IN JANUARY, singer-songwriter Janis Ian releases what she calls her “swan song” album, The Light at the End of the Line (Rude Girl Records). With nine Grammy nominations and two wins, the singer at age seventy has nothing left to prove, but she delivers an astoundingly resonant collection, her first full album in fifteen years.
Ian was propelled onto the national stage at the age of fifteen when Leonard Bernstein featured her in a television special, Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution (1967), along with songwriters Lennon, McCarthy, Jagger, Dylan, and others. Her controversial song “Society’s Child” about interracial dating had been banned on many radio stations, but Bernstein’s advocacy turned it into a Top Twenty hit.
In 1975, Ian returned to the pop charts with her achingly beautiful ballad of teenage angst, “At Seventeen.” Since then, major artists across genres, such as Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, Cher, Bette Midler, John Mellencamp, Barbara Cook, Nanci Griffith, and Joan Baez, have covered her songs. Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and Mel Tormé recorded duets with her. Charles Aznavour and Shirley Bassey championed Ian’s work when they performed in Europe. Celine Dion included “At Seventeen” in her Vegas shows.
Throughout a kaleidoscopic career, she continued writing laments and affirmative anthems through bankruptcies, health emergencies, failed relationships, and the vagaries of the recording industry. The artist in Janis Ian always prevailed as she sang of perseverance and resiliency for legions of fans on stages worldwide.
Ian was first outed as a lesbian in 1967 in The Village Voice, but it had little impact on her career. Early on, Bill Cosby called around to have her banned from television talk shows, to no avail, and Garrison Keillor felt she wasn’t “family values” enough for his Prairie Home Companion radio show. The singer and her wife, Pat Snyder, were married in Toronto in 2003 and were one of the first same-sex couples to be listed in The New York Times’ wedding announcements.
John R. Killacky, who is currently serving in the Vermont House of Representatives, recently published a compilation of his writings titled Because Art (Onion River Press).