So­ci­ety’s woman

Pasatiempo - - Cd Reviews - Paul Wei­de­man

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.”

Ja­nis Ian

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.