My first memory of Janis Ian is hearing “At Seventeen.” I was only 15, but to a kid who wanted much more than what I saw in Leavenworth, Kan., or in the mirror, the song rang true. I went out and bought Janis Ian’s Between the Lines and Aftertones on the same day. I remember sitting in my basement, listening to those albums over and over. As an aspiring singer-songwriter, I was always influenced by Janis. Her honesty and ability to deal with pain and self-consciousness were both inspirational and maybe a little daunting.
How could I know that just a few years later, in 1985, we would be working for the same music publisher and that I would actually meet Janis and be able to tell her how I felt about her music? When we finally talked we discovered we had more than a publisher in common. We were experiencing many of the same struggles as we tried to be true to ourselves and our sexuality in our music and our politics.
Janis began her career shockingly early, at the age of 14, with an interracial protest song, “Society’s Child,” that was so powerful it was banned on radio stations across the country. Thankfully, Leonard Bernstein recognized the song’s worth and invited Janis to sing it on a television special he was doing. She did, and her career was born.
Always eager to improve her songwriting craft, Janis came to Los Angeles, just like I did, and began writing songs for her classic album Stars. One of those songs was the much-recorded “Jesse.”
All of this was long before I’d even heard of her back in Kansas. Since then Janis has been nominated for nine Grammy awards (winning two for Between the Lines), recorded an impressive collection of albums, had her songs covered by Bette Midler, Joan Baez, Roberta Flack, Amy Grant, Barbara Cook, and Diane Schuur, explored acting and ballet, and found a new home in Nashville, where she lives with her lover, Pat, and their two dogs. There she has redirected and revitalized her career as both a songwriter and a performer.
Her new album, Revenge, “is the easiest album since my first,” Janis says, and it reflects both her tough times and her triumph over them. For the release of Revenge, The Advocate asked me to interview her. I’m very excited about this—not only because of her influence on me but also because I am proud to be her friend.
Your song “At Seventeen” means a lot to me, because at 17 I had my first relationship with a woman. I interpreted your lyric “I learned the truth at seventeen” as "Oh, I’ve learned the truth I’m a homosexual." It has been surprising to me how many gay people took “At Seventeen” like that. The song’s about opening up to your worst fears about yourself and laying them on the table.
That’s why my straight friends related to it too. I remember making my mother listen to you when we would drive to Kansas City. She said, “Yes, that’s very good.” She’s a very literate person. Poetic. She steals from T.S. Eliot.
That’s exactly what she said: “That sounds like a T.S. Eliot line.” And I said, “No, that’s a Janis Ian line.” I always strive to lift my words to that Janis Ian level and I’ll always remember the day I met you. Melissa, I’ll never forget the day we met. It’s not normal to have someone throw herself at my feet the way you did. Then later, when I saw you perform at the Bluebird in Nashville, I shit a brick. I think you, Tina Turner, and Janis Joplin are the three best women performers I’ve ever seen.
Your new album, Revenge, not only feeds my head, it goes lower. There are some sexy love songs on the new album. Pat and I have been together now six years—and I want all of her; I want the rest. Whatever is there, I want it. The nice thing about being an adult in a relationship is that you want just one thing—but you really want to taste it. It’s a new struggle.
But there’s still a passion there. I think that it’s a rare thing, particularly in female music, to hear people being sexual without being stupid.
I think it’s our job to bring sexiness into the consciousness of people—instead of having it be our terrible little secret. It’s interesting that women are the ones doing it, because men are stuck with safe sex now. Women are too, but to a lesser extent.
“Women in music”—we’re all lumped together in this category. What do you think about women in music? I think they should ask, “What do you think of men in music?”
I remember years ago when I lived in Boston, one night I went to the Prelude, which was a women’s bar. Everyone was all abuzz because there was a rumor that you were going to come to the bar after a concert you did in town. Oh? Where were they when I was looking for a relationship?
Waiting for you at the Prelude. I guarantee you that nobody thought to send me a note.
Now you are going to get so many notes. You are going to be sorry. The climate’s so different now. The other day I was trying to explain this to a kid who was 19. He said to me, “Why didn’t you come out in the ’70s?” I said, “Well, darling, I wouldn’t have a career, you wouldn’t have heard ‘At Seventeen.’ Trust me on this.”
That question of “Why didn’t you come out earlier?” is such a poke in the eye. What do you do when people say, “Where were you when we were fighting the good cause?” Oh, that really pisses me off. I went through that when I first came out because k.d. had come out in The Advocate four months earlier. My album was ready a year before it came out. My coming out was planned and ready to go, but I couldn’t get a deal. So what’s important? To be first?
But you were out in your private life for a long time. I went to my first women’s bar in L.A. in 1978. I was followed into the bathroom and under the stall by some woman who kept saying, “I knew you were, I knew you were.” And I thought, Well, this is really not how I want to spend my time. I got so intimidated that I didn’t set foot in another women’s bar until I moved to Nashville in 1989.
Julie and I go to women’s bars, and it’s really tough. I love to dance with Julie, but it’s very uncomfortable for me now because people constantly come up to me. They think because I’m in that territory that I’m fair game. And let’s face it, shows like ours are almost the only place that some women can be out in public. I try and remind myself of that because there is this presumption of intimacy because we are all gay.