It was a memorable Friday evening, February 5 at Lincoln Center’s stunning Appel Room as the soft spoken Janis Ian stood center stage and bowed to her avid fans’ applause. The panoramic view behind her, the twinkling lights of traffic circling around Columbus Circle and the shadows of the area tall building lights beaming into the night was a fitting backdrop for the 10-time nominated, three-time Grammy Award Winner (winning in eight different categories), now in her fifth decade of writing songs, performing, writing science fiction and penning an autobiography.
Defying the “staying” odds of a young child star breaking out at 12 and at 14 creating tremendous controversy with her hit, “Society’s Child” (about the relationship between two teens, one white, the other black), she is still going strong at 64. She has been nominated again for a Grammy (with actress Jean Smart), for her audio book Patience & Sarah in the “Best Spoken Word Album” category.
Ian, who was always one of the most unique, truthful and shining of the music industry’s mavericks, is thriving. And as one of the songs she sang this night rang out loud and clear (“I’m Still Standing”), she has lifted up her 4’9″ frame to stand tall despite the trials over the years, the loves and break ups, and thuggery of the music industry whose Atlantic Records of the past, she said smiling, “…was run by the Mafia,” but was “kinder and gentler to artists” than the current corporate manifestations of hyper-greed counterparts today. Despite it all, Ian continues to trump stereotypes and stubbornly refuses to be anything but her anointed self. And what an absolute pleasure she is.
Ian, whose droll sense of humor peppered the evening with spicy notes, quipped about Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series’ inclusion of her when she said, “I am here to represent the more depressing aspects of the “American Songbook.” The audience laughed and applauded with appreciation. She mentioned that she believes that “artists are born, not made,” and that she has been continually “humbled” by her own talent which is like a “runaway horse” waiting for her to mount.” Indeed, this runaway steed has carried her through the decades on an amazing journey, and that forward momentum has become like a living song which has no definable beginning or ending. Indeed, this is because her music is truthful, spiritual, and touches the ineffable to resonate in all of us if we have the ears to hear it.
Ian mentioned the elements of artistic mystery to the audience when discussing her early songwriting. “How did I know to make the chorus…” of a song “higher?” “How did I know to make the last line the best line?” How does a 12-year-old do that? It has remained a mystery to her and for her fans and the audiences who come to her performances or engage with her online. Those mysterious elements are what provide the ingenuity, honesty, and forthrightness of her lyrics that have found a place to rest on plaintive notes and striking melodies most notably found in her two biggest hits, “Society’s Child” and “At Seventeen.”
Yet, such elements are present to a greater or lesser degree in whatever she chooses to create and certainly through many different iterations and a mix and meld of music genres which include folk, blues, rhythm and blues, folk rock, pop folk, country, and folk jazz.
In her repertoire at The Appel Room, there were simple haunting songs of love and heartbreak: “Jesse” from the album Stars (with lyrics like “Jesse come home/There’s a hole in the bed/Where we slept/Now it’s growing cold”) and “In the Winter” from the LP Between the Lines (“In the winter extra blankets in the cold/Fix the heater getting old/I am wiser now, you know, and still as big a fool/Concerning you”) and the funky/softly/brassy “Bright Lights and Promises” from BTL (“Bright lights and promises/A pocket full of dreams/That’s what they pay me to be/Gold lame’ and diamonds/I’m a hometown queen/Honey would you sing it just for me?”).
During the program, Ian sang old favorites that are in the Grammy Hall of Fame (“Society’s Child” and “At Seventeen”), both of which she mentioned she never tires of singing for fans because of the audience’s immediate warm applause and radiant smiles as they recognize the first few notes and the tell-tale lyrics. She likes to make the audience happy. Other songs were from her award-winning and Grammy-nominated albums.
She sang more recent songs, for example “Married in London.” After a humorous lead-in about going for bridal outfits in a store in Nashville, Ian sang the simple, ironic, and thematically prophetic song which expresses the craziness of what she faced when she married her partner Pat. Her passport was legal in Sweden and cities like Amsterdam, but she was illegal in the U.S.
This song, which she wrote with her partner after same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.K., highlights the absurdity of the politics of gay marriage – “We’re married in London/But not in New York” – and makes ironic fun of Catholicism’s strict religious tenets: “It’s hard being married and living in sin/Sometimes I forget just which state I am in/Thank God I’m not Catholic/I’d be a mess/Trying to figure out what to confess.” In typical Ian fashion with the last line being the best, she ends the song with this advice: “Love has no color/The heart has no sex/So love where you can/And F%$k all the rest.”
Interestingly, the song brought controversy. When she sang it in Nashville where she lives, people initially missed the humor of what she was really saying. Some folks walked out. As she continued to take a stand and sing it, gradually, there were no walk-outs. All in the audience realized the song is about love, not power, and it is ridiculous and contradictory to frame true love within political lines.
Janis Ian shows great good humor when she infers that she was published at 13, had a record at 14, a hit at 15, and was a “has been” at 16. She has proven the profound depth of her creative genius, however. As an artist, she got on that runaway horse which sped her on to writing “At Seventeen” and other marvelous songs that have been recorded by the likes of Bette Midler, John Mellencamp, Roberta Flack, Amy Grant, Marti Jones, and others. And that “runaway horse” has motivated her to continue writing, composing and touring.
Fortunately for me, it brought her to The Appel Room to present an incredible evening of song, emotion, stories, and feelings. For me, it was a long time coming. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
The American Songbook Events continue in The Appel Room until February 26. The Appel Room is located in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall.