Society’s Child: My Autobiography

BY JANIS IAN  The acrid smell of self-combusting child stars permeates the annals of pop culture. The stories of those who make it big early, only to crash and burn later in life, are so ingrained in our collective, cultural myth, that we almost take it for granted that the Tatum O’Neals and Britney Spears’ who ride the golden rocket to the stars before they are old enough to vote, will have to pay for their good fortune with miserable adulthoods.  Some youthful celebrities sink obscurely into the ashes from whence they came, while others flame out majestically in the public square — only to be reborn on reality television shows. And then there is Janis Ian.

To most, singer and songwriter, Janis Ian, is best known for two unlikely hit songs with serious themes, recorded a decade apart. The first was, “Society’s Child,” a plaintive lament about racism, written and pressed to vinyl in 1965 when she was still a fifteen-year-old high school student. The second was, “At Seventeen,” a folk song about adolescent angst that reached number one on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart in 1975 and was performed on the first episode of “Saturday Night Live.” Both songs, while hardly representing her huge body of work, still stand in as a kind of shorthand for the confessional —some would say, depressing — type of songwriter she was and continued to be throughout her life.

While the tone of her new autobiography, the eponymous Society’s Child, is incongruously buoyant, the story she tells begins to explain how a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey developed the musical and intellectual chops to write about heavy topics, during the same era in which her contemporaries were singing about their boyfriends and crying at parties.

Two distinct forces seemingly shaped Ian’s sensibility. The first was her unusual family. The daughter of working-class parents who were involved in the American workers’ movement during the years when the House Un-American Activities Committee ran roughshod over suspected Communists; she was part of a culture that was targeted by the government for censure and harassment. It was not exactly a “Leave-it-to-Beaver” kind of existence.

The second factor that set her apart was her native intellect and musical talent. At the age of three, Ian was already a prodigy on the piano.  By the time she was in fourth grade, she had taught herself to play the guitar and written her first song. After appearing at a Greenwich Village hootenanny at the age of 14, Ian was offered her first recording contract from Elektra records.

This contract led to a meeting with Shadow Morton, who had produced hits for The Shangri-Las and later, Iron Butterfly. He wanted to record a song Ian had written called, “Baby, I’ve Been Thinking, “ though he insisted they change the name to a phrase from the song he found more catchy: “Society’s Child.”

Singing a song about having a black boyfriend during the Civil Rights era, positioned her at the center of a firestorm of racist backlash. But, it cemented her success and lead to national tours during which she met and became friends with everyone or note in the 1960s pop music world from Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin to Joan Baez and Frank Zappa.

As a young adult, Ian moved to Los Angeles to begin the second wave of her musical career. It was there, now under contract to CBS, that she wrote and recorded “At Seventeen,” and began her first lesbian relationship. Being a self-identified lesbian in the pre-Ellen, 1970s was about as unpopular a move as singing about mixed-race relationships in the pre-Obama 1960s had been. But, ever the iconoclast, Ian managed to have her relatively successful career and her discreet love life, too.

1975’s “Between the Lines,” its number one single “At Seventeen,” and her Grammy® win that year for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance pushed Ian to a new level of fame and prosperity. She was able to ride this wave of success into the early 1980s, with at least one hit song “Fly Too High,” from the movie Foxes, after which her career began to lapse and her record company dropped her. The failure to produce another hit album led to a fallow period that lasted from 1982 to 1992. This was also a turbulent time in her personal life.

In a regrettable turn of events, Ian describes how she met and married Tino Sargo, the former boyfriend of her first girlfriend. While briefly satisfying, by 1985 the marriage had devolved into a nightmare of abuse, finally ending when Sargo, in a drug-induced frenzy, beat Ian and then held her at knifepoint, threatening murder. Unemployed and accustomed to the luxuries of living with an affluent pop star, he dragged Ian through a drawn-out divorce, demanding both property and alimony.

Restless to get her life back on track after she left Sargo, Ian went to Nashville, Tennessee. She had gone at the suggestion of A&R executives at MCA records, who thought she might team up with some of the local songwriters and get back to hit making. Though she knew next to nothing about Nashville or its community of country music songwriters, as she tells it, “I set foot on the tarmac, and the oddest thought popped into my head: I’m home. I’m finally home.”

Ian did team up, both romantically and professionally with songwriter, Kye Fleming.  “Some People’s Lives,” the song they wrote together would become a hit for Bette Midler. She also began seeing a therapist to begin sorting through the trauma of her violent marriage. But the fragile stability of this period would be short-lived. Soon, Ian would be plagued by a series of events far more life-threatening than heartbreak.

