Review: Joan Baez I Am A Noise

Also: Stop Making Sense

I know much about Joan Baez, a preeminent folk singer of the 1960s and beyond. But seeing the new documentary Joan Baez I Am A Noise, I discovered I didn’t realize the half of it.

Early in the film, we see an intriguing quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life.” While I knew a lot about her public life, her private life, including her relationships with her parents and two sisters and a romance I had not heard about, was revelatory.

As for the secret life, THAT was a heady and sometimes painful exploration.

To understand Joan, the moviemakers took illustrations and diary entries of her at 13. The teen, who grew up with a Quaker background, experienced a fair amount of prejudice growing up with Mexican heritage on her paternal side. Young Joan wrote: “When I think of God, I think of the earth as a very small thing then I think of myself as hardly a speck…might as well spend time making the less fortunate specks in the world enjoy themselves.”

So, when she started experiencing some success, she may have appeared calm and serene. Inside, she felt conflicted by guilt from her fame when so many others were far less fortunate. At the same time, it was fun, especially when she realized that her music was an entree into the activism she felt she needed to participate in.

Of course, there’s the Bobby Dylan section. Most folks don’t recall that she vouched for him on the music scene. They appeared together at the March on Washington in August 1963, but he was far less well-known then.
Save the world
Ultimately, she was addicted to activism in many forms. Her relationships with like-minded folks like David Harris (m. 1968-1973) could not work. She acknowledges that her son suffered from her being on the road so often.

One of the fascinating elements in her helping to develop the story was a shed full of tapes she visits. You can see it in this CBS Sunday Morning segment.

She eventually grew closer to her older sister Pauline (d. 2016) and younger sister Mimi (d. 2001), even as they investigated unpleasant fragments of their growing up. At 82, Joan Baez is more at peace now, accepting the lower range of her voice.

38 of 39 Rotten Tomatoes reviews were positive. The outlier was Mick Lasalle of the San Francisco Chronicle” “The impression that comes through is that the filmmakers were too in awe of Baez to press her — or to seek alternate opinions — and so we’re left with a sense of not getting the whole truth.” I do not know what film he saw.

The audience score was only 80% positive because I believe this was not entirely the feel-good film they may have been expecting. Young Joan once wrote in a journal, “I am not a saint. I am a noise.”  My wife and I saw the film at the Spectrum Theatre in Albany.
This ain’t no disco.
During the same week, and at the same venue, we also saw Talking Heads’ 1983 concert film Stop Making Sense. I cannot reasonably review this movie.

As I’ve said numerous times, that tour, which included a stop at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center about 30 miles north of Albany, proved to be one of my two most extraordinary musical experiences.

But I had never seen the Jonathan Demme film before. I can say that the first half of the movie transported me back four decades, with the attendant awe, from Byrne’s solo Psycho Killer to the pieces with the full band, including Alex Weir, Bernie Worrell, and Steve Scales. Honestly, I was joyfully exhausted by the band and backup singers Edna Holt and Lynn Mabry’s energy.

I met Lynn when she and my first niece Rebecca Jade sang backup for Sheila E. at the New York State Fair in Syracuse in 2019. It was all I could do to contain myself from rambling to Lynn about how great the show was that I’d seen 36 years earlier.

The next venue in the film brought me back to mere enjoyment, but it ended strong.

I almost always hear music

relative pitch

An old friend, C, asked:

When you hear non-playing music, what genre(s)? Do you recognize the tune right away, or do you get to play ‘Name that Tune’ with yourself?

I suppose I should clarify. Often, I have said that I almost always hear music. Even when there is no obvious music source, I can hear music.

There are two answers to the question. One is that I usually hear the bass line. About 5% of the time, it’s the bass at the beginning of Keep On Running by the Spencer Davis Group, which I used to hear when trying to to ride a bicycle uphill. But it could be almost anything I’ve heard more than a dozen times.

It doesn’t have to be pop music. The pedals on the organ often come to mind. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor may be my favorite, not just the last three chords, but that deliciously dissonant section at 7:25 to 7:35 on this recording.

Sometimes, it’s vocal, usually something in my range. The low harmony part of Rosanna by Toto during “Not quite a year since she went away.” (0:51-1:04). I don’t love the song, but I love that bit, and I don’t have to have listened to it recently to recreate it in my head.

But it could be almost anything.

