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Wednesday, March 6,2013

'Society' woman

Grammy winning folk singer plays East Lansing Friday

by Rich Tupica
This year’s Grammy Awards had a surprise winner for “Best Spoken Word Album.” Famed folk singer Janis Ian won for her autobiography, “Society’s Child,” over such big-name nominees Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton and Ellen DeGeneres.

“I was in good company — I was way beyond surprised,” said Ian, who plays Friday at the Ten Pound Fiddle, from her home in Nashville. “I think the first few words of my acceptance speech were, ‘Well, this is a rather stunning upset, isn’t it?’ This was a shock to the system and a validation of the way I’ve tried to move myself and career toward (being) a writer rather than a stage persona.”

The book, told in her captivating narrative, spans her 46-year career and dishes on partying backstage with Jimi Hendrix and watching her friend Janis Joplin shoot heroin. It also delves into her childhood years in New Jersey and living through the Cold War-era with her left-wing family that was under government surveillance. Those times were captured in her 2000 song, “God and the FBI.” 

The candid memoir has shot Ian, 61, back into the spotlight. She won her previous Grammy 38 years ago for her hit single, “At Seventeen.” But she’s used to that. Her long career, which started when she was 13 years old, has been a series of ups and downs.

Ian had a turbulent, unsettling start in the music business. Her 1967 debut hit single, “Society’s Child,” told the love story of an interracial couple — a topic considered taboo during the height of the Civil Rights movement. 

“The song is about a black boy dating a white girl,” Ian said. “It’s very difficult to understand now just how bent out of shape people became in 1967. It was not something that was talked about. It was such a controversial song. A radio station in Atlanta was burned to the ground for playing it. People in Boston were fired from newspapers for quoting from it. It was a hard thing to go through.”

Unfortunately for Ian, the hate and heckling over the song was mainly directed at her. 

“People would send razor blades in the mail,” she said. “They’d place them around album covers so if I didn’t open them carefully I would shred my fingers. There were a lot of bomb threats, threats to my family. It was just not a real pleasant time. On the other hand, it really showed me the power of the song.” 

Ian tells a vivid story in her book about one of her earliest shows that was sabotaged by hecklers. 

“It was one of the first concerts I did,” she said. “A group of about 20 people bought tickets to boo me off the stage by calling me a ‘nigger lover.’ They did a very effective job of scaring me. I was fortunate that the promoter of the show insisted I go back on. You don’t leave the stage because someone is booing you. 

“It was a very scary thing because it was the height of the Civil Rights movement and people were being shot. For a while, I was convinced the stage was a very dangerous place.”

Conjuring those memories for her memoir proved to be hard for Ian, but she didn’t hold back. 

“I hadn’t talked about that (‘Society’s Child’ experience) with anyone but a therapist,” she said. “It was hard to go back and visit that. But I made a decision at the beginning I was going to be honest without bleeding all over everybody. I also wanted to write just as much about the times as I did myself.”

In the years following her initial boom of success, Ian continued recording, but she fell out of the spotlight while she reinvigorated her love of songwriting. 

“I left my label, Verve, after I did four albums in three years — I was just burned out,” she said. “I really wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue because it was so hard and I wasn’t sure I could be the kind of writer I wanted to be. So I stopped, moved to Philadelphia with my then-boyfriend Peter, did some serious therapy, serious reading and studying how to be a songwriter.”

The focus on songwriting paid off. In 1975, she released her critically acclaimed album, “Between the Lines,” which spawned the No. 1 hit single and Grammy-winning song, “At Seventeen.” 

“It was a nice vindication,” Ian said. “When you see Ella Fitzgerald lead your standing ovation and Gladys Knight sing your song, it’s hard to go wrong.”

In the years since “At Seventeen,” Ian has continued recording and touring. In 1993, another milestone in her life occurred when she came out as a lesbian. 

“It was a public coming out,” she said. “Everybody who knew me (already) knew, all of the music industry knew, all my friends knew — my family certainly knew.It was really because the head of what was then the Gay Liberation Task Force quoted the teenage suicide statistics to me: Three out of every 10 teen suicides was because they thought they might be gay. Also, at the time, the scuttlebutt was still that gay people could not be in a long-term, committed relationship. I think (my partner) Pat (Snyder) and I are going to disprove that. Next year will be 25 years.”

These days Ian spends four months each year on the road playing shows, while also writing books and magazine articles. 

“Right now I’m working on a kids novel, and I’ve got a kids book coming out in September based on a song I just wrote called ‘The Tiny Mouse,’” she said. Her current tour starts at the Ten Pound Fiddle, and she encourages fans to bring old records and eight-tracks for her to sign. She also encourages people to leave notes with song requests on the stage during her performance — an intimate affair, likely similar to her early Greenwich Village folk-club performances. 

Janis Ian
Ten Pound Fiddle Concert Series
Albert A. White Performing Arts Theater
Hannah Community Center
819 Abbot Road
East Lansing
March 8
8 p.m.
$20, $18 members, $5 students
tenpoundfiddle.org

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