of music, at least in the United States I was no longer timely.