The best revenge

By Melissa Etheridge

Originally published on Advocate.com May 27 1995 11:00 PM ET

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.

Before I was out I was writing very genderless, very nonspecific. And yet I was always writing about women. Is this the same for you? It depends on the song. I still write genderless as much as possible.

Who was Jesse in your song “Jesse”? Jesse was—in my mind—a Vietnam war veteran, always very male.

To me Jesse was a beautiful 5-foot 8-inch dark woman. That’s great.

When you were first famous and just becoming an adolescent, did you know you were gay? I was outed in The Village Voice in 1976. I went to bed for a whole day and hid under the covers. It took me a long time to figure out what to do. I had a boyfriend, and then I had a girlfriend. I really fell in love— like boom—the first time when I was 20. She was living with somebody, so I wound up in a ménage à trois. That’s not a good way to discover anything.

No, no… But the older I get, the more comfortable I get with my body. I’ve never minded my body—but I would have been Sonia Braga if I’d had my druthers. Pat and I have this deal: If Whoopi Goldberg or Sonia Braga wants either of us, we can do whatever we want.

Julie and I have the same deal. Did you have any role models? When I was young and queer, I didn’t have any role models—just Boy George. I never had one role model. Period. End of discussion. But I never used a beard. I always brought my girlfriend everywhere with me on the road. In my daily life I was out. But there’s a big difference between that and when you suddenly say to the press, “l’m a lesbian,” and you feel that door swing off its hinges. You know that it is never going to be put back on.

For me it was a wonderful, scary, exhausting six months. I have never talked so much. And I didn’t know how to talk about it. I had gotten to where I could go to sleep and do an interview about music. Then all of a sudden they were asking questions about sexuality. Then there’s the whole thing about what we call our spouses. I say, “This is my wife,” and it’s like, ‘O-o-oh, you call each other wife’?” What do you call Julie?

“Lover” or “girlfriend,” depending on whom we are talking to. I find “girlfriend” hard just because Pat and I are in our 40s. It sounds weird.

Unless I’m talking to somebody who would faint if I said “lover,” I introduce Julie as my lover, and it’s very freeing. The whole experience is freeing. How do you explain to someone how much better they are going to feel when they come out?

You can’t. You can’t. You can say, “Look, you can’t be in two places at once.” How many gay women and men do you know who are a little crazy from it? How do you tell those people, “You’re going to like this part”?

I’ve had such an amazing time. It’s undeniable how everything has grown and taken off. I can say to people, “Look what happened.” But what has coming out been like for you in the South? Nashville has been great to me. I had visions of coming home and seeing FAGGOT written on my house. I think it’s much easier for performers to come out because we are not dependent upon a small community for our living. I know closeted gay people who would lose their kids and jobs if they came out. However, at the end of the day, if you’re not willing to risk that, then what is that saying to your lover? That was the bottom line for me. Pat said something like, “Well, doesn’t that seem like you’re ashamed of me?” So I was like, “I’m out! I’m making announcements.”

And you were pretty wild. When I moved to Nashville, one side of my head was shaved, and the other side was pink. I arrived there beaten up: I had been dumped by a lover, I couldn’t get a record deal to save my life, I couldn’t get a publishing deal, I couldn’t get work to feed myself. I lost everything I owned, and I went there seriously humble. They welcomed me as a songwriter.

A lot of us homosexuals have a fear of the South. The South is another country. I will never learn the body language. I would not know a “Bubba” if one fell on me. Pat is my guide; she has been there 24 years now.

Betsy Smittle, Garth Brooks’s sister, is in Nashville, right? I heard she was going to come out in The Advocate. But she says it’s too hard to be out in Nashville. Poor Betsy. I find it hard to imagine her saying that because she is out. She was going to come out in The Advocate, but the National Enquirer got there first.

She’s a bit afraid, naturally. Well, I’m sure there are people in Nashville who would not invite me to their house. There are a lot of people who have strong religious objections and only know the King James version of the Bible and think that God speaks English.

But some people are really trying to learn and change. Yes, I tried to make this point in the speech I gave at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center when they gave me the Creative Integrity Award in 1994. It’s the same award you got this year. I asked my friend Kathy Bates to give me the award, and all hell broke loose: A small contingent of people felt that Kathy Bates should not be presenting me with the award because she’s straight—which I just found remarkably offensive. If people like Kathy aren’t marching down those corridors of power that we are denied access to, talking for us when we can’t, it’s never going to change.

I have seen it change in my lifetime. I look at my mother and the information she grew up with. It was just abhorrent to her, just beyond comprehension. She’s from Arkansas—we’re talking deep Deep South Arkansas. You’re talking serious South. I had a lover from Arkansas, and the reaction around there is, “You would have been better off if you had never been born.”

Exactly! OK, let’s get into your column, Breaking Silence, for The Advocate. The Advocate had this idea that I should do a column, and I have no idea why because I had never written prose before, just songs.

