Synonyms for Nostalgia: Joan Baez’s Diamonds and Rust 

There are numerous things with which I associate Diamonds and Rust. Firstly, a body of saltwater, lying motionless underneath a cloudless sky. A half melted ice cube, still in its three dimensional form, but perceptibly not whole. Later, tumbling through the lines – now you’re smiling out the window of that crummy hotel over Washington Square – nostalgia curls like wisps of cigar smoke. Diamonds and Rust, like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, is wonderful for all the things that it doesn’t say. It is the white space around the lyrics, the fragments of memory that are too buried in the past to grasp, that is reflected most within this song. Like the melted ice cube, Diamonds and Rust tells the story of something that was once whole, and is now irretrievable. Baez’s lyrics lack the mocking bitterness of Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You, and are without the gradual acceptance that creeps into Bonnie Raitt’s I Can’t Make You Love Me. 

There is a fascination with Diamonds and Rust because of Baez herself, and the relationship which she shared with Bob Dylan. Written a decade after the ending of their romance, the song is without the reeling from shock that created Jann Arden’s Insensitive, and is instead a quiet reflection on being haunted by an old lover. A few key lines signify Dylan’s presence in Diamonds and Rust – I remember your eyes were bluer than robin’s eggs, the original vagabond – but they’re so oblique, so scattered in the verses, that they would be difficult to pick out unless you were looking for them. The song itself, intended to be something entirely different until Dylan phoned from a booth in the Midwest to read the completed lyrics to Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, is weighted by an exploration of memory, and a half sense of longing which never really culminates. It is as if Baez never lets herself get that far. 

The song is entirely Dylan’s. His response arrived within his album No Direction Home, a remark in passing: it’s hard to be wise and in love at the same time. But it could have been anyone’s. The vagueness of memory; the scrambling to find forgotten pieces, things once said, gifts once exchanged – you bought me something, it’s funny what memories can bring, they bring Diamonds and Rust. I was first intrigued by this song in much the same way as I was by Stevie Nicks’ Rooms on Fire – it had a gripping title which reminded me of a line in a poem from Lolita and all the rest is rust and stardust. The title of the song itself, thought to be based on the idea that time turns charcoal into diamonds and shiny metal into rust, challenges the imperfections of memory and the dusty haze of the past. 

Diamonds and Rust is almost aqueous in its calmness, the lack of demand in Baez’s voice clear until she reaches the line: Now you tell me you’re not nostalgic, then give me another word for it. You were so good with words. The whole song is a grapple with nostalgia, trying to find a synonym for missing the past without having it become the present. 

It’s not until the end of the song that Baez reaches a crescendo that falls away with acceptance – Now it’s all come back too clearly, yes I loved you dearly, but if you’re offering me diamonds and rust, I’ve already paid. 

Diamonds and Rust is a break up song that reconstructs the event, inspired, as some of the best songs are, by a burst of nostalgia. It is Baez’s calm soprano, restrained emotion and quiet reflection that sets it apart from others in the genre. 

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