First, Ian was downed by a ruptured intestine. The sepsis that followed her surgery kept her convalescing for months. Then, just as she was recovering, she discovered that her long-time business manager had embezzled money and failed to pay her income taxes for the past seven years.

The IRS stepped in and demanded payments that exceeded Ian’s earnings and savings combined. As bad luck would have it, the agent assigned to her case was unsympathetic to her financial situation, and singled her out for harassment, much as the FBI had beleaguered her father during her childhood. Liens were placed on her bank accounts. Her royalties were confiscated. She was obliged to sell her home and all of her investment properties.

Meanwhile, her relationship with Fleming ended, the therapist she’d been seeing initiated a confusing and inappropriate sexual relationship with Ian, and her mother’s health was deteriorating. “My home was gone. My life with Kye was over. I’d never again feel the comfort of my mother’s arms around me. What did I have left?” Ian asked.

Apparently, what she had left was talent and resiliency. Her struggle to get out from under the IRS’ demands would finally force the sale of her publishing catalog, including “At Seventeen.” She also suffered a long bout of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (Who wouldn’t be tired after all of that?).  Yet, by 1993 she would re-emerge with another love interest, a new album, — “Breaking the Silence,” its title song about incest — and a ninth Grammy® nomination for that album.

By the turn of the century, Ian was reassessing her options. “Life was back to its old routine: write some songs, make a record, tour behind it, then start the whole thing over again. I felt like a broken record… I’d be fifty soon — did I really want to spend the rest of my life doing exactly what I’d done since I was fourteen?”

By then, Ian was writing columns for the GLBT publication, The Advocate, and for Performing Songwriter magazine. It was in Performing Songwriter that she took a stance against the status quo for musicians regarding the recording industry. In an article, titled, “The Internet Debacle,” she asserted that, since there were fewer vehicles for affordable promotion, the Internet was becoming the final refuge. Instead of killing the music business, music downloads, which were then in their pre-iTunes infancy and highly threatening to the established music business, were its next logical outlet. “I argued that we’d made our audience mistrust us, by charging them $15.99 for CDs they knew cost just a few dollars to manufacture. I was convinced that, given the choice between stealing music and affordable downloads, people would be willing to pay.”

Just as the release of the song, “Society’s Child,” had done decades earlier, “The Internet Debacle,” unleashed a storm of criticism. But Ian put her monetary prospects where her pen had already gone and started an Internet site to successfully distribute her own music.

Now nearing her sixth decade, Ian still writes music and tours. She has also continued to write prose, now producing science fiction as well as journalism. She runs an Internet site that sells her songs. She also endowed a scholarship for older women who want to return to college. She has her personal life on track, too, with a marriage to lawyer, Patricia Snyder, in Canada in 2003 — when gay marriage was legalized in that country.

With Society’s Child, Ian lays out a story that, while somewhat disjointed in its chronology, provides a candid look at the triumphs and pitfalls in the life of a true iconoclast. Ian’s life shows that childhood stardom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but neither is adult success.  Some people survive the pressures of life in the spotlight, while others don’t, and though this book doesn’t reveal the secret to how that’s done, one suspects being smart has something to do with it.

Record Collector News, July 17, 2008

Sun Dancer

BY DAVID LONDON  From the first page of Sun Dancer, to the end, author David London holds the reader rapt with his suspenseful tale of modern Sioux on the Pine Ridge reservation

Protagonist, Joey Moves Camp, is a Vietnam War veteran. He is plagued by the imaginary voices of schizophrenia and the realities of alcoholism and hopelessness on the reservation. As the book opens Joey, his brother and friends, are stealing a cow to prepare a feast for his mother’s funeral.

The funeral is to be a traditional one in which the body is wrapped and left on a platform for the elements to decompose. This sacred rite is thwarted by a military invasion of FBI agents and reservation pastors who end up desecrating the grave and sparking a rebellion — not unlike the way the Rodney King beating sparked African Americans to riot a few years ago.

The Indians, led by a revelation Joey’s brother Clement Blue Chest receives during the ritual sun dance, and encouraged by an excommunicated white priest, Quinn Bacon, plan a hunger strike. They stake themselves, literally, to Mt. Rushmore, in the heart of the Black Hills — “Paha Sapa,” their most sacred religious site — in a non-violent attempt to get a message to Congress and reclaim their land.

Joey is a somewhat unwilling participant in this action. In love with a white woman, he’s unsure of his place in either society — and he doesn’t see the point in possibly martyring his brother. Bacon, however, is convinced Blue Chest is a modern appearance of the Jesus spirit.

