Last night I had an opportunity of a lifetime to see Janis Ian in concert. Janis Ian!!! I would say to my friends in advance. For many I had to hum “At Seventeen” or mention “Society’s Child.”
Some of my friends wanted to come but couldn’t, others simply were born too late to understand the impact this woman has had on the arts in America, on providing social commentary, on using her art to tell the truth and thus, make us uncomfortable about our own truths we were hiding, cleverly concealed as insouciance, or recklessness, or as the numbing shawl of ennui we would wear draped over our shoulders, close to our hearts.
Of course for me “At Seventeen” was one of my flagship songs. I was that girl, and that was my truth. In part, I would say I learned this much younger than at seventeen. Maybe it was when I was thirteen and one of my best friends and I walked to the tennis courts with a boy– he was cute, and popular. I remember my friend was playing a set of tennis with this boy (whose popular, cute name I’ve forgotten) and I was being goofy, running after stray balls, thinking I was very entertaining. At the end of the game, I was sweaty and disheveled, my hair plastered to my face and neck. My friend and Popular Boy, although they had played the game vigorously, looked cool and serene. Walking home, we were no longer three abreast; they walked ahead, holding hands and I trailed behind thinking, “There’s something I’m missing about this whole boy-girl connection.”
So clearly, that memory– and others like them– arose for me last night. But it was about more than memories. It was about connections–spiritual, emotional and physical connections. After a particularly erotic (really, there’s no other word for it) guitar riff on a song before intermission, I looked at a straight friend of mine and said, “I feel like I need a cigarette after that!” She agreed.
She also connected to the audience with her humor. I had no idea – never having seen her live– how incredibly funny she is. Sardonic and wry, she told stories on herself. She spoke of the ludicrous laws of the United States when it comes to marriage (I posted a youtube video of her singing her song about this on my fb page). She told of the incredible backlash to her first big hit when she was just 15 years old, “Society’s Child” about an inter-racial relationship and used raw language in recounting that raw time that makes polite society feel uncomfortable.
She made fun of herself in her song “Autobiography” and she swept me away with her stunning rendition of “Tea and Sympathy” (another youtube post on my fb wall). This song was written well before AIDS hit the U.S. population, most chiefly, at the onset, the gay male population. When she sang this song last night, I was instantly taken back to those years when friends and community members were vanishing in the time span of a song (I think the montage in RENT shows it best, as the men and women in the HIV support group vanish during the song, “Without You”). The youtube video shows Janis Ian singing live in 1976. So, maybe 25, 26, something like that. It can’t compare to the depth and timbre of experience and a lived embodied life that Janis brought to the song last night. Although her humor came through. She said, “Now I get to sing what I really want– like a Liberace medly (and if I have to explain Liberace, forget it– he was the Lady Gaga of his era). And the words (found at www.metrolyrics.com/tea-and-sympathy-lyrics-janis-ian.html) fit in so well with the US AIDS years. Life takes on a different meaning when one’s true love– when so many of one’s true loves– have gone. I love the words, “I’ll pray to go quite mad, and live in long ago. When you and I were one, so very long ago.” Yes, I cried. I cried a few times during the evening. But I laughed a lot, too. And I nodded my head in understanding and solidarity.
I don’t mean to engage in hyperbole, but I truly think this was possibly the best concert I’ve been to in my life. And I’ve been to many– Doobie Brothers, Billy Joel, Summer Jam (Journey, Christopher Cross, others). I’ve seen Bette Midler three times, the Indigo Girls and Melissa Etheridge, countless times, Sweet Honey in the Rock, the Washington Sisters, Jack Johnson and Jimmy Buffet, James Taylor, Equality Rocks concert. I’m missing some.
And they were are all great. But there was something about this evening spent with Janis Ian. The venue Stargazers Theatre (www.stargazerstheatre.com) was awesome and the sound great.
And I was at a table in the very front. All of this helped. But there was a certain ineffable quality about her presence, her continued insistence on using her art to tell the truth and to reveal our culture’s folly that I think I would have felt if I were in a stadium of thousands. And her voice! Her voice was as pure as it ever was, with the rich and layered complexities of the years fully lived.
At an upcoming worship conference that will be held in the MDD, the title of a keynote address is listed as Nobody Ever Left Worship Humming the Sermon. I’m assuming this might be about the role of the arts and music in worship. But I have to say, that I had a spiritual experience last night in the listening to the embodied stories and music of Janis Ian. Her life has been a sermon– a proclamation of truth, an exhortation to live justly, and a lullaby of compassion and love– and I left humming it last night.
You can check out more about Janis Ian at her website www.janisian.com