Memories of Joan Baez, as she returns to Monterey.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Outside Cynthia Williams’ Carmel Highlands home, birds swirl above her patio like excited electrons and a Pacific Ocean current pushes northward past the southern tip of Point Lobos with the relentless energy of a treadmill. Inside, the 93-year-old Williams, who wears an apron and has short white hair, is digging deep into her memories of a young Joan Baez coming to the Carmel Highlands in 1961.
While the folk singer’s relationship with a young Bob Dylan and the burgeoning peace movement has been obsessively explored, her early ties to Monterey County have been examined less frequently, except in David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street – The Lives and Loves of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña.
Unfortunately, according to the Williams family, Hajdu’s book failed to get a lot of the facts straight.
After first gaining recognition at the Newport Folk Festival and following the release of her self-titled debut album, Baez came to Carmel Highlands with her then boyfriend Michael New in 1961. New to the area, the folk singer, who was on the cusp of widespread fame, was told by her Cambridge friend Richard (“Red”) Williams to look up his family in California.
“NO ONE HAS A VOICE LIKE THAT WITHOUT SOME SUPERNATURAL HELP. IT WAS LIKE THE SINGING OF SOME WONDERFUL BIRD.”
Interviewed before Baez’s return to the area this week for a long-sold-out performance at the Golden State Theatre, Cynthia remembers that when Baez first stopped by her home she was struck by how young the musician was and by her amazing voice. “No one has a voice like that without some supernatural help,” she says. “It was like the singing of some wonderful bird.”
Cynthia also recalls an incident when the power of Baez’s voice became readily apparent. A grouchy young man entered Cynthia’s home, but after hearing a few songs by Baez, the individual’s dour attitude quickly dissipated. “It was as if the door of paradise was opened,” she says.
The Williams family decided soon after the meeting to rent Baez and New a small one-room cabin that they owned in the Carmel Highlands. The structure, located at the intersection of Highway One and Corona Road, is currently known by local residents for its stacked rocks, which rise from the ground like giant bubbles.
“[Baez] wasn’t a good housekeeper, but I don’t think she destroyed anything,” Cynthia says.
At the time Baez lived in the nearby cabin, Cynthia’s daughter Molly was 5 years old, while her daughter Honey was 14. Both have fond memories of their first experiences with the musician. Molly says Baez let her comb the folk singer’s long, dark hair. “She was just extremely nice to me,” Molly says. “She gave me a lot of time and attention, so I was a big fan.”
One story about Baez the Williams love to tell is about a time the folk singer visited a local Jaguar dealership with New. An employee at the dealership looked at the duo’s hippie-ish clothes and thought that there was no way they could afford a vehicle. But Baez whipped out a checkbook to purchase a Jaguar XKE, which prompted the salesman to make a handful of calls to verify that the scrappy pair’s check wouldn’t bounce. Once he realized Baez had the proper funds, the employee relented.
“It’s a picturesque moment,” Cynthia says.
Though the family says Baez lived in the Carmel Highlands for probably just a year, it was during a formative time for the folk singer, right before she became anointed the queen of folk music in the early ’60s.
“I think she came [to this area] at a time when she was growing up,” Cynthia says. “She was finding her way in the world, and this was a comfortable base for that. I think she began to grow into her more mature shape. She was becoming more dedicated to her political work: peace.”
After her time in Carmel Highlands, Baez, who now lives in Woodside, furthered her ties to Monterey County by moving to Carmel Valley and opening the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence with her activist mentor Ira Sandperl. Joan Didion wrote about the institution in her essay “Where the Kissing Never Stops,” which is included in her classic 1968 collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Since that brief period of time when Baez lived in the Carmel Highlands, the folk singer and her family have stayed in contact with the Williams clan. Honey accompanied Baez on a mid-’60s California tour and the folk singer celebrated the end of a string of dates at Cynthia’s home. Baez even went back to the cabin the Williams rented her in the Carmel Highlands for a weekend six years ago.
Now a music legend, Baez might have thought about how much her life had changed since she lived in the simple dwelling with New.
“She was just hanging out, singing and thinking about life,” Honey says.
Through it all, the Williams family has been actively following their longtime friend’s music career and trying to catch all of the singer’s performances in the region. Honey says that though Baez has survived a whirlwind of fame and tribulations, she and her amazing voice have stayed “pretty much the same.”
“She’s still the best,” Honey says. “None of those blond girls can hold a candle to her.”
JOAN BAEZ performs 8pm Monday, Feb 16, at the Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey. Sold out. 372-3800.