Meet Janis IanEntertainment Feature, Entertainment News, Section 4A, Top Highlights Thursday, May 12th, 2016
The musical force behind chart-topping hits “Society’s Child” and “At Seventeen” provides a glimpse at her playlist for her San Diego concert, her career, Bill Cosby and history’s arc
A telling story. Sunday, Nov. 26, 1967, Janis Ian, formerly Janis Eddy Fink, was asleep backstage on the set of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. She was about to make an appearance on national television to perform “Society’s Child.” The song, which laid witness to interracial love, was blacklisted by many stations of the time and even caused an Atlantic radio station, which wisely but riskily played it, to be torched. But on this night, backstage and exhausted, Janis was curled asleep in her chaperone’s lap. Among the thrum of press and media and managers and their respective coteries, Janis’ chaperone was the lone, trusted figure. And, once safe, she drifted off.
Bill Cosby was having none of it. What he saw was a very suggestive portrait of lesbianism, a particularly deviant strain that involved an under-aged girl. Janis was 16 on that late December evening and as far as the successful comedian was concerned, even though her entire way of life – her “lifestyle” – was a chimera that had no basis in fact at the time, Cosby, ever judge and jury, deemed her “unsuitable family entertainment that shouldn’t be on television.” He then made it a point to notify as many television executives as he could reach that she was not a part of America’s moral broadcasting fabric.
I asked her about that supreme irony, the schadenfreude she surely must be feeling given the multiple allegations of sexual harassment and Andrea Constand’s sexual battery charge ‘America’s Dad’ had hanging over his head. Ian’s response was tempered, but no less fiery: “You know, for someone like me, it’s a vindication because I knew what he was. And I was in the same position, and not to make my position as difficult as theirs, but I was in the same position in terms of speaking out as these women he took advantage of,” she explains. “And my tour manager at the time, who’s still a close friend of mine, and was called on the carpet for allowing this to happen, allowing a tired 15-year-old to fall asleep in her lap, when there was nowhere else to sit but one hard chair, called me the next day to thank me because she had never talked about it with anyone and she thought after all these years, maybe she’d made it up. I think that’s the insidious thing about keeping silent and people like Bill Cosby abusing their power. I feel like silence equals death, you know?”
So why is it telling? Because in some ways it best reflects the extraordinary vicissitudes that define who Janis Ian is and the long, strange trip it’s been. A New Jersey-raised Tennessee transplant, Janis Ian has made an indelible mark on American music. She has been nominated for ten Grammy awards and, having won two over a span of 50 years, continues to impress upon her fans her durability, talent tenacity and energy. Hell, the woman is even a published science fiction writer. But it’s her fierce, intelligent and brutal honesty that make her the force of nature that she is; a force that will be making her appearance in San Diego May 22 at the Balboa Theatre with the San Diego Women’s Chorus (SDWC) that is being widely anticipated in and out of lesbian circles.
To understand her pull, you have to go back to 1965 when, at 16, Ian released “Society’s Child.” The reaction to a song about interracial love with all its complications was explosive. Americans were far less enlightened regarding racial matters and radio stations throughout the United States subsequently banned the song. Ian, herself, received death threats.
It was “At Seventeen” (1975), however, which took home the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance, besting such mid-decade luminaries as Linda Ronstadt, Helen Redding and Olivia Newton John. In all, Janis Ian is a 10 time-nominated, two-time Grammy Award-winner (she garnered five alone in 1976) with a recent take for Best Spoken Word Album for Society’s Child: My Autobiography.
When I first spoke with Ian, I got off to a clumsy start, mangling my first question with an admixture of misplaced dates and incorrect accreditations. She was gracious, though. “Don’t worry about it,” she said expansively and we moved on. The second question, how do non-profits like the San Diego Human Dignity Foundation (SDHDF), which does really good work reaching marginalized communities and who will be the recipient of the San Diego Women’s Chorus’ largesse, stay relevant to millennials in an age of mass communication and stretched priorities?
“I think one of the reasons that an organization like [the SDHDF] doesn’t resonate as much for a younger generation now is because, well, because first of all there are so many of them. Second of all, because so many gay people have rights that we would have never dreamed of when I was younger. And last, because everyone is so overwhelmed. There’s so much to do and so much to fix. This younger generation doesn’t have the focus that my generation had. We had big issues …” She pauses. “Not that these aren’t big issues but we had big issues that we were only beginning to discover: The Vietnam War, voter’s rights, women’s rights and gay rights. We didn’t have them fragmented then into a lot of other issues like AIDS. And disability rights, for instance. Having had a mother with [multiple sclerosis], disability rights was something that I was involved in fairly early but it wasn’t a hot button topic. Breast cancer. The ecology movement. I remember in 1973 doing the very first public access commercial for Friends of The Earth because ‘ecology’ wasn’t even a word that most people knew. So, I think for my granddaughter’s generation, for example, they’re sixteen, seventeen, the assumption that AIDS will be treated, like any other patient, the assumption that gay people will have rights like any other human being, those are all givens to them. And they don’t sometimes understand that when you suffer a setback like the North Carolina law, or the pending legislation in Tennessee, my home state, they don’t understand the repercussions those setbacks have the way we did coming into parenthood after WWII.”
The stars. Look one way and you see something new in the sky. Look another way and you see something else. Look a third way and a third way of questioning appears. So it was with Janis. We hopscotched from issues to issues until, nearing the end of our time together, I asked for a glimpse of what she’ll be performing at UPRISING: Songs of Change, the name given by the SDWC for their benefit performance May 22.
“Of course, I’ll be doing “At Seventeen.” I think that’s important. And I’ll be doing “Society’s Child” because I think it’s relative to the issues. The songs I’ll be doing with the chorus are a new song called “I’m Still Standing.” And that’s just my favorite current song of what I’ve written. It’s fairly new and it’s a good reminder that no matter how old you are, you’re still there.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson famously once said, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path, and leave a trail.” Janis Ian said, “I feel I’m an activist by just getting up every day, by just walking out the door.” That’s what I came away from our interview with: Janis Ian creates her own trails where others can now follow. She has been beaten, but never defeated and discounted, but never dismissed. She has carved a singular voice for herself in the world of arts and letters that has few antecedents. She has partied with Hendrix and shopped with Joplin. She can weave Leonard Cohen, Leonard Bernstein and David Geffen into the same stretch of thought – she’s a self-proclaimed ‘active’ thinker – and May 22 when she performs a benefit concert with the SDWC for the SDHDF at the Balboa Theatre, we will see once again how that 17-year-old girl who was busy “inventing lovers on the phone” continues her hold on the public imagination.
To learn more about Janis Ian, visit her Web site at www.JanisIan.com.
For more information on the concert UPRISING: Songs of Change, visit www.sdhdf.org
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