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At yet another Tuesday night at the Living Room on New York Citya€™s Lower East Side, a performer in John Platta€™s monthly On Your Radar series mesmerized an audience.
The notes rained steady like a metronome, the bass strings rock-solid and the treble, bell-like. He finished his set, and the audience rose to its feet, giving him an ovation that seemed longer and more fervent than the usual appreciative applause regularly awarded by monthly On Your Radar attendees. Ia€™d made a brief acquaintance with his work back in the mid-a€™90s, when his song a€?Irelanda€? hit the airwaves. A phone conversation a week later would reveal that what Greg called a€?boringa€? turned out to be quite a roller coaster ride as he was pursuing his craft. Although he had a band, he wanted to go to school, so he enrolled at the University of Kansas. In 1980, a a€?benchmarka€? year, Greg moved to New York City, to make or break it as a performing songwriter. Although he played solo, he was a€?looking for a banda€? and sought out guys who were a€?fun to play with.a€? After about two years of different lineups, he certainly found one.
Grega€™s solo and co-written work form a treasure-trove of great listening a€” a desert-island collection, which, in my case, according to iTunes, amounts to about five-and-a-half hours.
Once people dig into Grega€™s body of recorded work, the reaction usually is, a€?Why isna€™t this guy (take your pick) bigger a€¦ more well-known a€¦ hugea€¦?a€? While we mention a variety of lyrics and instrumental effects, the anchor for everything is Grega€™s voice, a dense baritone that reaches high notes with ease and packs emotion into every line.
The live album Between a House and a Hard Place (2002) will give listeners a sample of Grega€™s sense of humor. On The Williamsburg Affair (2009), Greg covers Neil Younga€™s a€?Wrecking Balla€? that Emmy Lou Harris had success with on her Daniel Lanois-produced album of that name. 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. His father worked in the design department of WOR Radio, one of the sponsors of the Beatlesa€™ shows at Shea Stadium. Jim and Tom Paschetto, two other extremely talented friends, joined them to form a band, which they called The Ravioli Brothers. His material included songs by Townes Van Zant, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Happy and Artie Traum. The Greg Trooper band that evolved consisted of Greg on lead vocals and guitar, Larry Campbell on guitar, fiddle and mandolin, Greg Shirley on bass harmony vocals and Walter Thompson on drums. Although he moved back to New York in 2008, most of his recorded output has been from Nashville. He can shift, mid-note, into a higher range for greater emphasis or break into a yodel if a Hank Williams cover demands it.
Its blistering attack of chiming guitar chords and steady tom-tom beat take me back to 1957. It kicks off with a€?Nothina€™ But You.a€? This one chugs through with the urgency it needs to express a guya€™s return to the woman he regrets leaving behind. During the intro strumming of a€?Ia€™m So French,a€? we can only wonder whata€™s happening when the audience laughs as he says, a€?Ia€™m recording here! Ita€™s also not possible to convey the warmth and self-effacing humor of his live performances.


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. After nearly a year, Greg moved back to New Jersey for a short while and then went to Lawrence, Kan. Around 1979, Jim Paschetto moved to Lawrence and joined Grega€™s band and the idea of writing original material took serious hold. Campbell, whoa€™s played with Dylan, gets our attention, but anyone in that kind of company would need to be good.
One article states that he was writing for Nashville publishers even while living in New York his first time around.
The first two albums, Everywhere (1992) and Noises In The Hallway (1996), are out of print and can only be bought as used CDs from Amazon at this point.
Ia€™m skipping ahead of a few favorites to get to the track that ends the album, a€?Ia€™ll Keep It With Mine,a€? a Dylan cover that makes a wonderful honky-tonk slow dance.
After a couple of listens, I shared it with my wife and she identified it as a perfect Cajun two-step. Critics are saying that this album is yet another wonder in the series of great Trooper releases. 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. I was starting to develop a direction and I liked lyric-based folk-rock.a€? Bob Dylana€™s influence crept higher. The track is so amazingly strong that you might cut in on somebody with his girlfriend at the roadhouse, plead temporary insanity and not get your head stove in. Youa€™ll get a taste if you go to YouTube and type in a€?Greg Trooper,a€? but thata€™s only a taste. Texas barbeque, Ia€™m so French!A  We also get to hear him do a€?Ireland,a€? in the only version I have at the moment until I can pick up a copy of Everywhere. 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. His brother, two years older, had been instrumental in turning Greg on to the major rock acts of the day. However, a€?WOR was the first New York album-oriented rock-and-roll FM station,a€? he said. In the early a€?70s, Greg was in his late teens when the work of John Prine and Steve Goodman made an impact.
On their way out west, Greg and Richard stopped in Emporia, Kan., to visit a friend and wound up playing gigs in the area for about a year. Then, after two years, although he was doing well at school, he felt antsy to move forward in his desire to a€?make records,a€? so he quit.
Also during this time, Greg wrote a€?The Hearta€? with Tom Russell, who was living in New York then.
If great writing, perfect recording and stellar performances are your thing, this is the guy for you. However, a€?WOR was the first New York album-oriented rock-and-roll FM station,a€? he said.A  a€?We still have some psychedelic posters from WOR that my father did the lettering for,a€? he stated. 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. 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. In school, her fellow students at the High School for Performing Music and Art were respectful. There are a few similar characteristics to the main figure in Suttree, but otherwise, ita€™s all Greg. In addition, a€?Ireland,a€? included on his 1992 album Everywhere, according to a quote we saw somewhere, was written as a tribute to his wife. 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.
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. The song captured the spirit of Ireland so well that Irish folk diva Maura Oa€™Connell covered it, and the song subsequently saw heavy rotation on Fordham Universitya€™s (WFUV) radio playlist a€” back then, this authora€™s only source of preferred music. In an online interview, Greg is quoted: a€?I was desperate back then a€¦ I was living in a trailer park a€¦ We were just desperadoes with shitty jobs.
A friend and I saw Greg play an inspiring set at the Mercury Lounge in the mid a€™90s and stopped to pay our respects afterward. 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. It was just different, or maybe it was just different for me, chasing the dream of making music.



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