“As long as men have been oppressed, they’ve longed for messiahs to arise. But the deliverance is never total, never global — it would put an end to history — so you have the eternal recurrence instead.”

Once on the mountain, things go about as well for Blue Chest as they did for the prophet from Galilee. The Indians’ plans unravel through poor planning, fate and the virulence of the FBI.

London serves up history in this novel like medicine crushed up and mixed with jam. It becomes palatable but still leaves a bitter aftertaste. The history of the U.S. aggression, genocide and broken treaties with the Native Americans is only starting to be fully revealed now, 100 years after the Wounded Knee massacre. But like the tragic legacy of slavery in the U.S., recognition of culpability has been slow and remedies remain sorely inadequate. Sadly, London shows us that the Native Americans in Sun Dancer — living in poverty on arid reservations — are no better off now than when General George Custer helped to finish off their traditional way of life in 1876.

Cowboys and Indians, September 1997

All the Powerful Invisible Things, A Sportswoman’s Notebook and Sweat

BY GRETCHEN LEGER and LUCY JANE BLEDSOE (Respectively)  The search for our identity is a lifelong quest. We begin in our teens when we instinctively recognize that something essential is lacking from our ill-fitting, societally sanctioned facades.  We know that the smiling face on our public ID card is not the same one we wake up to alone, in a cold sweat at three a.m. The real self can be denied and forgotten and even locked away like some monster in a closet — but it will never disappear. Eventually, like unpaid taxes, the self will demand a reckoning.

Pushcart prize winner, Gretchen Legler makes the sometimes-painful journey into the self in her first collection of short stories, All the Powerful Invisible Things, A Sportswoman’s Notebook. Legler weaves together these tales of hunting, family dynamics and sexuality into one inseparable, complex portrait of a life.

The obviously autobiographical collection — written in first person, using her own name, and told in chronological order — reads like a novel, or a diary.  In the first tale, Legler tells of fishing in the Minnesota wilderness with her husband, a lone woman in a man’s world. We follow her in these short stories from fish camp, to duck blind, to silent, snowy woods waiting to shoot a deer. Each beautifully reverent description of nature somehow works as an explanation for the seeming contradiction of being both hunter and feminist.

It wasn’t the shooting that ever mattered,” she says, “but what we did with this food we gathered: how we prepared the ducks to eat, how we shared them with friends, how we raised our glasses before we ate, at a long table lit by candles, covered with a lacey white cloth, and thanked the ducks for their lives.”

As this elegant prose unfolds we see Legler first as Artemis, huntress and protector of the beasts. Then as “Fishergirl,” a construct of the cold father she can never please and her own expectations of somehow pleasing him anyway. Later still in, “Horned Doe,” as a woman who finally unearths her authentic appetites.

“I wondered why they called it a horned doe and not a penis-less buck,” she muses in this story about a hunter who has shot what appeared to be a stag, but discovered something out of the norm.

“Maybe an aberrant female, a doe with an added male characteristic — antlers — was somehow more imaginable than a buck without the proper male anatomy. It made me think about the power of language to construct different versions of reality. The horned doe didn’t even have its own name — it was a perversion of two already established normal bodies. I wondered too why there wasn’t a category on the form, even an ominous ‘Other’ with a blank line after it, for something besides male or female, buck or doe. Surely not everything in the world could be depended upon to fit so neatly between those lines.”

Exposing her own antlers, Legler is compelled to abandon the safety of her husband and begin a new life in the company of the women for whom she longs. Becoming a lesbian is not so much a rip in the fabric of her life, as it is a mending — a coming home to herself. The monster in the closet could not be denied. Facing the powerful, invisible things, however frightening and painful in the moment, is the only choice for a woman who angles in icy rivers, stares down wolves and wears her own horns like a crown.

Legler discovers in her new life that there is just as much pain to be found with women as with men. She also realizes that she does, after all, embody a bit of the father who psychically brutalized her, the mother who drank to dull the pain, and the sister who took a bottle of pills to avoid her own demons. She is all the things she denied and all the things she longed to be, and knowing this, she knows she has only scratched the surface.

Where Legler’s book explores the questions of identity, Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s, Sweat, brings us a voice, if not entirely cocky, at least sure of her sexuality.  Bledsoe’s stories of sportswomen use the language of action to move beyond the first kiss to the heart of relationships, taking the issue of homosexuality for granted. After the princess kisses the other princess, do they live happily ever after?

In this, her first book, Bledsoe emerges as an important contemporary lesbian voice. Her short stories, told mostly in first person, are about girl jocks. In the opening story, we meet a high school softball player dealing with her first girlfriend and the betrayal that ensues when her Christian parents find out. In other stories, adult characters tackle lust on a bike racing team and homophobia on the basketball court.

