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Janis Ian: ‘Has-Been’ at 16, Beautiful at 60

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By Ray Watterson on January 30, 2012

If you read Janis Ian’s biography you’ll learn that she was once forced off the stage by people chanting “nigger lover” at the age of fifteen as a response to her song “Society’s Child” about a relationship between a black boy and a white girl. At her gig on Thursday night, Janis filled the spaces between songs which such stories and the audience couldn’t get enough of her tales or her songs.

At the beginning of the show, she joked that she wrote her first song at twelve, was published at thirteen, recorded at fourteen, had her first hit at fifteen, and was a has-been at sixteen. Of course, that made us all think about that song, the one that someone like me knows her for, “At Seventeen”, and she leaves us anticipating it right up until the end. Janis knows how to work her audience.

I took my mum and girlfriend to see her at The Black Box, an arts venue in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I thought it would be fitting to do a review of her gig as my first post for hypervocal4.wpengine.com because she is an inspirational writer. My mum got me listening to her when I was a kid. We used to listen to “At Seventeen” and mum always said it was her favourite song when she was that age. As soon as I found out that she was coming to Belfast I bought the tickets. I knew it was going to be a sell-out.

Janis is white-haired now at aged sixty and tiny. We only noticed how small she was when she came off the stage because she owned that stage and looked a lot taller when she was on it, doing her thing. She is very funny and engaging and there were moments of real emotion. Like when she tells us about her mother’s battle with Multiple Sclerosis and her subsequent death. She then sang, “I Hear You Sing Again” about her mother’s voice which left the audience in tears. My head hurt as I tried not to show emotion but at a Janis Ian show, I quickly learned, it is hard not to.

What really struck me is how strong and beautiful her voice still is. That sounds very patronizing but what I mean is it’s still exactly the same as the first recordings and she still performs her songs with the same intensity as if all the years in between her teenage self and the self we watched on stage had washed away and we were transformed back to that time. I had only ever listened to my mum’s old LP so I didn’t really know what to expect. I have to admit I didn’t think I was going to be as entertained as I was. I certainly didn’t realize I’d be coming away from it thinking it was the best gig I’d ever been to.

It was not just her voice and banter that grabbed me, but also her guitar skills. I couldn’t believe that it was just her making those sounds from one instrument. I had to ask my guitarist girlfriend if there was some sort of backing track accompanying her! She explained it was harmonics. It was stunning.

There was a celtic-sounding lilt to her voice when she sang songs like “Mary’s Eyes” dedicated to the Irish singer-songwriter, Mary Black, interspersed with stories about her own Jewish background. Tracks from her 1975 number one album, “Between The Lines” like “Tea and Sympathy”, “Light a Light”, and “When The Party’s Over” were mixed in with more recent songs like “Married in London” and a jazz version of “Bright Lights and Promises” after speaking about the jazz greats Nina and Ella. She balanced the heart-felt lyrics and the humor well, keeping the audience emotionally unstable throughout!

Speaking about the audience, Janis has a lot of gay fans. Ever wondered where the hell all the older lesbians in your city are? Well, they come out of their cozy marital homes for a Janis Ian gig and they will take up the first three rows! There was a funny moment when, looking down at the front row, Janis said she felt overdressed and quipped, “Why do I have to dress up when the front row hasn’t?” She returned for the second half in something  a little more comfortable – a plaid shirt! It was great to hear Janis talk about her partner Pat and how they were married in Toronto in 2003, and how they cried after the ceremony because “they felt the weight of a nation behind them”. When she sang, “Married In London” finishing with the lines,

“but love has no color
and hearts have no sex,
so love where you can,
and fuck all the rest”

everybody in the audience cheered loudly, including my mum. I felt like this could possibly be one of the most memorable gigs I have been to. She once sang “Married In London” at a same-sex wedding and when she asked them if it was such a good idea, the reply says it all: “Definitely, my mother is coming!”. It sounds weird but I felt glad she was married to a woman and I was there with my mum, and she was talking about it, and looking so happy, because I think it helped my mum to finally get it. People say musicians are there to perform and that’s it but when someone can come on stage and tell us stories about their life, and simply be out about their relationship, it does help us, you know?

The song includes the lines,

“but back in America,
Land of the free,
I’m a threat to
the national security”

Both funny, political and poignant all at once, this is the power of music, especially live music. Especially live music sung by one of the greatest songwriters (two grammy awards to boot) in the world. It inspires and uplifts an audience. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to hear Janis Ian live. At the end we went up to get a few things signed and she asks me out of nowhere, “Are you a writer?” I am very shy when it comes to meeting new people, especially someone I have just heard singing and who is such a talented person. So, I said, “Um…sometimes” and she took her bracelet off and gave it to me, and said, “When you write your first novel, send me it.”

I know it’s cheesy but she has inspired me, or rather, encouraged me with that warm and generous gesture to keep doing what I already love and to dedicate myself to it. Thanks, Janis.

Visit Janis’s site where she encourages you to download “Married In London” and “post it on your Facebook.”

Ray Watterson writes about fashion, food, reviews, queer issues, gender identity and anything else that interests her happening in the world today. Follow Ray at @queerotackybeau.

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