Her lyrics to the contrary, Janis Ian didn’t learn the truth at 17. It took a lot longer than that.
Ian, headlining the Savannah Folk Festival Sunday at Grayson Stadium, was already a big star by the time her 17th birthday rolled around. The New Jersey teen had written “Society’s Child,” about a doomed interracial romance, and watched it climb the national charts in mid 1967.
“Society’s Child” was controversial in those largely segregated days; as Ian reveals in her autobiography (also called Society’s Child), she regularly received death threats, virulent hate mail and angry, vocal protests from (white) members of her concert audiences.
Ironically, “Society’s Child” wasn’t autobiographical; Ian had grown up in a mostly black neighborhood, and had written the lyrics as an exercise in songcraft.
Nevertheless, she never had another hit. Not for a while, anyway.
In the early ‘70s, Ian re–emerged, fully formed as an adult singer/songwriter, and delivered a string of well–received and top–selling albums: Stars, Between the Lines, Aftertones and Miracle Row. Her poignant, introspective lyrics read like brilliantly etched confessional poetry.
The single “At Seventeen” went to No. 3 in 1975, and earned two Grammy Awards. A melancholy look back at the awkwardness of adolescence, it wasn’t entirely based on Ian’s personal experience, either – but it resonated with fans around the world and remains, to this day, her signature song.
Ian was the musical guest on the very first Saturday Night Live broadcast.
Her autobiography chronicles those heady years, her childhood, and everything that came later: A commercial tumble, an abusive marriage, tax troubles and years of soul–searching.
Today Ian, 57, lives in Nashville with Patricia Snyder, her partner of two decades, and writes and records when she feels like it.
The truth is: There’s no place like home.
Regarding the book: Was it cathartic to put it in all down on paper, in one place?
Janis Ian: Not really, but I learned some things from it. I learned that things that you think are important very often are not that important. And things that you went “Eh, that doesn’t really matter” do matter a lot. That was interesting. But cathartic? No. I think I’d already done enough therapy that it really didn’t matter.
Were there any things you had to think hard about revealing in the book?
Janis Ian: A lot of it, yeah. The part about being molested, that’s not comfortable to talk about no matter what. My own feelings about my fans – even though I had reconciled that, I felt a little funny letting them know there had been times I’d been scared of them, or had been nervous about them. Stuff like that was hard. Harder than I expected.
Ah, to be a major pop star in the ‘70s, recording for Columbia; your contemporaries were people like Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen. What was that like?
Janis Ian: It would have been a lot cooler if I’d had the time to enjoy it. But I think the big problem, when you’re going through something like that, is that there really isn’t any time. Your time is spoken for, for years in advance. So you don’t really get to enjoy it. In fact, if there’s anything I tell young performers when I meet them, it’s don’t listen to everybody who says “No, you can’t stop.” Stop now and then, just take a look around and see what you’re doing and enjoy doing it.
Was there a period when you couldn’t, or wouldn’t, perform “Society’s Child?”
Janis Ian: When I was much younger, right when I’d started performing again after “Society’s Child” had been a hit and I had been away for a while. I stopped doing it completely because I really got tired of people only wanting to hear that. And I felt like I’d grown up some, and I needed to be identified with something else. I didn’t do it again until about 2002.
What you became known for, of course, was “At Seventeen.” You say in your book that it wasn’t really your personal story, either, like “Society’s Child.”
Janis Ian: It couldn’t be, because I didn’t go to high school. Well, enough of it was my story that it was weird to sing it.
Speaking of weird ... does it feel weird to still be singing “At Seventeen” in your 50s?
Janis Ian: No, it feels great. It’s amazing to have a song like that in your catalog, a song that so many people know. It feels great, it really does.
Are you glad you took all that time off in the ‘80s?
Janis Ian: Yeah. Absolutely zero regrets about that. I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think it was absolutely necessary. There’s no way that I could’ve continued at the pace I was going, and done any decent work. Maybe not have even done any work. That was a ridiculous pace.
How many shows do you do a year now?
Janis Ian: Probably between 50 and a hundred. That’s not a lot, but it’s more than I would like. When you think that 100 tour dates probably means 200 days away from home, at least.
I guess you’re tired of people asking you about coming out and all that...
Janis Ian: I don’t mind. It’s a good thing. Things have changed so much since I was younger. When people complain that they haven’t changed enough, particularly as a gay person, I always say “Well, we can’t be arrested for this any more. We can’t be locked up in a mental institution.”
And I think it’s important that people like me are comfortable enough being ourselves. I don’t know if you’d call it being “out” any more, just being ourselves. Being true to ourselves.
I talk about Pat onstage, I talk about my relationship. I think the world has changed enough that we may actually have equal rights at some point.
You got married in Canada?
Janis Ian: Yes, in Toronto, when it was first legal. But really, we’ve been together for 20 years. It’s nice to have the recognition; it would be nicer to have things like the insurance and the death benefits. I would much rather have that stuff than the certificate.
OK, the corny question: When they write your epitaph ...
Janis Ian: Ha!
... what would you like to be best remembered for?
Janis Ian: I could care less. I think that’s something that they start asking you when you hit your 50s. When you hit your 50s, reporters start showing up once a year from the Enquirer to take a picture... and you know that it’s for the obit. They like to keep up to date! Pat’s still pissed off because they called her my “gal pal.”
I really doubt that any of our music – maybe with the exception of the Beatles – is going to be remembered in a hundred years. And even then – who knows how things will have changed by then. It’s staggering. I really am not concerned with it, and I know artists who are. But to me, why worry about things that are going to happen after you’re dead? You can’t take it with you.
The Enquirer will run that photo and say “She was a teenage folk star, full of angst, who wrote a controversial song about interracial romance ...” Wouldn’t you say “Wait a minute – there’s a much bigger body of work here”?
Janis Ian: You know, I really have stopped worrying about that. One of the luxuries of being in my 50s, of not being with a major label, of not having the pressure, is that I just have so much less to worry about. And that’s one of those things I don’t worry about.
If I look back, I have 300–plus songs recorded, and an awful lot of covers. I’ve got a good catalog that’s there if anybody wants to listen to it. But I really don’t worry about how people are going to perceive me. A lot of it now comes down to the prosaic and the mundane – can I earn a living, am I healthy, do I have some quality of life? Do I like my work? I try not to get too involved in my own persona, if you will.
I’m sure people still recognize you in airports.
Janis Ian: Here and there. Just enough to be comfortable, and not too much that it’s annoying. cs
Headlining the Savannah Folk Festival
Where: Grayson Stadium, 1401 E. Victory Drive
When: Sunday (Oct. 11). Festival runs 2–7:30 p.m.; Janis Ian performs at 3:55 and 6:45 p.m.
Also appearing: Jay Unger & Molly Mason, David Jacobs–Strain, Osalimi Lamoke
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Artist’s Web site: www.janisian.com
Other Savannah Folk Festival events:
Oct. 9: FolkFest in City Market: Local acoustic performers 7–11 p.m. in the City Market courtyard
Oct. 10: Youth Songwriting Competition finals: 2 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church, 520 E. Washington Ave.
Old Time Country Dance: 8–11 p.m. at Notre Dame Academy gymnasium, 1709 Bull St.
ALL EVENTS ARE FREE