My Evening With a Rude Girl: Janis Ian Live At the Stoughton Opera House
Janis Ian is a national treasure. She recently won another Grammy: for Best Spoken Word Recording; a ten CD set she created reading her autobiography, “Society’s Child”. Michelle Obama even reached out and called her to congratulate her on her achievement; that demonstrates the reach and breadth of this woman’s contribution to music.
Most of you will remember her as the woman who sang “At Seventeen”; a tender, introspective ballad detailing the angst, isolation, and guarded wisdom of an unpopular, ugly duckling teen. The song was nominated for a Grammy as Song of the Year and also won her a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. The song is now in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Prior to that, she’d been written off as a one-hit wonder who had spurned the music industry after her initial success, causing quite a bit of controversy in the process. Her first hit, “Society’s Child” told the haunting story of a young, interracial relationship in the face of prejudice. It was a record of its time. She was only 15 years old when it became a hit and had to endure being repeatedly, publically berated by members of her audience, to say nothing of the hate-filled fan mail that came her way. In spite of the controversy and, in part, because of it, the single eventually landed in the top 20. She was the toast of the liberal elite and the scourge of the still somewhat segregated South. She continued to record in order to fulfill her recording contract, but turned her back on the industry itself – giving away the money she earned to friends and worthy causes.
After a failed marriage, she returned to the music scene in 1971 and was met with incredible indifference. Undeterred, she kept at it, eventually recording three stellar works: ‘Stars’ (1974), ‘Between The Lines’ (1975), and ‘Aftertones’(1975) - works whose beauty still astounds me personally to this day and recordings I urge anyone with an interest in great songwriting to discover for themselves.
Battling industry and label indifference and interference for the remainder of her major label contract, she found herself adrift once more in the mid-eighties. After nine years in seclusion, she returned once more with the controversial ‘Breaking Silence’, which was nominated for Folk Album of the Year.
She continues to record, tour, and write, and currently resides in Nashville with Pat; her partner and wife of 24 years. Her songs have been recorded by Bette Midler, John Cougar Mellencamp, Joan Baez, Roberta Flack, Mel Tormé, Dusty Springfield, Amy Grant, Nina Simone, Kathy Mattea, and Sheena Easton, to name just a few. A favorite cause (besides gay marriage)? The Pearl Foundation. Named after her mother, the organization provides scholarship money for women who wish to go to college.
So, I happen to have the opportunity to see her at the intimate Stoughton Opera House while on vacation this week. It was a blessed event. I can’t think of a better environment in which to experience this woman and her music. She is a musician’s musician, in amazing voice, at turns witty and charming, political, savvy, and wise. The evening surpassed my wildest dreams. I even got to shake her hand and speak with her briefly after the show.
You see, I’d been waiting to meet her since 1976. That was the year I discovered ‘Stars’ and ‘Aftertones’ at my small town’s tiny public library. I checked those albums out dozens of times and listened to them non-stop, pouring over the words, searching for clues to the meaning of life and how I was to navigate the world. Something about her world-weary, cryptic lyrics spoke to me very deeply and I have been a life-long fan ever since. She’s one of the reasons I’m still alive – that is the power of music and that is the power of her music, for me. She remains one of the greatest songwriters of all time.
I encourage you to check out her music, much of which can be heard for free (and purchased) at her website: http://www.janisian.com/ , along with her incredible biography, which she was kind enough to sign for me. In fact, she was very generous with her time and music that evening; a performance that will live in my heart forever.