These vigorous women, including the incongruously straight, Debbie, in “Under the Cabaña,” are never hindered by contemplation. “Look,” says one character, “Basically there are two approaches to life. You can mire yourself in precautions as you endlessly try to outwit fate. Or you can let her fly.”

While Legler coolly ponders the meaning of the horned doe, Bledsoe, who has long accepted the phenomenon, works herself into a healthy lather, lowers her head and charges forward. In the quagmire of often-mediocre lesbian literature these two new authors, with varying perspectives and styles, rise to the top and demand to be noticed.

Santa Fe Reporter, November 1, 1995

Listen up: Voices from the next feminist generation

EDITED BY BARBARA FINDLEN  Gloria Steinem, the young, hip icon of the 1970s feminist movement, turned 60 this year. Though still a committed activist — albeit one who now talks and acts more like a philosopher than a firebrand — she’s ready to pass the torch. She poses cronelike, in magazine photos with Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf as if to say, “They have the energy. They have the power. I’m handing over the crown.”

Yet even “third wave” feminists Faludi and Wolf are already old enough to be role models to their Gen-X sisters featured in the collection, Listen up: Voices from the next feminist generation. Like the young musicians who rediscover and reclaim rock ‘n’ roll every few years, the twenty-something feminists in this dynamic book of essays weren’t the first to experience sexism, racism, homophobia, reproductive injustice, sexual assault or weight stigmatization. They are, however, the first generation to examine this social inheritance from the perspective of a lifetime of living with women’s rights activism.

From this ’90s perspective, life for women is still sometimes treacherous, as Ellen Neuborne reveals. In, “Imagine My Surprise,” her story about inexplicably backing down to an abusive male employer she says:

“This was not supposed to happen to me. I am the child of professional feminists. My father is a civil rights lawyer. My mother heads the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. I was raised on a pure, unadulterated feminist ethic. That didn’t help.”

Today, at the turn of the century, sexism hasn’t disappeared as we’d hoped. But if political action does spring from personal experience, then these essays, edited by Ms. editor Barbara Findlen, may serve as an entry point to activism. The sheer variety of voices — college students, single mothers, grrrl zine publishers, identified Christians or Jews, black, white, Asian, lesbian and straight women — ensures that this treatise of young feminist thought will have at least one story with which every woman can identify.

We hear from an aerobics instructor who encourages women to eat what they want; a young Indian woman who juggles traditional expectations with modern, urban realities; a native American who finds her life purpose in a positive HIV diagnosis; a rape survivor who will bear the scars for life; and a self-defense advocate who says, “Fighting back does not mean warfare it means handing over the money if I’m mugged, but going for the testicles if he grabs me.”

In “Reality Check,” a very non-San Francisco stance on sex work, Aisha Hakim-Dyce discusses her feelings about the limited monetary options that left her choosing between dropping out of college or becoming a stripper.

“I was troubled by how close I had come to what would have been, for me, a traumatic ordeal. Although in too many instances poor and working-class people are faced with demoralizing and dehumanizing work, most of that work does not explicitly revolve around sexual objectification the way that go-go dancing does.”

Jennifer DiMarco also fights dehumanization and emerges with a compelling literary voice in “Word Warrior,” a now too-familiar tale of childhood sexual abuse.

“He sneers as he speaks. His eyes gleam shadows. He stands so close to the phone that his shoulder touches it. He watches me. He is always, forever watching me. Whenever my parents call me, he stands with his hands on my neck, locking our eyes. He knows I’m too afraid to even touch the phone. With his sneer he pounds a slice of beef for dinner. Blood splatters the phone… the wall… the floor… the sheets… all summer long.”

Society is at least collectively sympathetic towards incest survivors. Not so for teen mothers. When Laurel Gilbert discovered she was pregnant in high school she found herself battling contempt.

“I was no longer expected to succeed, I was expected to settle. I never considered myself a handicapped person. And I firmly believe it’s the status of “Handicapped” that leads teen mothers into fulfilling the expectations of the stereotypes and failing their own expectations. Many people told me “you can do it,” but very few believed it.”

It may be a new world order, but as this surprisingly encouraging book, a litany of sexism in the U.S. shows, we still need the E.R.A.  One wonders if women would riot in the streets — in the same way African Americans rioted when Rodney King’s batterers were released — if the court sanctions wife-killing by acquitting O.J. Simpson. It remains to be seen, but if anyone will have the spirit for that kind of action, it will be these heirs to Gloria Steinem’s legacy.

Appeared in: San Francisco Bay Guardian Lit Supplement,  June 1995