Your column has been a beacon for lesbians who loved The Advocate but felt like we were always looking in on the men’s lives. I still hate the three days a month it takes to write it because it’s like three days of total panic. It scares the shit out of me. But then I’ll get one letter from somebody, anonymously signed, from Fort Wayne, Ind., that says, “Your column keeps me alive.”

How have the letters been? I took a lot of shit for the lesbian chic “Dressed to Chill” column. A lot of shit.

But people who write in are going to complain. Those who like it are just going to go, “Oh, I like that,” and never write in. Yeah? Well, write in if you like it, please. Actually, the mail has been good. I thought for sure that when I wrote “Women’s music is music for the deaf,” I would get my head handed to me. But I think there are enough people who are tired of the attitude “She’s a sister, so she won’t treat me bad.” I think everybody is starting to figure out that ain’t so.

Does Pat actually help you write your column? My editor at The Advocate talked Pat into talking me into doing this column. We were having breakfast one morning, and I got up to go to the bathroom, and they concocted the whole thing. So my deal with Pat is: OK, I will do this if you will swear to stop everything you are doing once a month and help me. The “Mr. Lesbian” thing started because she made some rude comment, and I said, “That’s great, I’m going to put that at the end of the article.” Then The Advocate wanted it in every column.

I bounce songs off Julie. It’s such an unusual thing in life to have a marriage that is a partnership.

How about you and Howard Stern? Howard’s a trip. I like him, and I think he’s a real asshole. Doing his show is like living in a boys’ locker room.

But he is lesbian-friendly. He’ll make a big shtick out of it and say, “Oh, I love lesbians, two women in bed, yes.” But on the other hand, he is genuinely supportive.

He’s said only good things about me, but I think, Oh, I can’t go on that show. It’s a piece of cake. The thing about Howard’s show is that if you go on with anything to hide, you’re fucked. You are dead in the water.

Julie’s ex-husband [Lou Diamond Phillips] was pretty much crucified on his show because he was hiding and thought he could get away with charming him. It didn’t work. Melissa, you should do Howard—he’ll love you. He’ll say, “Can I see your boobs?” I’ll go do it with you.

I can see it now: “I’ve got two lesbians. Are you girls going to do it? I can’t stand it, I’ve been waiting and waiting!” After I did his show, it was amazing how many straight football-player types came to my show. They were seeing their first real live lesbian, seeing a woman make cracks onstage about women, a woman who wasn’t afraid to be sexual and flirt onstage but was at the same time very monogamous. Howard brought me a straight audience, so I figure Howard has done worlds for people like us.

I have to take this opportunity to ask you something. Did you really know Janis Joplin? Yeah. She was always lovely to me. She was shy and very quiet. She drank an awful lot. You don’t think the people you hang with are going to become legends. Joplin and I would go shopping for clothes to wear to the Grammys and stuff. It was very hard to be 14 when everybody else was in their 20s. There was a lot of jealousy and anger. Joplin and Hendrix both looked out for me. I told Pat recently, “See that house? I went to a party there with Joplin. Someone was walking around with hypodermics, shooting up people through their clothing.”

Did you sleep with her? No one slept with Janis Joplin. Everyone had sex with her, but somebody should have slept with her, somebody who loved her.

What was her sexuality? I think, with her, anybody would have been OK. She was fragile, really little, skinny. God, she had the best smile; she lit up the stage like nobody else. Her death was a great loss to me. It took me decades to get over being pissed at her.

I didn’t know her, and I’m pissed off at her too because I wanted to know her. Tell me about Pat. She’s been something pretty remarkable. I was coming out of a horrible straight marriage. Not because I was gay but because he had become psychotic.

Can you talk about this more? I’ve never talked about my marriage. I think it’s hard for 18-year-olds today to understand what it was like to be gay when I was in my 20s. The pressure to be normal that we all face in toothpaste ads and television shows was escalated so much higher than anything they would know today. So when I fell in love with my ex-husband—and I emphasize that I fell in love with him—it was a great relief to me. I certainly believed that life was going to be easier. I realize, in retrospect, that most abusers, when they first fall in love, go through a honeymoon period of six to 18 months. They’re good and well-behaved, and they have boundaries. That slowly changes. My ex-husband didn’t seem to have any issues with my having been in relationships with women. I now realize it titillated him. It made him think that I would want a ménage à trois one day. I had never been sexually abused in my life. I had never been hit. I had never been verbally abused. So I had no experience with the warning signs.

How did he get control over you? He wore me down. It’s a pretty classic pattern: You remove the person from their family, their friends, everyone they trust, and you isolate and isolate until they’re totally dependent on you for emotional support. It began with little things, like he wanted this side of the bed, I wanted that side. He won. He wanted to come home; I wanted to stay out. He won. It escalated to the point where it was easier to say yes than face a possible scene. I firmly believe he became psychotic. You don’t hold a gun on someone if you’re not psychotic.

