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LEARNED A LOT SINCE 'SEVENTEEN' : After Divorce, Illness and Financial Ruin, Janis Ian Emerges From the Closet and Finds Reason to Sing Again

June 03, 1993|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

Janis Ian believes in long shots.

In the liner notes to "Breaking Silence," her first album in 12 years, under the musician credits and the roll call of special thanks, Ian has included a plea that represents a leap of hope equivalent to the proverbial message in a bottle.

My 1937 Martin D-18 67053 has been missing since 1972. If you have information, please contact me. No questions asked. Post Office Box 121153, Nashville TN 37212.

Since the album, due out June 8, represents Ian's gambit to re-establish her long-dormant performing career, she figured she might as well go all the way and try to get her stolen guitar back too.

At 42, Ian says she already has had two careers as a recording artist. Now she is trying for a third.

The first started when she was an under-age folkie, working the club scene in New York City during the mid-1960s. Ian was 16 when she scored a hit with "Society's Child"--a folk-pop protest song about a black boy and a white girl who fall in love, only to have their romance sundered by the bigotry around them.

Ian couldn't manage a successful chart follow-up to that 1967 hit, but she came back even stronger in 1975 as the still-young diva of "At Seventeen." That rueful song about being in high school and feeling like a social reject struck a chord with the multitudes who didn't enjoy a storybook adolescence. It netted her a Grammy Award as Best Female Vocalist, and propelled her downbeat, deeply introspective album, "Between the Lines," to the top of the Billboard pop chart.

By 1982, though, Ian had abandoned her recording deal with Columbia Records, seeking to get out of a wearing cycle of touring and recording that she felt was sapping her powers as a songwriter.

The remainder of the '80s brought a financially costly divorce and a disastrous run-in with the Internal Revenue Service that Ian says took what was left of her money. But the late-1980s saw her establish herself as a Nashville-based songsmith, crafting ballads recorded by Amy Grant, Nanci Griffith, Kathy Mattea, Joan Baez, Marti Jones and Bette Midler, among others. Now Ian is ready to sing her own songs again (as she will at the Coach House on Friday, backed by a drummer and bassist).

The sense of renewal is evident in her new album's title and in its artwork, which depicts Ian's face obscured by shadows on the front cover but bathed in light on the back. It's also there in songs such as "All Roads to the River," a declaration of high artistic purpose, and in several fervent romantic ballads, including the hushed, literately erotic "Ride Me Like a Wave." Ian plainly alludes to past setbacks and subsequent recovery in "Walking on Sacred Ground" and "This Train Still Runs," wherein she declares herself back on track:

It doesn't matter where it's gone, this train still runs.

And though the baggage weighs a ton, we carry on.

Nothin' is forever young, and I'm not done.

This train still runs.

Ian's songs of committed love and high artistic hopes are shadowed by others about spousal abuse, incest and the Holocaust. In dealing with trouble and pain, she suggests on the album's concluding title track, "breaking silence" is the first step to recovery.

In keeping with that notion, Ian has decided for the first time to broach her sexuality with interviewers. She has had relationships with men, including the five-year marriage that ended in 1983. But, she said in a recent phone interview from her home in Nashville, "I've normally lived with women. I would classify myself at this point as gay. Everybody in my family has always known. Everybody in the music industry has known. But it is something I didn't talk about with the press, or evaded when I was pushed. One reason I didn't want to address it for so long was that I don't like that kind of pigeonholing (of) the music" under a gay-artist rubric.

While her new songs don't deal with gay-rights themes, Ian hopes to use the media-attention that her comeback record might generate to try to diminish some of the social stigma against lesbians and gay men.

"In the age of AIDS and people going fag-bashing, it becomes a civil rights issue," she said. "If people like me don't start treating it normally with the press, people in America will think they don't know any (gay people). It's my personal life, but in most states I don't have a right to live it. It's hard to justify having worked for black civil rights in the '60s and not work for my own civil rights in the '90s."

Ian said she is especially motivated by reports that "teens who even thought they might be gay had a three times higher suicide rate. Solving that is going to take people like me coming out, not stridently, but very vocally, so some 12-year-old can be watching 'Oprah' and see me saying, 'I'm happy, it's OK to be this.' "

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