You got commies, pinkos, reds at the windows / Foreign agitators runnin’ elevators / J. Edgar Hoover in a pink tutu investigatin’ anyone who thinks like you / So welcome to the ’50s / You look a little shifty. —“God and the FBI” by Janis Ian, 2000
Janis Ian’s flair for cutting lyrics and gorgeous melodies was evident very early, on songs like “Hair of Spun Gold,” which she wrote at 12, and her big hit “Society’s Child,” which she recorded at 15. Ian, who performs in Albuquerque on Friday, March 5, and in Santa Fe on Saturday, March 6, is celebrating the release of the two-disc compilation The Essential Janis Ian and the paperback publication of her splendid 2008 autobiography Society’s Child.
Her book offers a gritty-honest glimpse into life between stage appearances and recording sessions. The songwriter talks about the death threats and hate mail she got because she was moved to sing about domestic violence, social justice, and homosexuality as well as the interracial romance of “Society’s Child.” Also recorded are the details of her marriage to an abusive husband. “Yeah. What are you going to do? You learn from everything,” she said in a recent interview from her Nashville home, just back from a vacation in the Galapagos Islands.
The book is not only readable but compelling, full of details explained by the fact that Ian has kept journals since she was about 9 years old. Another episode she documents was her only encounter with cocaine, and it was in the company of Jimi Hendrix. She took one snort, sneezed (scattering hundreds of dollars’ worth of coke), and then had a life-threatening reaction to the drug. Later she learned that she was allergic to vaso constrictors such as cocaine and amphetamines.
That stuff is all behind her, and now it’s all in print. All she said in the interview was, “Yeah. It’s a fully lived life. That’s how I look at it.”
Janis Ian was born in a Bronx hospital in 1951 and taken to her parents’ farm in southern New Jersey the following day. Her introduction to making music was playing piano when she was 2, but she switched to guitar at 10. That was the year when her parents sent her to Camp Woodland in the Catskills. In the pages of her book, she recalls making paper from tree bark and worshipping Joan Baez, who was then 20 and had released her self-titled debut album the previous year.
Fourteen years afterward, in 1975, Baez was onstage at the Grammy Awards. When she opened the envelope naming Ian as the winner for Best Pop Vocal Performance for “At Seventeen,” she said, “That’s my girl.” Ian’s friendship with Baez has continued. “I worked with her four or five months ago. She’s the real deal,” she said.
In 2002, “Society’s Child” was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Ian’s song about interracial love was a big hit in 1966, but many radio stations were afraid to play it. That was no surprise, but what blew Ian away was the envy-based shunning that followed in much of the folk-music community. She felt support from “only Dave Van Ronk and Odetta and a handful of others,” she writes.
By the time she was 18, Ian had been recording and playing concerts nonstop for four years and had four albums full of her own songs under her belt. She decided to take a breather, determined “to find out if I had it in me to be a good songwriter, or if I should just go to school and become a veterinarian like I originally planned.”
When she came back, she produced three well-regarded albums, Present Company in 1971, Stars in 1974, and Between the Lines in 1975. Ian’s discography shows that she has recorded an album every two or three years since 1967’s Janis Ian, except for a 10-year void between Uncle Wonderful (a 1983 dance album, complete with drum machines, that was only released in Australia) and Breaking Silence (1993). During that decade-long hiatus from the music world, Ian studied acting with Stella Adler, married and got divorced, suffered two emergency surgeries, and lost her savings and her home to an unprincipled manager.
Through all the downs and ups, she has been tremendously prolific, writing a life’s feelings and ideas into about 600 songs (so far). The release of The Essential Janis Ian on Ian’s own Rude Girl label is a springboard for conversations about past battles with the Recording Industry Association of America. In “The Internet Debacle,” a 2002 essay she wrote for Performing Songwriter magazine, Ian said that when she gets ready to write an article, she typically would send out more than 30 e-mails to gather opinions on a subject. About 15 people would typically reply. But when she floated the idea that free music downloads are good for everyone, she got hundreds of responses.
“It was pretty stunning,” she said. “Of course, now it’s old hat; it’s all been proved right. It was just kind of dumb luck. But at the time, people— especially industry people— were very upset with me. I got an e-mail from one guy who said he was going to give away all my CDs and I said, ‘ Great. Thank you.’ ”
The method of her new album’s release was surprising. “It’s indicative of how much the music business has changed that Sony was willing to do a lease deal where they would release The Essential themselves, but I would retain the right to manufacture CDs through my label for sale at shows and the Web site,” Ian said. “That shocked the shit out of me. They’ve become more reasonable, maybe realized that the whole paradigm just wasn’t working anymore.”
In recent years, she has expanded her writing into the realm of science fiction. “I just finished a story with my friend Kevin Anderson. It’s about a dead rock star brought back to life.” She also runs the Pearl Foundation, named for her mother, which funds college scholarships for returning students.
Ian’s dedication to social justice and personal justice for minorities has not waned over the years. Asked about the issues that need emphasis in 2010, she said, “I think it’s pretty much the same old stuff, you know. It’s sad to say that a lot of those same discriminations and attitudes still exist.” That concern has netted her a huge fan base for someone who hasn’t had a “hit” in quite a few decades. But her passion for justice doesn’t mean she’s grim and colorless. The All Music Guide review of her album God and the FBI said, “Part of the fun here is imagining her tongue firmly planted in her cheek as she expounds on various themes.”
“I would hope so,” Ian said. “I think I’m a lot funnier in real life than people give me credit for being. My audience knows that, but I think that reviewers sometimes don’t. Especially on that album, there was a lot of fun. Like on ‘Jolene’ I got to play upright bass. It was great. I was terrible.”
Her guitar playing on songs such as “God and the FBI,” by contrast, is fantastic. Like most guitarists, she has a few instruments at home. “I have a fair amount and, in fact, I’m thinking of selling them all off next year, just because I’m starting to get tired of looking at things I don’t have time to play. It’s like an illness: you can’t see a used guitar and walk past it.” For her New Mexico dates, Ian will play the Janis Ian model made by the Santa Cruz Guitar Company. The process of having a guitar designed to her own specifications she described as “arduous.” Lloyd Baggs, who had made a pair of guitars for Ian in 1975, recommended luthier Richard Hoover, founder of Santa Cruz Guitars. At the time, she couldn’t find anyone willing to make her a small guitar, she said. “Chet Atkins took me up to Gibson and I went to Martin [Guitars], with whom I’ve had a relationship for a long time, but they said there was no market for the small guitar. Richard took a chance, and now smaller guitars are very popular.”
Ian will stick around after the New Mexico performances. “I’ll sign old vinyl and CDs,” she said. “People don’t have to buy a new one.”