The siren song

The other answer to the question is that music is everywhere. Someone was mowing the lawn next door the day after I received the question. I discovered I was humming to the tune, only a third higher. Specifically, harmony is everywhere.

I was on a plane recently, an A321. The sounds I heard were two pitches, which reminded me of the song, Western Union. I couldn’t even remember the group’s name – the Five Americans.

My not-so-old friend ADD posted an article about David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison discussing “the restored version of their iconic documentary [Stop Making Sense], the band’s classic albums, and being a Talking Head for life.”

As I’ve mentioned frequently, I saw Talking Heads on that tour in Saratoga Springs, NY, one of the two greatest concerts I’ve ever attended, though I’ve never seen the movie. Moreover, I’ve met backup singer Lynn Mabry, pictured in the article. She sings backup for Sheila E. and is her business partner. Niece Rebecca Jade made the intros.

In the article, David Byrne recalled that keyboardist Bernie Worrell of Parliament-Funkadelic, the music director for the tour, “had perfect pitch. So, he would hear a siren go by, or car brakes, or something on the street when we’re on the bus. And he had a little tiny keyboard, and he would start playing along with it, perfectly in the right key.”

I certainly do NOT have perfect pitch. Like many singers and other musicians, I have relative pitch, so I’ve also harmonized with sirens, which is interesting because it’s not a sustained sound but variable and often multiple.


All that said, I listen to external music, usually compact discs [wotta dinosaur], for most of the day when I’m writing (currently listening to Double Fantasy by John and Yoko) and ESPECIALLY when cleaning the house. And I’ll sing harmony to them if necessary.

On a recent Sunday, there was a hymn in the church bulletin. The words were unfamiliar, but the tune was a standard. Only the melody line appeared, but now there were altos, tenors, and basses singing harmony in the middle verses.

David Byrne of Talking Heads is 70

This ain’t no party

For me, the great thing about David Byrne is that he keeps growing and changing. This comes across in this 2022 online interview in Parents magazine. It’s entitled David Byrne is Gloriously Odd: How Family Formed Talking Heads’ Lead Man.

He tells the story of Everybody’s Coming to My House, a song on his 2018 album American Utopia. Byrne wrote as though those folks in his place were a bit of a bother. Yet when he got some Detroit teens to perform it, they had a very different read, the joy of everyone hanging out.

I’ve long stated that one of my two favorite concerts ever was Talking Heads performing at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on August 5, 1983. Later shows in that tour, three nights at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater in December 1983, were turned into Stop Making Sense, the highly regarded 1984 American concert film directed by Jonathan Demme.

I had been a fan of Talking Heads before that. And when the band broke up, I enjoyed many of Byrne’s solo albums as well. But seeing American Utopia, the filmed version of the Broadway production, was a revelation. As he noted in the Parents piece, the plan was to make the difficult look easy.

Watch David Byrne Answers the Web’s Most Searched Questions for WIRED. Also, in the recent CBS Saturday Morning interview, he acknowledges that he cannot write songs at present. But he can draw.


Check out the All Music discography of his solo work and Talking Heads, who are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, class of 2002.

Also, in 2018, David Byrne teamed up with Choir! Choir! Choir! to cover David Bowie’s  Heroes.

This list is vaguely in order towards my favorite, but only the top song is secure.

You and Eye  – solo
Marching Through The Wilderness – solo. In a review of Rei Momo by William Ruhlmann: “On his first full-fledged solo album, Byrne indulges his fascination with Latin and South American musical styles, employing a variety of native musicians but mixing up the sounds to suit his own distinctly non-purist vision.”
And She Was – Talking Heads

Dirty Old Town – solo
Making Flippy Floppy – Talking Heads, just fun to say
Crosseyed And Painless – Talking Heads                                                                  Back In The Box – solo

America Is Waiting – Byrne and Brian Eno
Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) -Talking Heads
Loco de Amor – solo
Psycho Killer – Talking Heads, probably the first song of theirs I heard

More songs

Take Me To The River – Talking Heads; if I were to do karaoke, it would sound more like David Byrne than Al Green
Slippery People – Talking People; on the Stop Making Sense tour, one of the background singers is Lynn Mabry, who I’ve met. She, among other things, sings backup for Sheila E., as does the niece Rebecca Jade
I Zimbra – Talking Heads, the first song of theirs I loved

Burning Down The House – Talking Heads. Did anyone watching the video believe “I AM AN OR-DIN-AR-Y GUY?”
Life During Wartime – Talking Heads. “This ain’t no party…”
Independence Day – solo
Road To Nowhere – Talking Heads

Lilies Of The Valley – solo
Help Me, Somebody – Bryne and Eno
This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) – this song is tied to a specific time (the 1990s), and place (on the way to Cooperstown), and people
Once in a Lifetime – an obvious choice, I know; how it was made (you can ignore the two-minute ad at the end)

Favorites: Talking Heads (1984-1987)

1983, SPAC

Frantz, Weymouth, Harrison, Byrne
More of my J. Eric Smith-inspired Favorite Songs by Favorite Bands, an impossible task I’m doing anyway.

