I'm a piss-poor wannabe activist, a self-righteous lefty who spouts anti-war rhetoric over beers in a bar but rarely attends demos. And I don't speak up nearly often enough in the rest of my life.Put it down to the fact that politics in my household was an absent presence. I had an abstract idea that my super-liberal folks leaned left; we just didn't talk about it.
That's where Joan comes in.
I'm sitting beside my mom in an auditorium full of former hippies in muted hemp sweaters and practical hiking boots. Up until this moment, my only association with Baez was vague memories of flipping through the vinyl my late-boomer parents kept in an antique wood cabinet under the stereo. Tucked in between my Sesame Street and Raffi records were sleeves with faded photos of long-haired hippie chicks: Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Judy Collins and Joan. The pictures always bummed me out because they looked so ancient and dusty.
And, yeah, I rolled my eyes beforehand at the thought of this gig. I mean, mocking folk music is like shooting fish in a barrel. I imagined the recurring Saturday Night Live sketch where washed-up folkie duo Ana Gasteyer and Will Ferrell operatically croon watered-down medleys of top-40 choons with po-faced reverence, or upcoming guitar troubadour parody A Mighty Wind by the forces behind Spinal Tap and Waiting For Guffman.
I'm more at home with the dripping irony of, say, The Onion or McSweeney's than with the wholesome sentimentality of a Spielberg flick. Enid from Ghost World, that's me. I'm a member of the MTV generation, after all -- I know better.
But then I heard a story about an old-school peacenik who claimed Baez had changed her life. After hearing the folkie's political tunes back in 1965, the activist in question took to the streets to follow a philosophy of pacifist protest.
It made me wonder why the only accepted politicos today are those with a more aggressive stance -- both musically and ideologically. Think Rage Against the Machine or similar-minded local agitprop hiphop outfit Warsawpack. We're so wary of an unironic outlook that we temper straight-up righteousness with spiky bluster. Who besides Zack de la Rocha can get away with smashing the state? Certainly not the Dixie Chicks.
So I'm waiting -- apprehensively -- for Joan Baez to show me the light.
To kill time, my mom points out faces in the crowd. One bearded, sweater-sporting gent used to lead the kids in acoustic sing-alongs at her old overnight camp. He's representative, she says, of all the kids she went to high school with. They talked the talk, but they didn't walk the walk. "They'd go home to their upper-class homes in Forest Hill and pretend they were activists while listening to hippie music in the comfort of their plush rooms."
She seems sheepish when I ask whether she marched for peace. She tells me about the time a group of dissenters shut the school down with a massive protest, but admits she doesn't remember why.
I'm shocked to learn my dad hung out at socialist meetings when my folks first got hitched, and even more flabbergasted to discover that my grandfather was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party.
"But then he went to Russia and saw how hellish life was there, and he gave it all up."
We shut up when Baez takes the stage. She's tiny but projects a remarkable familiarity onstage that fills up the room. She leads the crowd in a We Shall Overcome sing-along. I roll my eyes. But then something happens. I feel the hipper-than-thou facade slipping away as I take in her incredible soprano. I glance at my mom. She's completely entranced. And I start to understand how this pint-sized woman's eloquent belief in a cause could motivate some teenager decades back to join a non-violent revolution.
And just when I've convinced myself of the inanity of our current musical climate, Baez catches me off-guard with the revelation that she's covering younger musicians' songs on her upcoming disc. Her take on the title track of Natalie Merchant's 2001 Motherland album makes me realize that icons are still kicking -- you just have to listen harder 'cause they're drowned out in a sea of bubble-gum crap.
By the end of her epic two-and-a-half-hour set, she has me on my feet singing along to Amazing Grace. What can I say? Irony is really overrated.