Bette Encourages Janis Ian (“Some People’s Lives”) To Write Autobiography

New York Times
April 9, 2006
A Night Out With: Janis Ian
At Fifty-Five

IN a small beige hotel room in Midtown, Janis Ian was warming up. Sitting on a twin bed, she pulled her new guitar out of its white, velvet-lined case. “Eight weeks old,” she said. “It’s a baby.” The baby twanged.

Bottles – some containing water, some not – lined the windowsill. Luggage was piled on the bed behind her. The following night she would do two shows at Joe’s Pub, but now she was preparing for a laid-back gig at Jim Caruso’s Cast Party, an open jam-style show at Birdland. Even after more than 40 years in the music business, Ms. Ian, a Grammy winner and seminal singer-songwriter who lives in Nashville, needs a rehearsal.

Her band mates for the evening were Maura and Pete Kennedy, a husband-and-wife folk duo. They talked about musician things, like how to get good health insurance, the stinginess of club owners, and the anatomy of Ms. Ian’s 1975 hit, “At Seventeen.”

“It was the only time I ever felt like I’d written a hit song,” Ms. Ian said. During the recording, “I sang that first line, ‘I learned the truth at 17,’ for three hours.” Very sweetly, she began to sing it. Ms. Kennedy broke into a big grin; the song’s lilting bossa nova beat stilled the room. Mr. Kennedy added a little solo flourish on his ukulele, and Ms. Ian bobbed her head along. “Awesome, you guys,” she said afterward. “I miss playing with a band.”

Hotel room gigs aside, there are a lot things Ms. Ian wouldn’t miss about playing the folk circuit of small clubs, festivals, churches and, at her low point, a bowling alley. (“There were more people bowling than there were in the audience.”) “You never get used to walking into a dressing room that stinks of urine,” she said. Honesty is her strong suit.

Over a sushi dinner with the Kennedys and Christine Lavin, another folk singer and a friend, Ms. Ian admitted that at 55 retirement was starting to sound appealing. “I put down performing for 10 years, and I never missed it,” she said. “I would like to stay home and write.” On the advice of Bette Midler, she has begun her autobiography.

But her musical success – she has traded licks with Mississippi John Hurt, recorded in the same studio as Bruce Springsteen and, as Ms. Lavin said incredulously, “sold enough to have money with a comma in it” – still looms large.

At Birdland she was full of nervous energy. “Why I am here?” she muttered, pacing the room before she went on. But when she took the stage, baby in hand, she held the audience rapt.

“I made half my reputation on being young,” she said, “and the other half on being as depressing as possible.” She sang “At Seventeen” and “My Autobiography,” a song from her latest album, “Folk Is the New Black.”

I know you and I’ll agree

What this world needs is a lot more me

Well, I have got the remedy

Gonna write my autobiography

I’ve led a fascinating life

Had a husband and a wife

Afterward, Ms. Ian, a tiny woman with silver-white hair and jeans with rhinestones, stepped outside and popped a filtered Camel cigarette from a silver case. “That was a treat,” she said, lighting up. “I miss this life.”

The autobiography, it seems, could use a few more chapters.

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