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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 27, 2008

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Society's Child, Where Are You Now?

The first I heard of Janis Ian was her song "At Seventeen." I wasn't very far from that age myself, and the yearning and pain of that song really struck me. I bought several of her albums and wore them out with much playing.

In those days I fancied myself something of a folksinger myself, toting my guitar all over campus and singing anywhere, with anybody who would join in. I wasn't much of a guitarist -- a chord strummer, not a real player -- but I knew enough to recognize what a marvelous songwriter Janis Ian was, and how powerfully she sang the songs.

But after a while I stopped seeing new albums from her. When LPs gave way to CDs, I bought again all the albums I had loved before, and didn't even wonder why she didn't seem to have anything new in the record stores.

After all, isn't that the way with pop music? Singers come along and wow us, and then the music fades. Why?

Janis Joplin stopped recording new albums when she died. James Taylor never stopped -- he just seemed to slide from one section of the record store to another. Carly Simon and Linda Ronstadt went genre-hopping. Carole King forgot how to write songs and replaced them with unveiled sermons with little of musical interest (which made me sad indeed). Joni Mitchell went over to jazz, and then lost all those soaring upper notes in her range (ah, Joni, why did you have to smoke away your voice?). David Crosby's dead, Neil Young's a nostalgic soloist, and Graham Nash resurfaced on American Idol after years in which I never saw anything from him (though that doesn't mean he wasn't recording!).

What happened to Janis Ian?

Not that many years ago I got a chance to meet her, and a good friendship developed. I found that I not only loved her singing and her songs, I also loved her as a performer and as a person. She is kind and generous -- which is not contradicted by saying that she's also rigorous and demanding as an artist.

Nothing can touch the love I have for her old songs. But many of her new songs are better. They're informed by a life full of experiences harsh and transformative and, sometimes, beautiful.

She talked a little about some of it. A marriage that didn't work, and from which she barely emerged with any of her self intact; a longtime relationship with her present partner, which has brought her the happiness long missing from her life.

I thought that, to some degree, I knew her. And, in fact, I did -- she is a remarkably open person, and in many ways what you see is what she is.

And yet ... she didn't really go into the details of things. And why should she? Making friends with me should not mean catching me up with every scrap of pain in her life up to then!

Then, this past winter, I got a chance to read an advance copy of her Society's Child: My Autobiography. The idea was for me to write a quote that might be used to promote the book.

Here is what I wrote:

Good autobiographies are rare. It's too tempting to write such a book to excuse, justify, or conceal one's own mistakes, or absolve them through confession; or, worse, to attack other people in the guise of "telling the truth."

Janis Ian understands that nobody knows "the truth" and all she can tell is how things seemed to her as they were happening, and how they seem to her now.

The result is a book that has all the inside knowledge of memoir, yet all the candor, compassion, and toughness of a book written by a wise observer.

Add to this Janis Ian's extraordinary talent as a writer, and you have a book of surpassing clarity and truth.

I meant to read a bit of it before sleeping, but ended up reading it in one continuous sitting. Then I dreamed the book all night and woke to it in the morning as if I had lived her life, with all its horrors and wonders.

Whether you know Janis Ian's music or not, this book is a beautiful and unforgettable experience.

That's what I wrote several months ago. Now her book is on the shelves, along with a new CD, Best of Janis Ian: The Autobiography Collection, which lets you listen to songs as they're referred to.

Not long ago, I reviewed Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller. These were wonderful singers and songwriters, with fascinating lives. Sheila Weller did a good job of writing about them.

But what can I say? Nobody writes like Janis Ian. If she hadn't become a singer/songwriter, she could easily have become just as well known as a novelist or essayist.

As a friend of hers, reading her story, I felt as if I had sat down with her for several hours, for the life-explaining conversation that we had never actually had. Now her mentions of her painful marriage became clear; now I could live with her through the cycles of her career, the skyrocket trajectories where again and again she reinvented herself.

A couple of weeks ago, after the death of George Carlin (God rest his soul -- however irritated Carlin might be at having God do any such thing), NBC reran the very first episode of Saturday Night Live. Carlin was the first guest host.

It was obvious that the format of the show was not yet solidified. It was all over the place, and the young performers who became stars were barely present.

