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As a lightning bolt of illumination splits the sky, a thunderclap of enlightenment follows. Somewhere around 1999 or the early 2000s I went with a group of co-workers to an early show at the now-defunct, sorely-missed Manhattan nightclub, The Bottom Line. In an effort to pin down the exact date of the show, I checked the "Timelinea€? on the Bottom Line website that lists the performers for each show.
Although he couldna€™t answer my question (a€?There were so many appearances!a€?), he was eager to weigh in with his own recollections and praise.
Later, her father graduated from Rutgers University and began teaching in the New Jersey public school system. At nine years old, Janis heard Odetta for the first time on a Harry Belafonte television show.
In junior high, shea€™d go to Greenwich Village, meeting with others from camp, to stand around the fountain in Washington Square Park and sing. Her father subscribed to Broadside Magazine which published songs by people like Bob Dylan and Buffy Sainte-Marie.
Her recording career got its rocket-propelled start after she wrote a€?Societya€™s Child (Baby, Ia€™ve Been Thinking)a€? based on her observation of an interracial couple.
The psychological battering from pressure to constantly write, tour and record, and the disintegration of her family took its toll.
While we cannot be sure that poem was written exactly during that time, it seems to capture her frame of mind. She played a tough weeklong gig in California, but realized that the weather and atmosphere was what she needed.
The album Stars (1974) was followed by her biggest success, Between the Lines (1975) which contained the song a€?At Seventeen,a€? another revealing tract that cut so deep, she was initially afraid to play it to audiences. In 1982, feeling depleted, Janis walked away from a multi-million-dollar record deal with Columbia which had three more albums contracted. In 1986, her new publisher MCA suggested that Janis work with Nashville writers to improve the marketability of her songs.
The years of being a workaholic caught up with her and she became ill with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). As she finally regained the upper ground in her battle with CFS, Patricia Snyder came into her life, bringing her physical and emotional comfort. The initial album coming out of this period, Breaking Silence, would be her first in ten years. The book describes in detail the relationships Janis has had, over the years, with both men and women.
Janis had been approached by the gay-oriented magazine, The Advocate to write a monthly column for them. After her moma€™s death, to honor her, Janis established Pearla€™s Foundation, a scholarship fund to help people in their efforts to seek higher education, Her mother had forged ahead and graduated from Goddard College, in spite of her illness, fulfilling a lifelong dream. Janisa€™s most recent albums, God and the FBI (2000), Billiea€™s Bones (2004) and Folk is the New Black (2006) show that her writing is still razor-sharp.
Those of us who have been fortunate to stand face to face with Janis will never forget the steady gaze behind which sits one of the formidable minds of our generation.
I was shocked to discover how little I actually knew about Janis Ian.A  It wasna€™t until I picked up a copy of her autobiography, Societya€™s Child, that I understood the full depth of Janisa€™s connection to folk music. The FBI would shape her early life.A  Her family was already being scrutinized before she was born. The book describes in detail the relationships Janis has had, over the years, with both men and women.A  What was horrific about most of Janisa€™s earlier relationships was the amount of betrayal her partners displayed. As I was building the layout of this feature article, I found myself unprepared for the iconic beauty I encountered in the photos by Asia Kepka on Meg Hutchinsona€™s website. A phone interview with Meg uncovered some of the unique elements that went into the creation of this fiercely dedicated poet and songsmith. Meg affectionately referred to her parents as a€?hippies,a€? [extremely bright hippies] and said that their record collection included all the classic stuff, including Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Jackson Browne. When her grandmother passed away, an uncle sent the grandmothera€™s guitar, a beautiful old Martin, to Mega€™s family. In eighth grade, Meg wrote a song, a€?Freedoma€™s Ocean,a€? about apartheid in South Africa for a geography project.
In spite of the revelation that came after singing her apartheid song at the talent show, Meg, overwhelmed by the culture shift and her parentsa€™ unraveling marriage, put her musical ambitions aside in high school and concentrated on athletic pursuits.
By the time she was 17, while attending Simona€™s Rock, Meg had her own apartment and worked at an organic farm. Meg experienced many mood swings during her early years that she attributed to a€?artistic temperamenta€? but they became more pronounced as she got older. Her first self-titled album grew out of her college poetry study, working on the farm and dealing with her varying emotional states.