I saw Talking Heads on their stop at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, north of Albany, NY in 1983. It was of the two or three best concerts I’ve seen in my lifetime. Oddly, I have never seen, in its entirety, the well-regarded Stop Making Sense movie made from that tour.

The then-current album in 1983 was Speaking in Tongues. It’s the only album of theirs I have on both vinyl and compact disc. Interestingly, the tracks have different running times, with the cuts on the CD going longer. It was one of those gimmicks that record companies were using at the time to get people to buy into the new CD technology. It remains my favorite album by the group.

Eventually, I acquired all of the studio albums on vinyl. My only CD, besides SiT, is the 1992 compilation Sand in the Vaseline. Here’s a quiz I did some years ago, based on their songs.


Mu: Wild Wild Life.
Lambda: Slippery People. “How do you do?”
Kappa: City of Dreams.
Iota: Blind.
Theta: This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody). “I guess I must be having fun.” This is a song that takes me back to a specific time and place in upstate New York.
Eta: Psycho Killer Qu’est-ce que c’est

Zeta: Take Me to the River . If I were ever to sing Karaoke, it might be this version of the Al Green classic.
Epsilon: Crosseyed and Painless. The album Remain in Light is an aural canvas, and picking a “favorite song” is difficult.
Delta: Making Flippy Floppy. “Nothing is complete.” I love saying the repeated FL sound.
Gamma: Burning Down the House . “I’m…an…” Yeah, right. The first single from SiT.
Beta: Road to Nowhere. ‘Give us time to work it out.” “I wanted to write a song that presented a resigned, even joyful look at doom,” recalls David Byrne.
Alpha: Once in a Lifetime. “My God, what have I done?!” The lead single from Talking Heads’ fourth studio album, Remain in Light. The inspiration from Afrobeat is apparent.

Music, September 1971: widely un-bought

Stax had to “promote a white rock record through a black promotion and distribution system.”

“Not all the fresh music made in 1971 made an impact in that year. Some of it didn’t come out until years later the people who made it had made it had moved on, had become different people, or died.” That’s the first sentence in the September chapter of Never A Dull Moment by David Hepworth.

The Modern Lovers included future Talking Heads member Jerry Harrison and leader Jonathan Richman, who is considered by some to be the ‘godfather of punk rock.”

Roxy Music was primarily wanted to be perceived as an art project, as most of the members, including Bryan Ferry, were students. Likewise, David Byrne was meeting up with Chris Frantz at the Phode Island School of Design and thinking about a band called the Artistics; Byrne and Franz would, of course, also help create Talking Heads.

Kraftwerk was formed by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider in 1969. Their second album had “more in common with the workshopping approach to improvised theater than the performance-oriented approach of traditional rock.”

When the critics suggest who ought to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they often mention this band, certainly not for its commercial success, but its influence. The Wikipedia notes: “Kraftwerk’s musical style and image can be heard and seen in 1980s synthpop groups such as Gary Numan, Ultravox, John Foxx, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Human League, Depeche Mode, Visage, and Soft Cell.”

Alex Chilton had experience some success with a band called the Box Tops, but the experience left him drained. He and some mates ended up starting a band called Big Star. Their album, #1 Record, released in 1972, did nothing, maybe because it was released on the soul label Stax, which had just bought itself out “of a distribution deal with Columbia” [Records] and therefore had to “promote a white rock record through a black promotion and distribution system.”

The records of the Velvet Underground and Big Star, “like those of of the Stooges, MC5 and Nick Drake, were widely available and widely un-bought.” But those artists inspired music that eventually topped the charts.

Listen to

George Jackson – Bob Dylan here or here

Motel Blues – Loudon Wainwright III here or here

Hospital – Modern Lovers here or here

Andy Warhol – David Bowie here or here

Life Is a Carnival – the Band here or here

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