When you are 15 years old, what do you do for an encore when Leonard Bernstein features you on national television, your first single charts in the top ten garnering a Grammy nomination, and The New York Times anoints you "a new boldness in popular music" and "radiant new talent?" Most child prodigies fade quickly from view, but Janis Ian is thriving some forty years later, though not without immense struggle as detailed in her just released autobiography.
Born a red diaper baby on a chicken farm in New Jersey, Ian began playing the piano at three, wrote her first song at twelve, and was performing at hootenannies in New York's Greenwich Village one year later. At fourteen, this wunderkind walked into pop producer Shadow Morton's office and the very next week recorded her controversial folk ballad about interracial dating, Society's Child.
It was 1967. David Geffen was her agent, The Byrds opened for her on tour, she shopped with Janis Joplin, did cocaine with Jimi Hendrix, and performed on the Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, and Smothers Brothers television programs. Life Magazine followed her around, wanting photos of her "acting like a teenager" to intersperse with pictures of her on stage and in TV studios.
Perplexing times for this woman child, who in a few short years, crashes and burns, sequestering herself in Philadelphia to recover from emotional exhaustion. Three years later, after lots of "intensive therapy," Roberta Flack has a hit with her Jesse and Ian returns to the music business, eventually selling over ten million records and earning multiple Grammy awards, with such songs as the iconic lament, At Seventeen, disco hit, Fly Too High, and jazz duet with Mel Torme, Silly Habits.
The autobiography catapults the reader along her career trajectory. When At Seventeen begins to get radio play, initially she and the band drive a station wagon from one 200-seat club to another. Then a month later, they play 2,000-seat theaters, and a month after that, are playing 5,000-seat auditoriums being shuttled around in tour buses and limousines. In this mid `70s period, she lived openly with girlfriends, and was "outed" by The Village Voice to the consternation of her record label. The glory, drugs, sex, and isolation on the road are intimately captured with unvarnished clarity and insight.
Throughout, Ian entertains with marvelous gossipy bits about Donovan, Laura Nyro, Frank Zappa, James Brown, and Nina Simone, but more powerful are her poignant observations about surviving her own life. She walked away from music again in the early `80s, thinking she had enough money and wanting to settle down and start a family with a man. However, the idyll spiraled into tragedy: her husband became psychotic, financial malfeasance by her bookkeeper left her penniless - owing $1.3 million to the IRS, and two emergency surgeries sapped her of her health.
Ian's writing about this later bottoming out period is particularly compelling, as she helps us understand her abusive relationship with her Valium-addled husband, whom she left only after he hit her and held a gun to her head for hours. Even then, she mourned the end of their relationship.
Knowing many readers would be incredulous, she writes, "I thought I was exempt, too. I wasn't like "those women." Those women, battered women, were stupid. Uneducated. Ignorant. Poor. I was just the opposite. I had everything going for me - success, brains, money. And still, I was seduced, and reduced, until after seven years with him, part of me honestly thought I was stupid, uneducated, and useless."
Ian's story doesn't end here, but chronicles her salvation and eventual renaissance through the love of her female partner of the last twenty years. Ian returns to recording and performing in the `90s, and branches out to write columns for The Advocate, Performing Songwriter, science fiction, and now this book.
Her introspective autobiographical journey concludes, joyous and hopeful: "How much wonder there is to treasure in this life! Even winter, with its long nights and frigid days, would be welcome now. I would take joy in every gust of wind, every snowflake that might fall. Because I was alive, and that was the greatest gift of all."
Coinciding with the release of her autobiography, the artist has released a sumptuous 30-song two-CD retrospective from her 40-year career entitled, Best of Janis Ian: The Autobiography Collection. Those unfamiliar will be surprised with her range of musical styles, while those familiar will be thrilled with her classic hits referenced in the book, as well as work tapes, never before released songs, and ones long out of print.