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At 44, Janis Ian Gets Her 'Revenge' : Pop music: Spurned by major labels, the singer-songwriter--at the Coach House tonight--finds new freedom in her comeback.

June 28, 1995|JON MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Janis Ian was a budding, 15-year-old singer-songwriter when she discovered the power of a song to stir deep emotion and controversy. In 1967, her debut single, "Society's Child (Baby I've Been Thinking)," struck a nerve in American society with its sympathetic depiction of an interracial romance.

The song reached No. 14 on Billboard's pop singles chart but also provoked bitter feelings. Ian was heckled at some of her shows and in public by racial separatists.

" 'Society's Child' was a real hard record to start with," Ian recalled in a recent interview. "That's all you want is for you to put your first record out and have people screaming at you in the streets.

"But it taught me right away that what I was doing was valuable and important," she said. Songs "can help change the world. That was a great lesson for me to learn at 15. Otherwise I might have been 30 before that sunk in."

At 44, Ian is contending with another civil-rights issue. When she returned to record making two years ago after an 11-year absence, she did so as an openly lesbian performer. During interviews Ian is frank when discussing her homosexuality and her longtime partner, Pat.

Yet Ian is not, and has never been, a stridently political artist. Her songs make their points in more personal ways via smart, eloquent storytelling. This was the case with both "Society's Child" and her second big hit, "At Seventeen," a moving tale from 1975 about a young woman's remembrances of growing up an outcast.

Neither her 1993 comeback album, "Breaking Silence," nor her current one, "Revenge," contains overtly gay themes. The love and relationship songs are gender neutral, underscoring that gay couples grapple with the same relationship issues as their straight counterparts.

"I don't want anybody in the audience to feel excluded," said Ian, who writes a column for the magazine the Advocate.

"We noticed a lot [when we toured with] 'Breaking Silence' that a certain amount of the heterosexual couples who came were almost waiting two or three songs to see if it would turn into a political show. Once they realized it wasn't a political show, they calmed down. It's pretty much a non-issue now."

Ian has always been a maverick. She walked away from her recording career twice, in the late '60s and again in 1982. The second time was to study acting with Stella Adler and ballet with the Paris Opera Ballet. For Ian, these were horizon-broadening ventures rather than serious attempts at new career paths.

"I was turning into an idiot who could only discuss music and business," she says. "I needed to explore some other forms."

In 1986, Ian returned to pop music as a songwriter. The New York City-born artist collaborated with Nashville songwriters. Many of her songs from this period were covered by singers including John Mellencamp, Bette Midler and Nanci Griffith.

But the '80s also were a turbulent time for Ian. A five-year marriage ended in 1983; she suffered a near-fatal burst intestine in 1986, and in the mid-'80s her house and savings were seized because of unpaid taxes.

Her financial woes seemed particularly cruel considering that Ian was known for her generosity and philanthropic spirit during her commercially fruitful years.

"The worst part of losing the money was that my mom was sick, and I needed the money for her," Ian said. "But I wasn't brought up with that sense of needing a lot of [material possessions]. Basically, a big deal for me is being able to afford to buy a hardcover copy of a book.

"I'll probably never trust anyone financially again. That's probably a good lesson," she said. "But more than that, the experience taught me that you need very little to do your work. At the end of the day, if you don't have a record contract, a studio or a guitar, you can still write songs. You're still an artist. That's something no one can take away."

In 1989, Ian decided to take center stage again, in part to record favorite songs she had written that weren't being covered. She embarked on a brief U.S. tour.

When she made the rounds of the major American record labels, she found the doors shut. Ian and Pat took out a mortgage on their house to help finance making the acoustic "Breaking Silence" album.

"Revenge" is a more full-bodied, harder-edged work than its predecessor. The album was released on the small Los Angeles-based Beacon Records label and uses a crack four-piece band including top session drummer Steve Gadd (who has played with Paul Simon and Steely Dan) and bassist Willie Weeks.

Ian says "Revenge" was the least problematic album she had recorded since her first, in 1966. It took just under a month to record. "It was a piece of cake," she said. "A lot of that came down to the personalities [meshing well]. You never know when you put a bunch of great players together whether it's going to work and become a great band or just be a bunch of great [individual] players."

The Nashville-based singer is so enthused about making albums again that she's already booked studio time in April and May. She'll continue touring through the end of the year.

Even though her "Between the Lines" album was a No. 1 hit 20 years ago for Columbia Records, Ian says she isn't bitter about being spurned by the major record labels during her latest comeback. Ian says she much prefers the artistic freedom that comes with recording for a small label.

Why did she title the album "Revenge"?

With a chuckle, she said, "It's like they say: Living well is the best revenge."

* Janis Ian and Lindsay Tomasic perform tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $17.50. (714) 496-8930.

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