‘Society’s Child’ Revisited : For Janis Ian, the 3rd Time Around May Be a Charm After Decade of Struggle
“Society’s Child” is back. Janis Ian, whose controversial song about an interracial romance caused a near-firestorm in the politically charged climate of the mid-1960s, has returned to the performance stage. Eight years after the release of her last recording, Ian will appear tonight with her trio at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano.
Now 38, the singer/songwriter has embarked on the third phase of what has been a roller-coaster career. She was 16 when “Society’s Child” met with its startling success (inspired, in no small measure, by Leonard Bernstein’s seal of approval during a 1967 CBS-TV special called “Inside the Pop Revolution”). But the sudden celebrity was dampened by her parents’ divorce, the casual dispersal of much of her income and, perhaps most telling of all, no follow-up hits.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that Ian hit stride again, with a more mature, better-crafted musical outlook. “Jessie” (a chart-buster for Roberta Flack) was on the 1974 album “Stars.” “Between the Lines,” with its anthem to teen-age angst “At Seventeen,” followed in 1975.
But then--despite continued activity that included an overseas disco hit, “Fly Too High,” and a Grammy nomination for a duet on “Silly Habits” with Mel Torme--Ian’s visibility dried up again, and she entered a period of personal and financial malaise. Late last year, she moved to Nashville, concluding, she hopes, what has been a very difficult decade.
“Brutal would be a better word to describe it,” she said in a phone conversation earlier this week. Her 1978 marriage to Portuguese writer-producer Tino Sargo has fallen apart. “It lasted for either 6 1/2 years or eight years,” Ian said, “depending upon which of us you talk to.” There was a long, drawn-out, messy divorce in which she was sued for support. “He was not at all pleased with his loss of status.”
To compound the problem, Ian added, there was an ex-business associate who apparently failed to respond to IRS notices for eight years. “So, in the middle of the divorce, I just got totally wiped out financially. I’m still in a bad position with the IRS. I was actually on their felons’ list because they couldn’t get a response for eight years. Fortunately, they didn’t throw me in jail, so I guess it could have been worse.
“Then, I found out that somebody had been stealing from me, but the statute of limitations had passed. The final blow came in ’86 when I wound up in a hospital with a burst intestine just before I was scheduled to do the Philly Folk Festival. When they took me to the hospital, I wanted to wait until the next day for surgery. ‘Let me at least call my parents,’ I said. But they told me I had 45 minutes before I was dead. Fortunately, it happened so fast that I didn’t have much time to get scared.
“So I consider the 1980s a kind of a wrapping-up for me. Which makes this tour feel a whole lot like starting over, with both the plus and the minus of having some hits behind me.”
Ian began the tour with a knapsack full of new songs but no new recording, a risky move in an industry that prefers to have performers release an album first and tour afterwards.
“Oh, it’s risky, all right,” she laughed. “The concept of going out with a show that is 60 or 70% new material is the kind of temptation you feel when you’re on the edge of a cliff and you think, ‘God, I could jump, and maybe I could fly.’
“The standard managerial thinking for somebody in my position right now would be to stay low, don’t risk a tour, get a record contract, make an album, hope there’s a hit, tour behind the album and the record company will support the tour--as opposed to the kind of slogging we’ve been doing with no tour support.
“But I basically found myself in the strange position of having no management and therefore being able to do anything I wanted. And I wanted to tour with these songs. I guess it’s the first time since I was 14 that every decision is mine. And there’s this weird thing that happens when you really have total control, which is that you don’t need the control anymore.
“The fact is that we’ve been astoundingly lucky. We’ve gotten an amazing amount of good press; we’ve filled almost every hall and gone into second shows everywhere. The only thing I can put it down to is timing. It just feels like the right time, for me, and for the songs.”
Ian was enthusiastic about both the craft and the subject matter of her new songs. “They’re real tight,” she said. “I feel they’re closer toward what I was moving toward with my first album, with ‘Society’s Child’ and with ‘Stars.’ They’re closer to that material than to anything I’ve done since.
“And they’re real sociological. After writing songs for other people for the last three years, I decided around the end of last year that it was time--I’d learned enough, I wanted to do my own songs myself. I knew that I might just get one more shot at making an album. And if that was it, if I could only do one, if I was going to go down, well, I was going to go down in flames.
“So the songs are uncompromising in their subject matter, but they’re structured to be accessible, to make their point the first time you hear them. Concentration camps, incest--you know, the light stuff--but they’ve been tempered by some jazz and some fun stuff.”
One of her most unusual new pieces is called “Uncle Wonderful,” a song that deals with incest as intently and directly as “Society’s Child’ dealt with interracial romance. “It’s a tough song to do,” she said. “Audiences either give you a standing ovation or they don’t clap at all. But I think it’s a good song, and I’ll keep on doing it.”
At the moment, she said, four major record companies are bidding for her new material. “It’s weird to see doors opening to me that were closed for so long. And it’s the first time in my career that people are actually bidding. In the past, it was always having to go through the back door. With ‘Society’s Child,’ we got turned down by everybody. And with ‘Stars,’ we had to go to an Australian production company and then sell it.
“It’s real new to me to have people excited by the songs before there’s a record. And it’s also new to me to have a career based on things that are going right.
“I think you reach a reckoning age,” she concluded, “where you look around and you say, ‘OK, I would have liked to do this, I would have liked to do that.’ I don’t have Melissa Etheridge’s chops as a vocalist; I don’t have Chick Corea’s piano chops, and the truth is, I never will.
“But that’s OK. I have chops at other things. And you make a peace with that. You do what you do, and you do it as well as you can, and that’s all you can ask. That’s all anyone can ask.”
Janis Ian sings tonight at 9 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $16.50. Information: (714) 496-8930.