In 1966, while many teens were trying to decide which one of The Beatles to marry, 15-year-old Janis Ian had a hit song on the radio. A song about interracial dating, no less. “Society’s Child,” a tune she composed while on a school bus after passing a white girl and a black boy necking on a park bench, promised the emergence of a great American songwriter.
Forty-two years later, Ian has more than lived up to that promise and, at age 57, has many more tales to tell.
To say Ian is a veritable museum of rock history is an understatement. This is, after all, a woman who snorted coke with Jimi Hendrix and was friends with Janis Joplin.
Ian’s personal life is no less intriguing. Her parents were under FBI surveillance, she was sexually abused as a girl, and her husband tried to kill her. Today, she’s happily married to a woman.
Ian is the kind of person who should write a book.
Thankfully, she has.
“Society’s Child,” titled after the song that started it all, is Ian’s autobiography in words. “Best of Janis Ian: The Autobiography Collection,” a new two-disc retrospective, is her autobiography in songs.
Ian says having her career in a retrospective package was “pretty cool”: “I think if I’d done it even 10 years ago, it would have felt pretty premature.”
Granted, writing a book isn’t the same thing as writing a song. “With a song you’ve got a lot to hide behind. You’ve got music, you’ve got rhymes. With a book, it’s just words,” she continues. “There’s not much to hide behind, unless you’re being not truthful. I deliberately made a choice to write a truthful book.”
And she does. In “Society’s Child,” Ian writes about the first time she fell in love with a woman. “I was 21. We met at a health club in Los Angeles. It was scary wonderful, I think, like any kind of big first love.”
She also writes that she realized she was gay in fourth grade. “My classmates were dating, making out, talking about boyfriends and dreaming of marriage. I was dreaming of saving Joan Baez from drowning, of her eternal gratitude as she kissed me chastely on the lips and adopted me into her life. I was a late starter; my sexual fantasies ended at the neck. But they were always about women,” she writes.
She is no less candid when writing about her abusive marriage, being seduced by her therapist, her IRS trouble, and her decade-long absence from the music world. She’s open and honest, much as she was when she wrote “At Seventeen,” a song that appears on her 1975 album “Between the Lines.”
In her book, she tells of writing the song after reading an article about debutantes. “How could I write about high school girls, or prom night and homecoming queens? I hadn’t had any of those experiences. There were plenty of other school things I had experienced. I knew what it was like to never be asked out on a date. I knew the sinking feeling when everyone else in class came in to find a valentine on their desk, and yours was empty. And I sure as heck knew what it was to feel clumsy and ugly. I could write this song, I was sure of it.”
“At Seventeen” has enjoyed a resurgence of sorts after the first “Saturday Night Live” episode – on which Ian performed – was rebroadcast this June after George Carlin, the episode’s host, passed away. The rebroadcast was the first time she’d ever seen it.
While Ian has attracted new interest to her music, she cannot fathom starting out today.
“I’m so much a product of the times I came up in, it’s hard to imagine even having a career if I had come of age in the ’90s. I would hope I’d be Ani DiFranco – but I really don’t know,” she said. “I think it’s a lot harder to stand out now. There’s so much music out now; there’s such a glut.” She pauses.
“Then again, it was hard to stand out then, too.”
And yet, she did. And does. Ian still draws a passionate crowd, and her Sept. 6 performance in Ann Arbor will be no exception. “The Ark is one of the best clubs in the country,” she says. “I’ll be doing some old stuff and some new stuff, a lot of telling stories based on the autobiography.”
Ian makes a point to meet fans after shows, many of whom have been with her since the start.
“A lot of times people bring their old vinyl,” she said. “They bring old singles of ‘Society’s Child’ and things like that.”
Things for Ian have come full circle. It’s as she writes in her autobiography, “Things work out, if you let them. It’s the in-between that’s hard.”
7 p.m. Sept. 5
Borders, downtown Ann Arbor
8 p.m. Sept. 6
The Ark, Ann Arbor