Friday, March 24, 2017

Janis Ian and the Summer of Love

"I was born into the crack that split America."

So begins Society's Child, the autobiography of singer/songwriter Janis Ian. Writing about her side of the generation gap, Ian goes on to say, "We marched, wrote polemics, started magazines, took over universities. And in between, we smoked a little pot, made a little love, and changed the world forever."

Ian published her first song at the age of 14 in the magazine Broadside and earned two standing ovations from the likes of Judy Collins and music industry execs when she first performed them. By 15, she had a hit on her hands with "Society's Child," despite the fact that many radio stations banned the song about an interracial relationship, and she met with hostility when she performed it. One station in Atlanta that played the song was burned down, and people would spit in her food in restaurants. She writes:

I was having a hit record.
I was singing for people who wanted me dead.
I was fifteen years old. 


Ian was no stranger to controversy, or hostility. Her father, a farmer, attended a meeting about the price of eggs and was thereafter followed by the FBI as a suspected communist. The family lost the farm and moved every two years when her father was unable to get tenure at the schools where he was a respected teacher, after the FBI would pay a visit to school administrators. Added to that was abuse Janis suffered from her family's dentist and the early realization that she was attracted to women at a time when homosexuality was not well accepted.

She found her salvation in music, with the help of teachers and counselors who recognized her intelligence and potential. After she hit the charts, she traveled West and played the Berkeley Folk Festival, where she befriended Janis Joplin, eight years her senior. "We went to a party at Peter Tork's house one night, where everyone was wearing bright silk Indian clothing and crashing on a floor filled with pillows and hashish pipes," she wrote. At the next party, where a heroin dealer went around the room shooting people up, Joplin turned to her and said, "Kid, time for you to go home."

Jimi Hendrix used to call her, "that girl who wrote that song, man, you know." He let her try some of his cocaine, but her reaction was so extreme that she never tried it again. "Lucky for me, because cocaine could easily have come my drug of choice," she wrote. "I'd have loved the extra energy, the sense of power, and I'd have ended up like so many of my friends, strung out or even dead."

When Ian taped the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (below), Bill Cosby saw her sleeping with her head in her chaperone's lap during a break, and proceeded to tell several industry people that she was a lesbian and shouldn't be on national TV. Now that we know about what Cosby's been accused of, one wonders if he was really upset that Ian wouldn't be drinking wine with him.



Ian herself became an object of government surveillance, through the CIA's "Operation CHAOS" program, whose goals were to target war protestors, civil rights activists, and public figures, and:

Show them as scurrilous and depraved. Call attention to their habits and living conditions, explore every possible embarrassment. Send in women and break up marriages. Have members arrested on marijuana charges. Investigate personal conflicts or animosities between them. Send articles to the newspapers showing their depravity. Use narcotics and free sex to entrap. Use misinformation to confuse and disrupt. Get records of their bank accounts. Obtain specimens of handwriting. Provoke target groups into rivalries that may result in death. 

"For us, it was impossible to separate protesting against the war from the civil rights movement, using drugs, and living on music," Ian wrote. "The rest of the country had managed to ignore most of it, until San Francisco's 'Summer of Love' [50 years ago in 1967] got national attention from the press, and large portions of America that still yearned for the simplicity and rigidity of the fifties had their minds blown."

Ian enjoyed smoking pot and listening to a roommate recite Russian poetry and Dostoyevsky. "We confined ourselves to marijuana and hash, although once in a while something else snuck past," she wrote. She and a boyfriend declined an invitation from Stanley Owsley to try his LSD, but did accept some THC pills from him, which they liked to take while flying (on planes), with Ian hiding it in an empty makeup tube.

The day after Martin Luther King was shot, Janis was assaulted on the streets of New York and given a Coke to drink that was laced with too-strong acid; she was prescribed Stelazine to come down from it but still experienced flashbacks later.

After Robert Kennedy was also shot, "Every hero I had was dead," Ian wrote. "The war on drugs dried up the border, and there was next to no marijuana in the five boroughs. The Mafia moved in with heroin, and normal people my age, not in the music business, not on the fringes, started dying. It seemed death was all around me."

Around this time Ian's agent David Geffen arranged for her meet to fellow songwriter Laura Nyro. On their evening out, "We spent most of it in his limousine, riding around downtown and smoking pot." On another occasion, Nyro took a TV to Ian's apartment to watch the premiere of "The Mod Squad" with her friend Peggy Lipton; "So we watched TV through dinner, smoked some dope, and made our good-byes."

Nyro, Ian wrote, would constantly sip Cheracol, a cough syrup with codeine, "her eyes getting duller by the hour." Once during a recording session Nyro pointed to a purple chair and said, "I want it to sound like that." Ian was able to translate that she wanted it legato.

Somewhat abandoned by her now-divorced parents, unhappy with the state of the world, and stressed from the pressures of her career,  the young singer took refuge in marijuana. "Since the world refused to change, I stayed stoned," she wrote, though she never smoked while working. Then a book called The Day on Fire, a fictionalized account of the life of VIP Arthur Rimbaud "turned my world upside down," she wrote. "Overnight, I becomes steeped in the mysteries of being an artist....Just being a person wasn't enough after reading Rimbaud, not by a long shot."

She started seeing a therapist who told her, "You don't trust anyone. You're scared of everyone." Not surprising, considering she was surveilled since she was a child, and overdosed with a drug by a stranger. She overdosed on Seconal, and then stopped eating, her weight dropping to 82 pounds just as she turned 18. Once more music brought her back, and she wrote her hit "Stars" after being inspired by Don MacLean's "Starry, Starry Night."

Ian's songs have been covered by Joan Baez, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, Bette Midler, Amy Grant, Shirley Bassey, Cher, and Mel Tormé, among others. In 1993, she released the album Breaking Silence and came out as a lesbian; she was interviewed by Tokin' Woman Melissa Etheridge for The Advocate.  

Ian, who will turn 66 on April 7, is now writing for the Huffington Post. Her latest article, Women Under Trumpcare—A Proposal, is well worth a read. Keep up with Janis at JanisIan.com

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