What She’s Overcome
Janis Ian lands on a happy note
by Suzi Steffen
Janis Ian didn’t gain her considerable fame by singing poppy songs in a joyful voice. Nope, her hits, from the interracial dating and break-up piece “Society’s Child” to the teenage angsty (the original teenage angsty) “At Seventeen” to the longingly aching “Jesse,” make full use of a voice that throbs with tender vulnerability and sadness.
But why? How did this harbinger of revelatory agony, whose musical progeny might include Michael Stipe or Tori Amos, get so sad?
Oh, let me count the ways. Rather, let Ian count them for you in the fascinating Society’s Child, her new autobiography released at the same time as a compilation of her greatest hits, The Best of Janis Ian: The Autobiography Collection.
There was the FBI after her lefty parents, stopping her father from ever gaining tenure at any school system. There was the dentist who molested her (and took his revenge in a nightmarish way when she tried to tell her parents that she wanted to switch dentists). There was being a genius kid having to switch schools every couple of years, never satisfied, driving herself harder and harder outside of the soul suck of sniping teachers and bored students.
Even when Ian grew famous, when “Society’s Child” hit across the country after serious pushes from a record label that, she later discovered, only pushed the song because the company wanted a loss for tax purposes, her touring life wasn’t exactly smooth. The book opens with a powerful scene of hecklers chanting epithets as she tries to sing “Society’s Child” at a gig in Encino. Listen to the song as you read the scene and subsequent depictions of oppression, and you’ll probably up your contribution to the Obama campaign immediately even while you’re tremendously grateful to the Civil Rights and women’s movements — not to mention the young, courageous Janis Ian — for making such a difference.
Ian’s life ended up being pretty tough, with an abusive husband, an IRS agent she described generously to me as “the one bad guy” hounding her for back taxes, a host of physical ailments and relationships that tore her apart. Truth is, Ian writes, she finally found some form of peace with her long-term partner and now spouse Pat, whom she met while living in Nashville and married in Toronto in 2003.
That means the book, and the album, end on a happy note, a hopeful note — in the case of the album, the lightest possible song, one that perks almost into pop-land even as Ian mocks her fame and her memoir in “My Autobiography.” Snag a book and album set from her website (www.janisian.com), where you can also get free downloads, and hear for yourself the tales behind the music. Just be sure to have a few Kleenex with you when you do.
Read a Q&A with Janis Ian about her new science fiction career, her annoyance with people who can do the Times Sunday crossword in a speedy fashion and more at blogs.eugeneweekly.com
Janis Ian. 7 pm Thursday, Sept. 25. WOW Hall. $20 adv., $23 door