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Janis Ian in the Spotlight

I mentioned in an earlier post that when I was 14 there were two singer-songwriters that I heard for the first time who were to have an influence on me several years later. One was Joni Mitchell and the other was Janis Ian.

The first Janis Ian song I heard was “Fly too high” and liked it so much that I bought the single. It was a slightly jazzy number and quite long at over 5 minutes, which may be why it didn’t chart very high (number 44 in the UK). For some reason, unlike with Joni Mitchell, I didn’t explore Janis Ian’s music and buy an album. In fact I forgot about her until I was 28, when I was watching an episode of Sounds of the Seventies and she appeared, singing “At 17”.

There was something about the song that struck a chord with me – literally, as I then decided I had to get back into songwriting which I had abandoned in my mid-teens as I had no outlet for it. Instead I had focused on playing the ‘cello in school and youth orchestras. Hearing “At 17” reminded me of my experience of a having a crush at that age and I realised that writing a song about it might be a way of getting it out of my system. I didn’t write that song until a number of years later, but in the meantime I started writing again seriously.

I started borrowing Janis Ian’s albums on CD from the local library, including her self-titled first album, Stars and Restless Eyes. I gathered from her youthful sounding voice that she had released her first album as a teenager, and I particularly liked “Society’s child”. I was shocked to discover some years later that the song had been banned by many radio stations because of its subject matter; a radio station in Atlanta had even been burned down for playing it.

I also bought a book on songwriting with an accompanying cassette, and was delighted to discover that Janis was the featured songwriter giving tips in the book and on the cassette. The first thing that she said on the tape was “You never know what you can steal.”

I found out from a friend that Janis was gay – I had mentioned “At 17” and my friend said that the song was about her realising that she was gay. That was an eye-opener – the lyrics are so subtle that anyone with teenage hang-ups can relate to it. Like me.

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