On top of that, Carlin actually gave one monologue about religion that would still be considered hot today. What saved the show from the kind of controversy that might have gotten it cancelled was that hardly anybody watched that first week.

What delighted me was seeing Janis Ian on the show, performing some of those great songs of hers when they were still new.

What I was not prepared for was the way she sang. I had forgotten how intense the whole folkie scene was in those days. She sang with intensity -- but with almost no personality. It was all about the music, the words. Not about Janis Ian connecting with the audience.

Well, things have sure changed since then. She's a born performer, and when you go to her concerts now, she's funny, full of stories. Yes, she still sings with passion -- but there are also songs with sly wit, like "Boots Like Emmy Lou's," and when she talks, the audience laughs and cries.

She's come a long way since her song "Society's Child" brought death threats from racists. And if she's now found some happiness, she hasn't forgotten the pain along the way. It all shows up in her music. It all shows up in her book.

A biographer like Sheila Weller can only go so far. She remains forever outside the subjects of her book, so that you might learn a lot about Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon from Girls Like Us, but you don't actually get to know the women themselves.

When you read Society's Child, on the other hand, you are getting Janis Ian, with nothing held back (or so it seems, anyway). She doesn't spare herself or anyone else. She tells of love and loss, pain she caused and pain she felt.

This is not an "as told to" or a ghost-written memoir. Janis Ian is brilliantly verbal; every word of this book is her own. You hear her voice. You meet her soul.

There are things that she and I don't agree about; it doesn't mean we can't be friends. That's what it means to be civilized grownups. She cares about me; I care about her. All the more now that I've read her book.

You might well have the same experience, even if you've never met her, even if you've never seen or heard her performances. By the end of this book, we know her better than most people know most of their best friends. You may not have reached some of the same conclusions she reaches -- but you know why and how she got to where she is today, and it would be presumptuous indeed to think that any of us could have done a better job with the life she was given, that she remade again and again.

Right now she's exhausting herself with a tour, signing books and singing in town after town, with precious few breaks. And just to show you what a selfish friend I am, I'm trying to get her to give up some of her precious days off to come to Greensboro. But even if I don't get my way on that, she'll be at the Arts Center in Carrboro on October 23rd, a Barnes & Noble in Charlotte on the 25th of October, and at the McLohon Theater at Spirit Square in Charlotte on the 26th.

Mark those dates on your calendars. It'll be worth the drive. Because if there's one thing Janis Ian always does, it's put on an unforgettable show.

And if you don't want to wait, go to JanisIan.com and see if there's a different date in another city that might work for you. She's going to be everywhere.

*

Mary Higgins Clark is absolutely dependable. Even though in some ways she's quite an old-fashioned writer -- never a naughty word, and prone to slipping into an unfashionable omniscient point of view from time to time -- she manages to come up with stories that are compelling and quirky and moving, year after year.

Her novel Where Are You Now?, which came out last April, is no exception. In fact, it's my favorite of her recent books, despite a few coincidences that stretch credulity.

Maybe it's just because I'm a parent who lives perhaps too much in his children, but the premise got me from the start. Ten years before, Charles "Mac" McKenzie walked away from his student apartment and disappeared.

Yet every year, on Mother's Day, he calls home and talks, for just a few moments, to let his family know that he's fine.

He won't answer questions. And he always gets off the phone before the call can be traced.

What is he doing? Why did he leave? While he's been gone, his father died, and now, at last, his mother is ready to stop waiting for him. The old family friend who has long managed their estate and watched over them unceasingly has proposed to her. If Mac doesn't want to be in her life, she'll go on and make a life with somebody who does.

Mac's little sister, Carolyn, sees it differently. She's angry with her brother and determined to find him, no matter how much he pleads with her not to do so. Following up on old leads, interviewing people who, ten years after the police last talked to them, seem to have something to hide, Carolyn discovers that she is stirring up a hornet's nest.

Then her brother's name suddenly crops up as the prime suspect in a series of murders, and Carolyn is almost frantic. How could he possibly have done these terrible things? Yet the evidence against him seems unassailable. Is it possible that he disappeared all those years ago because he knew he was losing his sanity?

I happened to listen to the unabridged audio, read by Jan Maxwell, who gives a strong performance. It's a terrific ride, right to the end.


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