Her next album, Against the Grey, was more formally produced at a studio by musician Robby Baier and released in 1999. Meg had been a a€?huge Martin Sexton fan,a€? and wanted his producer, Crit Harmon, to produce a CD for her. Passim, the renowned folk club in Boston, runs a fundraising festival each year called a€?The Cutting Edge of the Campfire.a€? Meg was grouped with fellow songwriters Antje Duvekot, Anne Heaton and Natalia Zukerman. Lured by a bill that included Tom Paxton and Janis Ian, we knew we were in for an evening of top-notch folk music. She took center stage and began playing fingerstyle guitar with an almost impossibly pristine sound. I know that earlier in my life -- through my 20s possibly into my 50s, I viewed her as a pop artist with a social conscience.
A precocious toddler, Janis writes that her father used to say, a€?Janis started talking at seven months and never stopped.a€? At two-and-a-half years old, she persuaded her father, also a master music teacher, to give her piano lessons.
The FBI would contact each school administration every two years when hea€™d be up for tenure.
With her fathera€™s guitar perched on her lap in the back of the family station wagon, she played it for them. Janis made a lead sheet like those in the magazine, added the melody, chords and lyrics, put her name and phone number on the page and submitted a€?Hair of Spun Gold.a€? Two months later, her father got a call from the editors. Janis took guitar lessons with the Reverend Gary Davis, and after the lessons morphed into social occasions, began hanging out with him. She played regularly after that, which got her noticed and led to a meeting with legendary producer a€?Shadowa€? Morton.
Chapters dealing with their separation and divorce and Janisa€™s emotional upheaval are particularly sad. All the Seasons of Your Mind (1967) sold enough to make the national charts, but followup albums, The Secret Life of J.


Harrowing passages describe how a diligent psychotherapist there, Gerry Weiss, pulled her back from near death and personally nursed her back to health. It was provoked partly by a critic referring to her, still a teenager, as a a€?washed-up has-been.a€? It was also partly inspired when she heard Don McLeana€™s a€?Vincenta€? for the first time. She needed to get off the merry-go-round to explore other areas of life, to regenerate her resources.
She had talent and wrote deep songs but Nashville writers had the craft to make them more commercial. After she declared her homosexuality, he stood by her and issued an authoritative warning to anyone who might give her trouble: a€?Dona€™t mess with hera€¦a€? He would bolster her confidence in her guitar playing, stressing her individuality.
Tragically, her mother, Pearl, had become ill with Multiple Sclerosis and would decline over a 20-year span. She refused, saying a€?I dona€™t write prose,a€? but Pat and an editor provided the idea that Janis would poke holes in the stuffiness of its image and that concept sealed the deal.
Janisa€™s father owned every copy of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction ever printed. Janisa€™s stint as a columnist for Performing Songwriter plumbed her depth of knowledge of the music business.
An initial auction of Janisa€™s own personal effects, held on the internet, brought in a total of $66,000.
I also became aware of the route by which she developed her sense of social justice, and the emotional, physical and financial hurdles she has overcome.
Her father, then a chicken farmer, was inexplicably picked up by FBI agents after attending a meeting about the price of eggs.
Her marriage to her husband descended into physical abuse, psychotic behavior and Janisa€™s near-murder at his hands. Ita€™s the aural equivalent of having very expensive imported chocolate melt on your tongue a€” a velvety, bittersweet tone that carries with it all the pain and all the dreams in her life.
The picture I chose for this first page reminds me of a George Hurrell Hollywood photograph from the 1940s.
Mega€™s father has been an English professor at Simona€™s Rock College (now called Bard College at Simona€™s Rock) all her life. She remembered, once, after playing in the yard, she came stomping into the kitchen in protest while her mother was playing Bob Dylan.
She went to the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School, one of the network of Waldorf schools. Simona€™s Rock College had an early entry program for students with good grades, so she began her college career at around age 15 and, because her parents worked there, got free tuition.
She said that she had no idea how serious things were, but attempted to express the depths of her feelings through poetry and music.
Meg was now being managed by the same woman whoa€™d helped her earlier, and a€?was teaching me about the music business,a€? Meg said.
