I love this song. For me, it’s the best thing Joan Baez has ever done, especially the full-length version (a verse was edited out of the middle for the single, which even in that truncated form was still a pure gem). It’s a very simple, very beautiful love song, addressing old times long since gone. It deals with Baez’s relationship, in the Sixties, with Bob Dylan, and it’s addressed as a letter, or some other form of memoir to him, recalling what what was between them, but in the end dismissing, not without a degree of regret, any thought of resuming things. It’s spun on a delicate acoustic guitar line, with Baez’s pure, clear voice soaring above, in the grip of memory.
Well I’ll be damned, she starts, here comes your ghost again, but that’s not unusual, it’s just that the moon was full, and you happened to call. A voice comes out of the past and starts her memories. She asks, out of idle curiosity where he’s calling from (a booth in the midwest). It’s just a fleeting call, a passing moment stolen from, probably, a tour, but it’s still enough.
She recalls moments from their shared past: the colour of his eyes, his opinion about her poetry, an exchange of gifts, cufflinks for him, something she can’t now remember for her. But he’s brought her something now, he’s brought her these memories, but they both know that memories bring diamonds and rust. Such a beautiful phrase.
She reminds herself of the circumstances of their coming together, his arrival on the scene, the legends attached to him, his need for someone to protect him, and that someone being for a time her. Then there’s a single moment, frozen in time, a middle eight that defines a moment from their past. They’re in Washington Square, in winter, snow in his hair: a crummy hotel, smiling out of the window, their breaths condensing in the cold and mingling, and she concludes with a line that goes through anyone with a heart to understand, like a knife: speaking strictly for me, we both could have died then and there.
The song breaks, the guitar takes over, for things for which there are no words to follow that moment, whilst Baez recovers herself and that balance that comes with age and distance. When she resumes singing, she’s cool and distant. Bobby’s trying to tell her he’s not nostalgic, that there’s some other reason he’s called her that day, that night. Well, if he’s not nostalgic, she challenges him to come up with an alternate word. He was so good with words (wasn’t he just?), but there’s the little moment of acid, as she adds that he was also good at keeping things vague. It stands for more than just his celebrated lyrics, we sense.
But for now she needs a vagueness of her own. The memories have come back too strong. Yes, she loved him dearly. But if he’s offering her diamonds and rust, she will keep her distance: she’s already paid.
There’s a life and a history in this song, depths summoned up in words that allude, except for that naked moment in the middle eight. Speaking strictly for me: who hasn’t had that moment, when it’s all too good, when it’s all too perfect that nothing else is required.
‘Diamonds and Rust’ is a beautiful tribute to the reality that what follows all too often never does live up to that moment.