Saturday, June 03, 2006

Kat's Korner: Janis Ian blows in on a gentle breeze

Kat: What was that song?

That's what e-mails Ruth and I both received last week asked.

This song?

Come good people and gather 'round
Step out of the water before your drown
Tide is coming swift and deep
Gonna knock you off your feet
There's a tide of greed that knows no shame
and a tide of money that holds no stain
A tide of men who worship pride
and will not be denied

While politicians lie and cheat
to get to higher ground
we follow them like sheep
and salute them as we drown
but no man will be king
when all men wear the crown
and there will be a reckoning
from deep inside the rising tide
as we tear down the web
of the Great Divide

That's Janis Ian's "The Great Divide." And if you were listening to the music special on KPFA Friday, May 26th, you actually heard it on the radio. Bonnie Simmons, Jim Bennett and Luis Medina gave you a wonderful selection of some of the recent protest music. That included Josh Ritter's "Girl in the War," two selections from Neil Young's Living With War, some Bruce Springsteen (from We Shall Overcome -- The Seeger Sessions), an instrumental, jazz reworking of David Bowie's "This Is Not America" . . .

And Janis Ian.

While some were hearing Janis Ian for the first time, some of the e-mailers already knew her. Her song "At Seventeen" was a staple of seventies radio, her "Jesse" was much covered (Roberta Flack did a wonderful version on Killing Me Softly and Joan Baez on the third disc of Rare, Live & Classic; and no, this isn't the same song as Carly Simon's equally wonderful song by the same name). Some who knew of Ian may go back even further.

Lillian Roxon wrote the following in her landmark Rock Encyclopedia (1969):

This prodigious child was singing and writing songs at fifteen. By the time she was sixteen she had an album out. Her single, "Society's Child" (white-girl-meets-black-boy, girl-loses-boy, girl-blames-society) was not the sort of song the disc jockeys were accustomed to playing, and they obviously would never have done so but for the intervention of Leonard Bernstein, conductor of the New York Philharmonic, who in a TV special on rock music made a point of featuring the diminutive Miss Ian (four foot seven) and her ballad of miscegation. That was it. The record took off and so did Janis. Her songs are concerned with the hypocrisies of modern society. She has clearly been influenced by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Tim Buckley, but her style is her own and her following, especially among earnest middle-class sixteen-year-old girls who are also concerned with the hypocrisies of modern society, is enormous.

So if you heard Ian for the first time on KPFA, you might be wondering: What happened? Drugs? Meltdown? Nope, twas success that doomed the career.

Not "excess." Janis Ian, from all accounts, didn't go the Sly Stone path. She remained grounded. But "At Seventeen" was a monster hit, not just on the charts but through repeated spins on radio. It spoke to a lot of people.

Why is that a problem? The song was tuneful as hell, Ian nailed it in her vocal. The lyrics were the problem:

To those of us who knew the pain
of valentines that never came
and those whos names were never called
when choosing sides for basketball
It was long ago and far away
The world was younger than today
when dreams were all they gave for free
to ugly duckling girls like me

If you just said, "Kat, I don't have a problem with those lyrics," let me give you a hug and congratulate you. But this song, which won Ian a Grammy and helped the album go to number one on the charts, also launched a million jokes.

Twas the era of cock-rock*, even though the Stones did a disco song (as did Rod Stewart and a host of others). Jimmy Buffet and Elton John weren't exactly turning out "The Battle of Evermore" but, hey, they were men. And apparently that's what mattered most to some. By decade's end, even the former Ziggy Stardust would be trying to butch it up -- to the eye rolls of many.

Janis Ian? Just too much for those nervous about their masculinity. Now if she'd sang about boys whose names were never called, the same crowd slamming her would be sobbing in their beer and saying, "That's deep, man" the way they do whenever "Cat's in the Cradle" pipes out of a jukebox to this day. That's "universal." That's something "everyone" can relate to. Because, despite the fact that women are in the majority of the population, when a male sings about his own experience, it's heralded as the "norm." When a female sings about her own experience, it's for a "niche" audience, it has "specialized" appeal.

Ian's "crime" was writing and singing a moving song. And you better believe that some of the smart asses cracking wise could relate to it . . . in secret. But puff out the chests, put a little swagger in the walk, and sneer. That's the way it was handeled.

Not by all men. Straight, gay, or bi, some men weren't checking for their Johnsons in alarm over the fact that they could relate to the song. Some knew that relating wasn't confined to gender. But, and if you lived through it, this will be familiar, it was The Age of Sexual Panic. Walls had been torn down and now it was be who you are -- kind of too much for some. They needed those traditional, constricted roles and easiest way (then or now) to prove your "manhood" was to piss on a woman.

Janis Ian became a target for many. She'd been an admired singer, a gifted songwriter, one of those dubbed "one to watch" for many years, gathering a larger following with each release. Then came the song that nearly everyone sang along with in 1975 as it played on the radio but, by 1976, it was time to draw the line. (Ironically, the album the song hailed from was Between the Lines.) So to Christian, who wrote to ask, "Why haven't I heard this magical voice before?" -- that goes a long way to explaining why.

Fortunately, a number of you heard her on KPFA. Her latest album is Folk Is The New Black ("cheaper than crack, and you don't have to cook"). There are fifteen songs and, no surprise, Janis wrote every one of them. In the linear notes, she writes "All lead vocals recorded live Do not try this at home." It shows. Or it "hears."

Looking at photos of her today, you see that the curly hair still curls, now it's a silver halo and that's fitting for one of the most comfortable voices in music. Janis could always caress a lyric and the only thing that's changed is she does so with an even softer touch today. "All Those Promises" is the best example of that. "Every sweet caress was just your second best," she sings from a soft place that will break your heart. As you dig deeper into the album, you'll find musical moments, vocal shadings and lyrics that surprise you because you're listening to an artist as opposed to someone showing up to lay down a vocal on top of the latest series of crafted beats.

Which isn't to say the album won't have you moving. "Drowning Man" will probably find you nodding your head in time with the rhythm. But what you'll note mainly is the care that's been put into each track and the voice that always seemed to blow in on a gentle breeze.

Patricia Snyder has done some wonderful illustrations in the linear notes and, for "Jackie Skates," she's drawn a guitar that "charms black mambo." The music could probably charm snakes. It will surely charm anyone who listens. If you're wondering if this is the album for you, listen to "The Last Train" and that'll provide the answer. If your local music store doesn't provide you some means to listen, you can hear samples of all the tracks by clicking here. In addition, at her own website, Janis Ian has a page where she provides you with the opportunity to download three tracks from Folk Is The New Black ("Joy," "The Great Divide" and "Folk Is The New Black") for free. In the title track, she sings "Download it and see, The first time is free, then you'll be hooked." See if that's not the case. Ian rightly sings of "The Great Divide," but this new album (again) proves that there shouldn't be any divide between her and music lovers.

[*Note: Mike and I touch on this period with other examples in his "My interview with Kat." You can also check out "Crapapedia: Kids don't use it to research papers!"]