Shea€™d met him at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, but was too shy to present herself as a prospective client. After my early infatuation with a€?Everything Familiar,a€? ita€™s difficult to pick a favorite. She was hospitalized by July of that year, and after several months of treatment and therapy in and out of a mental health facility, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
She was signed by Red House Records and in 2008, Come Up Full, produced again by Crit Harmon, was released. This time around, she ponders both the depths shea€™s plunged and the heights to which her bipolar disorder has taken her.
Theya€™d been on the same circuit together and quickly realized how good the combination was and how much fun they were having.
In quelling her bipolar symptoms, Meg lost the manic creative highs, but forges on, banking on truthtelling for inspiration. He sounded amused as he recounted the reactions of colleagues when they discovered how well Janis played guitar. My longest-standing memory was (and still is) the way I would get choked up listening to a€?At Seventeen,a€? especially during the ache-filled refrain, a€?a€¦who call to say, come dance with mea€¦a€? Ahh, yesa€¦ Ia€™d had my share of a€?wallflowera€? years and there were more than a few missed dances. It ended a year later because, at three, she was already getting into arguments with him over interpretations and fingering. In kindergarten she objected to learning her a€?ABCa€™sa€? because she already knew how to read.
Theya€™d see interracial and gay couples while being totally ignored by adults -- a completely opposite atmosphere from conservative New Jersey. She did one more album, Uncle Wonderful (1983) with an Australian publisher, then walked away from the music business. She discovered that her a€?accountanta€? (a bookkeeper without a proper CPA) had embezzled her money and falsely represented her income tax payments. She teamed with accomplished songwriter Kye Fleming both creatively and romantically and found some success and some brief happiness.
At the time of the printing of her autobiography, $300,000 had been raised.This preceded, but could have functioned as a road map for eBay.
Hunger (1997), completed after a difficult studio experience and filled with glittering gems from start to finish, has become a personal favorite of mine.
Janis has finally found happiness in a stable 20-year relationship, a testament to her resilience and intelligence.
This is unlike her first song to get its hooks in me, a€?Everything Familiar,a€? from her previous album, The Crossing. Her mother would go on walks and play the recorder and both her mom and dad sang lullabies to all three kids.
Her mother stayed home to raise the children and later became a writing teacher at the same college.
The family didna€™t have enough money to visit her often, so she remained an elusive revered figure. Their grief for the loss of their matriarch seemed to transfer to the guitar and everyone wept upon seeing the damage. She sat onstage in the auditorium, calmly playing for the very first time in front of an audience.
There were manic periods of great energy where shea€™d write and perform, feeling very powerful. The album, named after watching Maine fishermen pull their nets from the water, is full of new self-awareness.
Then, Gary insisted that Janis open for him at a Gaslight Cafe gig and the owner reluctantly agreed after Gary threatened to walk out.
Shadow disagreed with her a€?Baby, Ia€™ve Been Thinkinga€? title, so when her first record came out, it became a€?Societya€™s Child,a€? with the prior title in parentheses. Although it brought a halt to her relationship with Peter, they remain friends to this day.


The albums Aftertones (1975), Miracle Row (1978), Night Rains (1979), and Restless Eyes (1981) followed. Janis found it liberating to study in areas, such as ballet, where she had no innate ability.
She attended her first Worldcon, the largest gathering of science fiction writers and fans, at the prodding of two of her heroes in the genre, Mike Resnick and Anne McCaffrey. Her article on a€?The ABCs of being the Boss,a€? geared toward musicians, contains a wealth of helpful information for anyone in a supervisory capacity. The agents would hang around, always recognizable in their black suits and ties, even in the heat of August. The albums Aftertones (1975),A  Miracle Row (1978), Night Rains (1979), and Restless Eyes (1981) followed.
They encouraged children to be creative a€” allowing them to move their bodies, draw, build stuff and make gardens a€” a path to letting the child be a whole person.
The entire family suspended their normal routine and made a pilgrimage to the Martin guitar factory in Nazareth, Pa., to get it fixed. She laughed as she recalled how, at one point, shea€™d fallen in love with a champion high school wrestler and lost him to a cheerleader. One friend had a four-track recording setup and allowed her to use his living room as a studio and put the tracks together. After her mom had a talk with the principal, Janis was allowed to read while the rest of the class did their drills. She practiced, listening to all the records in her parentsa€™ collection, plus some borrowed from family members. A huge success in Japan, she became an iconic star and was (and still is) treated like royalty there.
