November 6, 2008
“At Seventeen” — Janis Ian’s anthem to teenage female angst — resonates as strongly today as when it debuted more than 30 years ago. But it was her first hit — “Society’s Child” — that put her on the musical map. The song about a mixed-race relationship was years ahead of its time, an uncomfortable reminder of the unrest that still remained in a post-civil rights era. Her signature song earned her no small share of disapprobation by critics who dismissed her work as naive at best and dangerous at worst.
After being off the musical radar for many years, Ian — who spent her formative years in East Orange — published Society’s Child: My Autobiography (Tarcher/Penguin). For the most part, it’s not a pretty story.
Achievement at a precocious age — she wrote “Society’s Child” when she was 15 — did not augur a life of success. She never finished high school, dropping out to pursue her burgeoning career. For years, the FBI hounded her parents, suspecting them of having communist sympathies. This shadow forced them to move frequently because her schoolteacher father could never achieve tenure. Switching schools so often no doubt contributed to her educational discomfort.
Since that time, Ian has had to deal with financial upheavals courtesy of unscrupulous accountants and advisers, health issues, and betrayals from lovers — both male and female — including one in a violently abusive relationship.
She looks at those experiences as having “put me where I am now…. I’m so lucky to be where I am now rather than where I could have been,” Ian told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview from her home in Nashville, Tenn. She said she wrote her book primarily to acquaint readers — especially those who didn’t grow up in the 1960s — with legendary musical personalities like Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Hendrix, and Joan Baez. But it also serves to build a new audience and help her fans catch up with what she’s been doing for the past 20 years or so. “It was also, to be frank, a really good excuse to stay home for a whole year.”
Surprisingly, Ian said that achieving fame at such an early age didn’t put too much pressure on her. “I can’t imagine how. I always wanted to be in music. I always wanted to write one thing or another. So I can’t imagine that it would have done much more than delay things.”
But wouldn’t finishing school, perhaps waiting until at least her 20s, have given her that extra bit of maturity and life experience? “Nah,” she said. “Look at the trouble older people get into.”
Despite moving around so much, she has fond memories of the Garden State and said she “loved” New Jersey. “I think I was lucky to grow up in a time before Jersey expanded so much. I don’t know how anybody can afford to live there anymore.” She’s been living in Tennessee for the past 20 years. “Nashville’s been extremely good to me. It’s a kinder, gentler economy.”
Ian, 57, recalled her Jewish experience in her formative years as “more cultural than religious. My grandparents came over” — from Russia and Poland — “and said, ‘Let’s throw that out the window.’ But culturally, we were very Jewish.” Even though she would have enjoyed having a Christmas tree, her parents never allowed one in the home. Whenever she had arguments about religion with her mother, she was told, “God doesn’t care if I’m an atheist.”
Ian made her first trip to Israel in 1980, arriving to banners that read “Local girl makes good.”
The experience of coming to the land of her ancestors was made all the more special by her traveling companions, her backup group, which consisted of Baptists, Presbyterians, and Catholics. “It was an amazing coming-together. It was hard for us to understand how things were so fragmented there.”
Ian has written dozens of songs about social justice, feminism — and the horrors of the Holocaust (see sidebar). In fact, she grew up knowing a lot of survivors among her grandparents’ friends. “I think any Jewish kid of my generation grew up with those tales.”
Society’s Child was released with an accompanying CD, and her book tour is part of her new musical tour. “It’s a way of earning a living and not hurting anybody,” she said. “It’s a pretty good gig. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. It never occurred to me…to do anything else.”
From Society’s Child, by Janis Ian
ONE NIGHT, I went to the Bluebird and watched a young man from the hill country, Lance Cowan, sing a song about the Holocaust. I was chagrined. Here I was, a Jew, and though I’d always wanted to write about death camps, I’d been scared I didn’t have the chops for such a huge subject. Now some kid with no personal investment had gone and written a good song about them. It made me feel small. It made me feel like a coward.
I grabbed my napkin and jotted down two lines:
Her new name was tattooed to her wrist
It was longer than the old one
For the next two weeks, it was “Some People’s Lives” all over again. I worked on it in the car. I worked on it during other writing appointments. I worked on it late at night, when I could barely keep my eyes open. I tried half a dozen different choruses before finally deciding the song didn’t want a chorus. I got stuck on the ending and sat there, stymied, for a month. I finally took a friend, Rabbi Beth Davidson, to lunch to discuss it. The song needed some resolution. Did she have any ideas?
Rabbi Davidson shook her head. “Janis, there isn’t any resolution for a concentration camp survivor…. It doesn’t go away. It gets better, but it never goes away.”
That gave me the key I needed, for an ending that never really ended:
Surgeons took the scar,
but they could not take it far
It was written on her heart
Written on her empty heart
When I was finally finished, I took my new song to the Bluebird and played it for a bunch of other songwriters. Their mouths dropped open. No one had ever heard anything like it. With lines like,
Gold from a grandmother’s tooth
Mountains of jewelry and toys
piled in the corners, mailed across the borders
Presents for the girls and boys
It was at once an indictment of the Nazis, and a heartfelt account of one woman’s destruction at their hands:
Centuries live in her eyes
Destiny laughs, over jack-booted thighs
“Work makes us free,” says the sign
Nothing leaves here alive
One of the writers said, “That’s the most powerful thing I’ve ever heard.” Another told me, “You make me ashamed to be human.” And another said, “Janis, no one’s ever going to sing that but you. You need to start thinking about making another record.”
A record? What a laugh.
Years later, “Tattoo” was chosen by the Dutch government to represent their country during the Europe-wide festivities that marked the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II, and Queen Beatrix herself thanked me for it. But I didn’t know that would happen back then, and the chance of my having another recording career was lower than my getting struck by lightning.
— From Society’s Child, by Janis Ian