I had a lovely visit on Friday evening with Janice Ian. Well, perhaps not a visit in the literal sense. I was part of her overflow audience at Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series, but it felt like a visit. Ian is an experienced hand in live performance. She is intimate, honest and open, and spare in her stories – which does not detract, but focuses. She seems slightly ill at ease, and talks to that fact, which enlarges her vulnerability so that, despite her apparent genius and marvelous talent, she becomes accessible to mere mortals. I might note here that, while respectful and admiring of Ian, I did not approach the evening with any particular sense of fan-dom, nor any prejudgment. I had heard her music rarely in recent decades. But I am a fan now.
People who live life on their own terms struggle for that right; choices are not simple and success is not binary. Rather success is rendered in shades of gray and is a frequent struggle – overcoming not only life’s usual travails but those that arise from taking the paths less traveled. From my perspective Ian has lived life on her own terms, successfully; from her perspective it has indeed been a life of struggle. She shared some of that in her performance. She opened with Jesse, begun acapella, to acoustic guitar. I thought that an odd opening number until Ian explained that she was “here to represent the more depressing aspects of American songwriting”. And many of her songs do indeed reflect the conflicts and struggles of her life, and of so many other lives. But they also often reflect, as she also pointed out, some glimmer of hope, of humor and enlightenment.
A political and social revolutionary from pre-pubescence, Ian came to light in the turbulent 60’s when rebellion was rife and there was an audience attuned to acoustic music and social turbulence. Ian and this writer are contemporaries and I recall the astonishment and jealousy I felt at the precocity of her compositions and artistry in, for example, Society’s Child written at the age of 14. Ian has garnered three Grammys (and 8 nominations) for songs recorded by herself and a spectrum of international luminaries; she has shared the stage with (and so may be enshrined with) such folk stalwarts as Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton.
On my return from Ian’s performance I was overflowing with ideas and responses – to a degree I did not anticipate. That arose in part from Ian’s introspective conversation which took me back to years uniquely rich in new experience and emotion, and abounding with songs of revolution. I had forgotten the feeling and power of simple tunes and accessible poetry. When a composer and lyricist are a team, words are set to music, or music composed for words – but when a composer and lyricist are one, the music is part of the expressive language rather than a setting; a stream of nuance and emphasis, of humor and defiance. And when words and lyrics are performed by their creator they have at least the potential to bring out the deepest feelings inherent in the work. I wallowed in the richness of the solo acoustic instruments, and the fact that you could hear every lyric; and that I heard no meaningless repletion. (Yeah, I guess I am a fogy.)
Ian worked alone this evening, playing guitar or piano, each with a musicality and sensitivity that I had not recalled and each of which, alone, would make her a remarkable artist. Perhaps she has continued to mellow and mature musically in her years in Nashville. However she got there, she is a wonder. She is not the most elegant person, nor is her pitch perfection; she reaches now where she used simply to light; she does not exude style or evoke immediate empathy – but by the end of the evening most of the audience had been through an emotional wringer – responding to each lovingly nuanced musical lick, bent note, chortled lyric or strained utterance and we were caught.
Although 64 years old, Ian has been performing for more than five decades. It shows in the ease with which she holds the stage, picks the guitar, or caresses the keyboard. She protests that performing solo in New York after so long an absence is scary. I do not discount her sincerity but, with love oozing through the room like Karo syrup, it hardly seemed necessary. She arrived on the stage with short, chopped, white hair; she was swathed in a long, black, sequined caftan over something black and comfortable, seemingly in some sort of sandals with blue and teal toes. She has become, as we do in middle age, a bit thick in the middle, a bit fleshy in the face. I could not anticipate at the beginning of the evening how seductive she would be – the directness of the lyrics, the warmth of the music, the self-awareness and intelligence were apparent.
The setting of the Appel room is not normally intimate; it is expansive. But the performance space was effectively delimited with spot lights and a rug on a raised platform; around that space was darkness – except for the magical backdrop provided by a roughly 8000 square foot picture window overlooking 59th Street. Although it previously went unnoticed (by me), perhaps for the normally broader and brighter lighting, there are two walls of glass between the performance space and the street, not parallel but angled. That angle result in internal reflections that cause lights originating at street level to fly across the backdrop window like disembodied sprites. It added to the sense of magic.
Ian talked to the audience, mostly intimately, explaining the genesis of songs, twists in her life, current feelings or simple commentary – at one point complimenting, sotto voce, a neck tie in the front row. As she attached a spangled capo to a guitar, she talked about its reason for being and wise cracked “at any moment Kanye West is gonna’ come up and take it away from me.” It was apparent that she was not only performing but experiencing the evening along with the audience, and that too brought us all closer together. Most movingly Ian explained that Some People’s Lives (made famous by Bette Midler after years of artist rejections) was written under three days of pressured desperation to present to a friend who had announced her intention to commit suicide. (That friend, with this song in hand, remains alive and well.) Her commentary was dry, wry and often self deprecating; she noted that Folkways finally took up her first recording – of Society’s Child – for the tax loss.
This evening Ian sang her own standards but, as best I recall, more slowly, more feelingly, with richer accompaniment, than I had heard before: Jesse, Through the Years, Society’s Child, Bright Lights and Promises, Silly Habits (on piano, musically mashed with Moon River – evoking the ‘smoky” style of the speakeasy), In the Winter (with a Piaf-ian wistfulness and light tremolo), Some People’s Lives, Days Like These, Stars, At 17. She also sang more recent compositions such as Married in London (inspired by her marriage to Pat in Toronto which became a legal nullity as she crossed back into the US) suggesting a brighter, lighter outlook on the world. Ian spoke briefly about being an artist, being self-doubting and self-absorbed – and made it all understandable. She referenced Rilke in saying that, as an artist, she wants to change the listener; she seeks to find that direct line to the heart, that perfect embodiment of sentiment that makes one appreciate the world in a new and better way. At least for the time, I rejected my cynicism and recalled a striving, idealistic youth.
Ian left the stage to a standing ovation and returned for a double barreled encore: she sang “I’m Still Standing” a lovely ballad, new to me, about having earned each line and crease, and her intention not to erase a one. Finally she invited the audience to sing with her yet one more tune, the first song of the evening that was not her own composition. She broke into Somewhere Over the Rainbow (Harburg and Arlen) starting with the little known lead in. After a few lines a susurrus of timid audience response arose and grew to a low key but joyful communal performance:
“If happy little blue birds fly
beyond the rainbow,
why, oh why can’t I?”
This seemed a spontaneous yet beautifully crafted evening with the end, if not the purpose, of celebrating and appreciating an American icon. Each audience member received a copy of “Strictly Solo”, a CD of all new recordings of 15 Ian songs. I have not yet listened to it but, from my concert experience, I recommend it without reservation.
Photographs by Kevin Yatarola
Janis Ian – The American Songbook
February 5, 2016