She also studied acting under Stella Adler, who became a close friend and mentor until Stellaa€™s death in 1992.
An avaricious IRS agent appropriately named Granite seemed to take sadistic pleasure in erecting barriers to Janisa€™s attaining any kind of solvency, despite her complete cooperation. After the relationship ended, although Kye, a Nashville native felt awkward, Janis felt that Nashville had become a€?home,a€? and decided to move there permanently. They pushed her to involve a number of other authors to contribute to Stars, a compilation book of short stories based on her songs. Also available is the article Janis wrote for Performing Songwriter, on the free downloading phenomenon, a€?The Internet Debacle.a€? When she reported that downloading actually increased sales, not the opposite, as the record industry had charged, she was called a traitor.
She practiced,A  listening to all the records in her parentsa€™ collection, plus some borrowed from family members. Peter became her love, her rock, an oasis inside of the whirlwind.A  On the music trail, she became friends with stars such as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, who tried to protect her from drugs, but the proximity led to some experimentation.
One main teacher acted as a a€?a€?corea€? teacher and a€?that teacher would become like a third parent,a€? Meg said. Meg said that this was a powerful, extremely moving experience for her, bonding her with her family over the value of music and this particular instrument. She wrote an unrequited love song that was the extent of her song production during high school.
She finally met Crit at a Folk Alliance conference and he agreed to allow her to demo a song for him.
A local librarian helped Janis a€?retain her sanitya€? by allowing her to take out more books than the usual allotment and picked out more advanced works for her to read. At the Village Gate, she played alongside some of her heroes (sitting between Tom Paxton and Len Chandler) and, after each song, she got a standing ovation. Although she still wrote, and had songs covered by others, she issued no recordings for around 10 years. After sixteen years, the magazine has just ended its publication, but for eight years, Janis imparted her wisdom to the songwriter community. She started making some of her songs available as free downloads and watched her sales shoot up. You did a good job!a€? Meg was actually overwhelmed with the sudden knowledge that she had just experienced what she was meant to do. The song demo grew into a series of a€?living room sessionsa€? where a€?hea€™d rip my songs to shreds.a€? Crit would dissect each song Meg presented and send her home with pieces that were like a puzzle for her to put together again.
In school, her fellow students at the High School for Performing Music and Art were respectful.
They left the guitar there, and it was later shipped (safely this time) back to Massachusetts. She walked out of the school, into a snowy day, carrying her guitar case, feeling that she was a€?home.a€? The song was so well-received that later she performed it at a number of open mics in town.
She told one interviewer, Bob Edwards (Sirius xm), that it was possible some days, between tips and selling CDs to make $200 in a few hours.
Crit may not have known what he was dealing with, perhaps expecting Meg to dissolve and run away in tears. We sat there slack-jawed as Janis unleashed a barrage of guitar histrionics that crossed a line -- to borrow a phrase from Star Trek -- where no folkie has ever gone before.
Once a week, past her bedtime, shea€™d secretly listen to a folk show out of Newark at 10pm, a towel stuffed under the door to avoid being heard.
In the first tale, a€?Come Dance With Me,a€? Janis herself makes a thinly veiled appearance. During this period, shea€™d express elements about her recurring depression, but not own it as being about herself.
Meg accepted every criticism and rebuilt her songs, her lyrics becoming leaner and more concise, less dense than her earlier work.
Jealous of her success, they penalized her for absences resulting from performing, even though she got good grades on tests. Janisa€™s own story, a€?Second Person Unmasked,a€? not unsurprisingly deals with a shifting sexuality and the issue of powerlessness.
My tendency to get swept up in melody and rhythm led to a late-blooming awareness of Mega€™s poetic lyricism.
Similarly, my knowledge of Mega€™s journey through the dark landscape of bipolar disorder came only after my online discovery of other interviews shea€™d done. Asked in a later interview if she had any regrets, she replied, a€?Not for an eighth of a second.a€? She always knew there was no place for a person like her in the American school system. As I continued listening to her music, each bit of knowledge gave the songs greater weight.



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