Pittsburgh's Ear for Music

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Janis Ian

Disclaimer: Until Friday, I knew Janis Ian only as a name, one used in conjunction with young, local roots-rocker Cathasaigh, or occasionally brought up in the Calliope Songwriter Circle. She seemed to be a well-respected vocalist and someone who I might be interested in listening to. However, it's not a given that I will be into a chick singer, but I do have a very soft spot for Joni Mitchell (and Alanis Morisette, and Jewell, and that was about it until a few years ago). Still, when a month ago, I spotted a sign for a live appearance at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in South Side, I thought I'd probably want to check it out.

I promptly forgot about it.

Flash forward again, back to Friday. Chad and I brought the car in to get looked at pre-Radiohead-in-Ohio, and decided to go to JBB to look at an article in AdBusters we'd been talking about over lunch. We got carried away in the bookstore, and stayed in the Magazine section alone for several hours. I stood up from where I was reading to pee. What is this crowd I see? Janis Ian is speaking in 5 minutes? Hmm....

Amidst a crowd of old heads in tie-dye, young lesbians, and music lovers, I really didn't look like I just happen to stumble upon this. My reaction didn't prove otherwise either. From the first few sentences, I was in love. She just had this honesty, likely from just writing an autobiography, and an integrity, perhaps from decades of life on the road. It was undeniable. It was visibly magnetic.

I cried as she talked about a performance where she ran off stage while 30 people in a crowd of 2,000 chanted "Nigger Lover" at her 15-year-old self. My god! I cried as she talked about how the promoter of that show told her she had to go back on stage: Not for her career or his bank account, but because if she didn't stand up to these inhumane people, they would have more confidence against the next performer they didn't like, the next thing that scared them.

I cried as she spoke of her mother, "who has been dying by inches for so long". I cried as she recounted a dream she had of her mother when MS finally took her breath, of seeing her mother run across the field, the scent of flowers clinging to her ankles. I cried as she spoke of how she did not know how to verify that this woman was actually passed.

I cried when she said that Jimi Hendrix was a very honest talent, also the most graceful of people.. I cried when she said that, in a time where people were hating her because she had been given, at 15, an opportunity that they had slaved their whole lives for, Jimi had been so kind.

And, I laughed. I laughed at her self-deprecating "I'm totally over Janis Ian" jokes. I laughed when she said she thought autobiographies were dreadfully boring, and that she preferred John Grisham and summer beach reads. I laughed when the wireless microphone gave out, and she confessed that she needed it after all. I laughed because she was funny, she was experienced, she was a bit crazy in the same way that most people I love are. I laughed because she was exciting decades after the spotlight had passed to less honest, less crazy performers.

I bought her CD, of course, and while it's not necessarily my style of preference, I am certainly glad I could experience the woman behind these songs. It sheds a light on how people become the artists they do: in her case, Perhaps I'll give it a good listen and a proper review here eventually, but for now, I will leave by saying Thank You, Janis Ian. Thank you from the bottom of my own performative heart.

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