Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Wavelike Career (And Life) Of Janis Ian, Society’s Child

The Good: Informative, Mostly well-written, Entertaining
The Bad: A few gaps in the narrative
The Basics: Anyone who is a fan of music should pick up and read Society’s Child, the autobiography of Janis Ian which is a whirlwind of namedropping, professional victories and personal tragedies.

Today was a real treat for me; after months of having it on the nightstand, I finally sat down and read the bulk of Society’s Child. My wife gave me Society’s Child in hardcover for our five year wedding anniversary and as part of my goal for the year to read more, I started it several months ago. Until I committed today to being a reading day, I had not had the chance to devote the time and effort to focus my attention on it. I’m glad that I did; Society’s Child deserves the reader’s full attention for several reasons, not the least of which is that the autobiography’s subject, Janis Ian, has had a whirlwind life.

Society’s Child is the 348 page autobiography (plus the index pages) of singer-songwriter Janis Ian. Published in 2008, Society’s Child is a brutally honest personal narrative of a singer-songwriter whose works might no longer be at the forefront of the collective unconscious, but have far more enduring value than the vast majority of the music being produced and released today. Janis Ian is the writer and singer of songs from the late 1960s and 1970s when her career hit its worldwide peaks with the singles “Society’s Child,” “Jesse,” “Stars,” and “At Seventeen.” Society’s Child chronicles her professional resilience – while she has had many other charting songs between and since, she has certainly become more of a niche performer than a popular recording artist of the masses – and the erratic nature of her personal life.

On the personal front, Society’s Child is the story of a young woman whose trust was systematically destroyed almost from her earliest interactions with other people. Janis Ian writes frankly about her sexual abuse at the hands of her family’s dentist, her early attempts at songwriting and the relationships that formed the basis for many of her poems which she set to music. Ian writes about the effect having a hit song as a teenager had on her and her family, how her life at school dramatically changed and how her earnings contributed to her parents’ divorce. Janis Ian writes about the personal trials and tribulations that framed her life with an honesty that is uncommon in any autobiography, which makes for an engaging read and a deeply human narrative. It is virtually impossible to read Society’s Child as a fan of the works of Janis Ian, once pop superstar around the world, and continue to elevate her in the mind to superhuman status. First and foremost, Society’s Child makes a woman with creative gifts and lifetime earnings that vastly outstrip those of almost every reader seem incidental; she is first and foremost a person and her journey through life has not been easy. There is no other celebrity biography I have ever encountered wherein the subject of the narrative celebrates being able to get $20 out of an ATM to buy socks in chapters following being a superstar who ate live lobster sushi in Japan during a tour that made her rich.

Society’s Child casts Janis Ian as a woman who struggles with relationships and deep trust issues. Her trust violated at almost every turn (the FBI kept tabs on her family, leaving her father unable to get tenure during the Civil Rights Movement; late in the volume, she learns that her financial manager had been embezzling for decades, leaving her at the mercy of a zealous IRS agent who left her destitute), she took solace in romantic relationships that did not pan out. From a somewhat mundane first love to her first romantic relationship with a woman, Society’s Child illustrates how Janis Ian struggled to find love and acceptance regardless of her celebrity. Her first marriage is chronicled and is difficult to read (for the content, not the diction). Only a few pages after the relationship is loving and blooming, Ian faces the barrel of a gun and a situation written with such realism and tension that the reader forgets that the narrator must have survived it in order to write the book.

Fortunately, Society’s Child is not just the troubling tale of one woman who gets abused by a dentist, a husband, a therapist and the IRS. Acting in odd foil to her personal travails, both in terms of relationships and health, Janis Ian chronicles the story of her albums and recording career. After the initial stories, Society’s Child tells the story of Janis Ian’s life album by album. Ian writes about being a folk singer who is deemed “too young” by the established folk community in New York City. Not allowed to perform at some critical, early opportunities, Janis Ian is taken under the wing of luminaries in the pop and folk music fields. After befriending Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, Janis Ian’s meteoric career puts her on par with singer-songwriters like Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, Billy Joel, and Joan Baez.

Society’s Child illustrates the impossibly fickle music industry and how Janis Ian struggled as an artist against a machine that abhorred the art that made her initially marketable. Ian writes about how the industry cycle of touring, promoting and recording became virtually impossible to balance against the act of creating the music the record label demanded of her. The book describes well and in enough detail how the traditional paradigm for the music industry was oppressive and robbed her of the personal moments that she needed to be an artist.

For those who are not already fans of the works of Janis Ian, Society’s Child is a great primer. Ian’s work is not filled with gratuitous namedropping; just as she describes the difficulty of those who did not live through the Civil Rights Movement understanding the social turmoil of the early years of her life, her description of the process of meeting other artists and being recognized by the music community calls back to a very different time and place. Ian writes about the late 60’s club scene vividly and she writes with reverence about her contemporaries and her inspirations as they come into her life.

While there are a few sloppy moments of prose – on one point, Janis Joplin pops up in a story as “Janis,” making the reader think Ian has slipped into the third person – most of Society’s Child is well-written and engaging. Ian writes with a sense of humor where appropriate (her story about eating sushi in Japan and running into Bruce Springsteen on the street after he was charting are instantly memorable) and with a vivid sense of imagery for the rest. Her internal narrative is tormented and she chronicles it well as she describes her feelings of betrayal, her feelings of being affectless, and of coming back to being emotionally well-rounded exceptionally well. Janis Ian details being dosed with vivid and disturbing imagery. Her descriptions, late in the book, of some of her health problems like CFS get troublingly resolved. For example, at the height of her CFS story where she appears otherwise insensate, she finds herself interrogated by the feds in an incident that she recounts without any of the nebulous of the incidents that immediately precede or follow it.

Despite the very few moments when the writing is not as tight or clear, the bulk of Society’s Child reads as a tight, engaging personal narrative. Anyone who has ever had a sense of celebrity worship should read Society’s Child; it humanizes one extraordinary artist and reminds the reader that while the industry and popularity of musical artists and movements might be fickle, those who create the art we consume face the same struggles we do and more and they are bound to face those challenges with the same basic tools we possess. While there is certainly more of the story of Janis Ian left to tell, Society’s Child gives perspective on the portion of Ian’s life most people will be most interested in.

For other works by Janis Ian, visit my reviews of:
Concert - East Lansing, MI - March 8, 2013
Janis Ian
. . . For All The Seasons Of Your Mind
Society's Child: The Verve Recordings
Between The Lines
Breaking Silence
God & The F.B.I.
Billie's Bones
Live: Working Without A Net
Folk Is The New Black
The Best Of Janis Ian - 2 CD + Exclusive DVD Edition


For other book reviews, please check out my Nonfiction Book Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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