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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Veterans and Joan Baez

                                                  VETERANS AND JOAN BAEZ

         During the Vietnam War, I always thought that the group that made the most sense was the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). After all, they actually had been to Vietnam and participated in the fighting. They spoke from personal experience. Most people in the Peace Movement or supporting the war had no experience in the war and had never been to Vietnam.  

            Because I felt my family had been betrayed by the left wing, which never offered us support during the Un-American investigation and when my father lost his job, I had no love of the left.

            I was also at this time a U. S. Navy veteran, having served three years in the Navy Air Force. I enlisted after graduation from Arroyo High School in l959 in El Monte, California. I was walking by a Navy recruitment office and saw a poster that I liked. It was a picture of a sailor standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier holding a flag in each hand. The wind blew through his hair and whipped around the flags and his uniform. I thought I would look very good doing this and that girls would really like me. I was 17 years old.

            I think that I also was interested in proving that my family was patriotic. The whole FBI-congressional investigation into my family and their left-wing sympathies and the local publicity when my father pleaded the 5th Amendment and refused to cooperate had left a bad taste in my mouth.

            I did accomplish this: I served three years in the U.S. Navy Air Force. I did boot camp in San Diego, played in the Drum and Bugle Corps there, learned Air Traffic Control in the Navy School at Olathe, Kansas, served one and one half years at Naval Air Station Atsugi Japan in flight operations and six months on a gunnery range in Ibaraki Prefecture at a little village called Mito, and received an honorable discharge as a third class petty officer just before my 21st birthday in 1962.

            I didn’t hate the Vietnamese Communists or the American soldiers fighting the war. They were all just people fighting for their lives who had very little control over their lives. I hated the brass, the leaders of all sides who sat in comfortable offices and gave orders to workers. I hated the bosses in and out of uniform who really cared more for theory and philosophy than the rank and file, government officials of the left and right. I felt very comfortable with the working class Vietnam Veterans while most of the Peace Movement did not. I always helped them when I could and paid my own expenses to do so.

            In 1971 I gathered with a small group of people in a living room in Berkeley to watch a just-finished 16mm black and white film documenting an event where Vietnam Veterans confessed to what they felt were “war crimes.”  The event was called the Winter Soldier Investigation and the film was called the Winter Soldier Film. There were expenses from the making of the film that needed to be paid off. It was decided that Joan Baez and I would give a concert in San Francisco at the Cow Palace to help pay off these expenses and finish the film.

            I had never met Joan Baez before the concert. My family had attended a concert in Pasadena once to hear her sing. My father fell asleep and later said she “had a screechy voice.” He said the same thing about a relative of his who would sing at family events during his growing-up years. My sister and her husband Charles Montgomery had Joan’s first Vanguard folk albums when I lived with them after I got out of the Navy. I had listened to them many, many times. I liked those albums a lot. I later saw her perform at Big Sur at Esalon Institute. I wrote about that in a very angry way in my little magazine Rag Baby. But I had never had a conversation with her.

            The Cow Palace was full that day, probably due more to Joan than me, to say the least, as she was a big star. The setup was that we both were onstage together and took turns singing. We were both solo with acoustic guitars. She did some of her songs and then said to the audience, “I know you have heard some bad things about him but he is a nice guy so please give him a chance,” and then I got my turn to sing. Then we had an intermission.

            During the show I could hear some Vietnam Veterans in the stands yelling stuff. At intermission a Nam vet, Mike Oliver, came into my dressing room very upset because no one had announced what the benefit was for and that there was an upcoming demonstration against the war right there in San Francisco. He pleaded with me to tell the people. I agreed.

            After the intermission, back onstage, when it came time for my turn to sing, I told the audience about the Winter Soldier Film and the upcoming demonstration against the war. As I was talking Joan walked across the stage smiling and stood beside me as I talked and ground her boot into mine so that it actually hurt. To the audience it looked like a friendly gesture. Then she walked back to her microphone.

            At the end of the show the promoter Barry Olivier brought an enormous bouquet of flowers up onstage and gave them to Joan. The crowd cheered. She bowed and walked across the stage past me and threw the whole thing into my arms and went to her dressing room.

            Days later Michael Olivier called me to tell me the benefit showed no profit at all due to lots of expenses. I called up Joan and asked her how it could be that we filled the Cow Palace and made no money for the Winter Soldier Film. She yelled something to me about being condescending and hung up the phone. I called Michael and told him what happened. A few days later he called to tell me that Joan had given them $30 thousand, which paid for the production of the film. Joan never mentioned the incident to me.

            This passive-aggressive technique seemed to be her style. Years and years later, at the Bread and Roses Benefit Concert at the Greek Theatre on the University of California Berkeley campus to benefit her sister Mimi Fariña’s organization that brought music to those who could not get out, she drew blood.

        We were all in the dressing room area below the main level. There was a little room used as a dressing room. It was the only place you could get privacy. About 20 minutes before my set, Joan locked herself in that room and put on her “Bob Dylan” costume. I tried to get in to get ready for my set ...but no luck. Then she of course made a surprise appearance as Bob Dylan.

            After the show we all gathered for a group shot for Newsweek magazine. I was behind her in the group and put up two fingers in the old devil horns trick. Joan just reached up and grabbed my hand and dug her fingernails into my palm. To the camera it seemed again a loving gesture between old friends. When it was over I looked and she had drawn blood.

            I don’t mean to go on and on about the woman but I think my interaction with her was startling to me and memorable because I thought we had such a lot in common. At the Hollywood Bowl Woody Guthrie concert, Pete Seeger was lobbying to have the ensemble close the show singing I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag. During rehearsal I asked Joan if that happened if she might join in and do the “Fuck” cheer with me, as she had just been sharing some amazing facts with me about her sex life. “No,” she replied. “Joe, that would ruin my image.”

            Joan was a pacifist and married David Harris who went to jail for years rather than accept military service and kill. I was not a pacifist but did not feel that the killing in Vietnam was accomplishing anything. Joan and her sisters had a poster out with the words “Girls say no to boys who say yes,” implying that girls should not have sex with men who go into military service.

            I was ex-military and in fact did like having sex with girls at the time of the concert. I was married to Robin Menken and had a two-year-old daughter, Seven Ann. These issues seem trivial today but were quite emotional then. I do feel to this day that the Vietnam War America fought was wrong and that the soldiers who fought it were not to blame. I still feel that the Peace Movement was wrong to not embrace military personnel back then and today also. Many pacifists supported military personnel and also many military personnel were homosexual. Joan herself was to come out as a bisexual later on so the whole don’t-have-sex-with-boys thing seems a bit off now.

            But the fact is Joan did something. She was one of the only visible women who took a stand on the war and that is to her credit. It was such a divisive time that it is hard for us to imagine now.


  1. Thanx Joe, I enjoy your 'People's History'. Close to ole U.Utah thing. I happened to attend a concert you did in Tomkins Square Park in NY, for the Vets, around Fall of 1970. I had just returned from the Army and feeling less than a part of my home. It was a pleasure to see and hear you that day. Thanx again.

  2. Joan was such a damned beehive. God bless her.