MUSIC

At 70, Janis Ian Sings the Truth One More Time

Generations of Music, Track 1: “At Seventeen” was a huge hit for a young artist; almost half a century on, there’s “Light at the End of the Line”

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“I had it all worked out. I was gonna be a veterinarian, and lifeguard in the summer. And I was going to do music on the side,” says Janis Ian, chuckling at her youthful career aspirations. A preternatural talent changed that trajectory, and by age 15, in 1966, she’d released a song that remains a landmark of musical social commentary.

“Society’s Child”—a poignant tale of interracial love, with lyrics including, “Why don’t you stick to your own kind? / Preachers of equality / Think they believe it?”—found early support from conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein. Knocked out by the Jersey girl’s bold songwriting maturity and bell-clear voice, on 1967’s CBS documentary Special Report: Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, Bernstein called her a “great creature.” Laughing on our Zoom call, Ian notes, “That’s followed me the rest of my life,” adding, “But without him, I doubt that ‘Society’s Child’ [which was banned by many radio stations] would have happened. And then I would have had a whole different career. He was really good to me.”

Her career as a recording artist—which includes perhaps the truest lyrics ever about the agonizing emotions felt by high school girls, in 1975’s “At Seventeen”—is coming to an end via the aptly titled 12-song album The Light at the End of the Line. Ian is vibrant, in a life filled with non-musical endeavors that include journalism, a science fiction anthology (she’s been a rabid fan of the genre since she was young), and more—rather than “retire,” she prefers “rewire.” From her sunny home on Florida’s Gulf Coast, where she lives with her wife of 19 years, Ian is equally bright and open, over-ear headphones and a ready smile in place for a day of remote interviews.

Frankly, though, she is tired. “I’ve been in the music business since I was 12, 13. I’ve been self-managed now for going on 20 years. So, with no arrogance, I’ve seen a lot. I’ve watched it grow from being a business to an industry. I’m tired of business,” she states.

Caring deeply can be exhausting. Performers, Ian believes, are “supposed to be magic. That’s our job. When I walk out onstage, nobody’s supposed to know that I’ve been at that venue since two o’clock, that I’ve spent five hours already on the show. That I have to get up at 5 a.m. for a 6 a.m. depart the next day. That’s not their problem.”

Of course, some artists do less, but Ian simply can’t. “What they don’t see in ownership is not just the terrible responsibility that comes with it—because to me, it’s a terrifying responsibility. But also just the sheer amount of work it takes to protect it, to shut down people who are misusing it making T-shirts, putting on plays, whatever. It consumes you,” she admits. “It’s not good for your work. So for me, the only way to get back to my work is to say I’m done. Done with all this other stuff.”

So, along with her final album, Ian’s master tapes and publishing rights are up for sale. But as a socially conscious activist whose new song “Resist” addresses female genital mutilation, among other long-standing outrages, don’t think she’s “selling out.”

“You’re selling out for free time, because that’s about the only thing that money can buy you. Maybe good health care,” she opines. Hence the divestment: Ian started Rude Girl Records in 1992, and to date, there are more than 25 Ian albums and tons of additional Ian footage under its auspices.

In closing this chapter, she remains vigilant. The title track to The Light at the End of the Line, a goodbye song to fans, was “too hard” a way to end the album, she felt. “I really wanted to end it with ‘Better Times Will Come,’” she explains. “That last guitar chord is the arc of COVID in my life: ‘Yeah, we’re good.’ ‘No, we’re not.’”

“Better Times,” clocking in at 7:29, is a song of hope that begins quietly a cappella, growing to include a panoply of joyful instrumentation: New Orleans–style sax, clarinet, trombone, fiddle, and mandolin. Plus, guests: Vince Gill on acoustic guitar, lovely scatting by Diane Schuur, great vocals from newgrass singer John Cowan, and in the coda, sustained rock guitar shredding from Jim Oblon.

It had been nearly 15 years since she’d made an album, but Ian was constantly creating. “I had a whiteboard that I kept for years of songs that I thought were the best songs I could write.” When she looked at it, she realized, “I have 11 songs that I think are as good as I’m ever going to write.”

Then along came the pandemic. Over the years, the songs had been demoed. Listening, Ian realized that very often the first takes on the work tapes were better than the final vocals. Combining recordings of newer pieces, the arc of what would become The Light at the End of the Line became clearer. “‘Better Times’ and ‘Resist’ in my head were the bookends. It had to open with ‘I’m Still Standing,’ because fuck anybody who says to me, ‘Are you still making music?’ What!? I’m not having a hit record or on your TV screen? So I’m dead?”

Her laugh is bittersweet, but Ian nonetheless radiates a warm peace. The proud “I’m Still Standing,” a triumphant tale of aging, is somewhat of a full circle when paired with “At Seventeen.” And indeed, her voice, which she takes care to protect, is ageless and timeless. Ian sounds as if she could be 25 or 65. On the other hand, and unfortunately, the inequalities that concerned her in the ’60s have not been banished with time.

Like many women, some of Ian’s experiences have remained buried for decades. In 2015, she spoke on social media about Bill Cosby. When Ian was 16 and backstage for her appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Cosby spotted the teen resting her head in the lap of her female chaperone. He spread the word around Hollywood that Ian was potentially a lesbian and thus not suitable family entertainment.

“I felt very lucky that I was too young for him to be interested. All he wanted to do is destroy my career. He didn’t rape me,” she says bluntly. When Ian finally did open up about her Cosby story, she says, “I got some blowback. But, you know, truth is truth.” The singer adds, “I think people mistake his being released for his being declared not guilty. And he is guilty.”

Likewise, Ian minces no words in “Resist,” a song that took several years to craft to her satisfaction. Lyrics are crisp indictments: “Put her in high heels, so she can’t run / Carve out between her legs so she can’t come” … “Funny how I whisper and you think it’s a roar / You ask me to the table then you seat me on the floor.”

Her powerful aural statements have not gone unnoticed by peers: Ian earned nine Grammy Award nominations and two wins (in 1976, for best female pop vocal performance for “At Seventeen,” and in 2013, for best spoken-word album for Society’s Child: My Autobiography).

But it’s the fans who matter to Ian. “If you’re me, approaching 71, you’ve got people who have followed you for 55 years. Your work has been with them literally from cradle to grave. Your records have been buried with their parents.

“These are the things that you remember as an artist, and the older you get the more grateful you are. Not because of the ego drive. But because you were allowed to have an effect, and you did no harm.”

Those fans will get to enjoy Ian on her upcoming tour dates. But past that? Her plans, which she’s worked so hard to manifest, sound magnificent: “I would like a couple of months where I don’t have to be on email. I don’t have to carry a phone. I could actually take a walk without thinking about business.

“I know that I’m not going to be sitting around, because that’s not in my nature,” Ian concludes. “The hardest part is just learning to say no. That’s the tough part.”   ❖

As part of her final tour of the U.S. Ian will be performing May 7 at New York Society for Ethical Culture.

Katherine Turman has written for Entertainment Weekly, Spin, Billboard, and other publications, is the author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, and produces the classic rock radio program Nights With Alice Cooper. She lives in Brooklyn.

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