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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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May 2009 Archives

Joan Baez in Glasgow

Glasgow, Scotland, is a great city, made greater by the urban revival that brought glass-and-steel buildings into once-gloomy neighborhoods and failing shipyards. But in late fall and pouring rain, Glasgow last year made me crave less architecture and more hot tea, preferably with a little brandy, next to a cozy fireplace.

Back at our hotel, one of my traveling companions – a fellow Minnesotan whom I’d known since we were freshman at the U of M – had done a little research. “There’s a Joan Baez concert tonight,’’ he informed me.

I gasped – Joan Baez, of all people! In Glasgow for this one night only! The coincidence stunned me. She had been my favorite singer in college, and I still have all her records – four-decade-old LPs in brittle pasteboard jackets – even though I no longer have a stereo to play them on.

I never got to hear Baez in person and eventually forgot how much I’d wanted to. Till now. “Wanna go?’’ I asked my friend.

“No,’’ he said diffidently, “I saw her and Dylan at The Scholar when I was 18,’’ and went back to writing postcards.

I remembered The Scholar. It was Dinkytown’s version of a Greenwich Village hangout: black walls, non-existent lighting, fishnets strung dramatically overhead, little tables with candles, and a lot of clean-cut college boys and girls in the tidy uniforms of the day – madras plaids, oxford-cloth button-downs, crewcuts, bouffants, hair-sprayed flips.

I don’t remember what I heard there, but it sure wasn’t Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Now in Glasgow, I went alone. There were still tickets left at the city’s new Royal Concert Hall – $70 apiece at that week’s exchange rate, but for me, an easy decision.

I got there half an hour early and filled the time people-watching. Strange, how much alike everyone looked – the whole audience seemed to have gray hair and wrinkles. Some folks used canes; others limped; some leaned on each other for support or, in rare cases, on the arm of what had to be a middle-aged child or, even rarer, a grandchild.

I didn’t catch on till the warm-up music started – recordings of famous American songs straight from the 1950s and ‘60s – and I knew all the words. Just like everybody around me. If age is a country, I thought, these are my fellow citizens.

Joan Baez was the only one who didn’t look old. “It’s been 50 years, folks,’’ she said, stepping up to the microphone.

She was as graceful and elfin as ever, though her trademark hair – once a waist-length, jet-black curtain – was now salt-and-pepper, cut very short. Time had dulled her tone when she spoke, and her once-liquid upper ranges were gone when she sang. But on lower notes, her voice was still strong and rich; her words still carried powerful messages of peace and protest, and she still brought tears to my eyes.

What touched me most, though, wasn’t her old classics like “We’ll go no more a-roving’’ or “I had a dog, and his name was Blue.....’’ or even my favorite, “There but for Fortune go you and I, you and I ....’’
It was just a gray-headed man on the main floor, overcome with emotion, who suddenly leaped to his feet, held out his arms toward her and, in a deep, raspy voice exactly like Sean Connery’s, shouted out this one passionate sentence:

“I spent most o’ my life lovin’ you!’’

The audience burst into sympathetic applause, and Baez blew him kisses before she turned back to her music.

Maybe that’s the lesson of this unexpected concert: Sometimes life gives you a second chance to tell someone you loved what you didn’t or couldn’t say before. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, maybe we all get to hear Joan Baez sing in Glasgow.