He held a gun on you? Yeah, but before that something in me snapped. Everybody’s got their lines. Some people’s line is having something broken or being yelled at or having a child hurt. He crossed my line. He hit me; I flew across the room. I’m 4 foot 10; he was a big guy. I looked up from the floor, dodged a beer bottle, and heard him say, “I don’t know why you made me do that.” Suddenly I had turned into one of those women you read about.

Like Tina Turner! Yes. I remember going backstage and meeting Tina Turner, long before she came out as a battered wife. She was weeping because Ike was making her go onstage with dirty hair. I remember thinking, Why doesn’t she just tell him to go fuck himself? Now I understand. It can happen to anyone. It doesn’t matter if you’ve had people telling you you’re shit all your life, like Greg Louganis had, or if you’ve always been treated well, like I had. Finally I sought counseling and moved out. But when I went back to talk to him about the details of the separation, he pulled a gun and kept it on me for about six hours.

Did you think you were going to die? There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to die. I can’t tell you what it’s like to hear someone you once loved say, “I’m going to take you out and then take myself out.” You go through every possible emotion—grieving, crying, laughing. I was screaming, “Do it!” I couldn’t take the waiting.

How did you get away? He’s Catholic. I told him he would never get into heaven. I told him he needed some Valium. I got him a couple of beers. I stalled him until he got tired enough to stop. When he put the gun down, I reached over and took it. I knew if he moved, I would kill him. I was never alone with him again after that. I was terrified of him until three years ago, when he developed a spinal tumor and became incapable of walking.

So you feel safe from him now? It took the O.J. Simpson case, which is 12 years after I left my ex, for me to turn to Pat with a look of total astonishment and say, “That motherfucker could have killed me.”

Since you stayed with him seven years, do you think this was your last-ditch attempt to be a heterosexual? Absolutely not. I don’t think that it is out of the realm of possibility that someone who is gay can fall in love with the opposite sex. This may sound stupid, but I didn’t get out much. I didn’t date. I’ve been “Janis Ian” since I was 14. There was a whole realm of human experience that I did not experience.

I bet you had major trust issues after that experience. No shit. I met Pat after I had given up. I was convinced that I would never be in love with anybody again, and that was fine. I had been very sick with chronic fatigue syndrome, and it was scary because I had a lot of central nervous system involvement. I got really stupid. I could not follow the plot on Happy Days. I was introduced to Pat because I was looking for someone who had the time to come to my house to play checkers or chess. Suddenly there she was. It was really unexpected.

When you were married, did you consider yourself a lesbian? We had a wonderful physical relationship. Sex was great. Lesbians are going to hate reading that, but it’s true. I don’t know if that makes me a bisexual. I don’t think so. I knew when I was 9 that I was gay. How old were you?

I was 16 when it was first becoming apparent. But I look back on it and I always had crushes on girls. I didn’t know enough about homosexuality at that time to think anything. What was it like raising Pat’s daughter? I didn’t. I got there after she had been raised.

Would you like to have children? I wanted children so badly. But it turned out that I couldn’t, and shortly after that I had a hysterectomy, so that was the end of that. Then I woke up one day, and I was 38 and broke with no future and thought, Not a good time to adopt. Today I’m thinking, I couldn’t do it. I’m way too tired, way too selfish.

Have your female fans changed the way they approach you since you came out? Well, I certainly get an awful lot of people who come up and say, “Love your column,” and then keep walking. It’s like a code.

I think one of the most inspiring things for me is when young kids come up to me and say, “I think I might be gay.” I like it that with you or with me they can see gay people in relationships. There is still that cliché that we are all sleeping around and none of us have families.

Did you ever have a drug problem? Oh, yeah. I had two or three drug problems. I never went near smack because it absolutely scared the shit out of me. I took a tiny bit of acid once, and that scared me. I did massive amounts of dope from 1967 to 1969. I smoked a ton of pot, but I have next to no memory of it. I must have smoked ten or 12 joints a day. Then I stopped because I started to get asthmatic from it.

The way you look to me today, you are the happiest, healthiest, right-on-straightforward strongest I have ever seen you. I think a lot of it has to do with losing everything. It’s a cliché. In a two-year period I watched my mom, who has multiple sclerosis, take her last steps, all my grandparents die, all my money disappear—everything I had saved my whole life. Losing it all does something to you. You can become really bitter and envious and see people like you and say, “How come Melissa’s playing Madison Square Garden?” You can go down that path, or you can realize you really don’t have anything to lose, so who cares?

The story of your life is that 30 years ago, with “Society’s Child,” they were yelling “nigger lover” at you, and now they are yelling “faggot.” You’re always the one out there. I really believe there will be generations that will be inspired by you and appreciate what you have done. And if not, it’s OK too. I don’t know how to do anything else.

Me too. I know there are ups and downs. There will be the Madison Square Gardens and then there won’t be the Gardens. But there is a lot of strength in that position, Melissa, because then you can really say, “I’m a voice, and I don’t care.”