Make way for Society’s Child

Singer/songwriter Janis Ian comes to Chico for the first time

SHE LEARNED THE TRUTH AT 17 <br>The first musical artist ever to perform on <i>Saturday Night Live</i> (for its first on-air episode), singer/songwriter and activist Janis Ian comes to Chico for an intimate solo performance at the Chico Women’s Club.

The first musical artist ever to perform on Saturday Night Live (for its first on-air episode), singer/songwriter and activist Janis Ian comes to Chico for an intimate solo performance at the Chico Women’s Club.

Preview: Janis Ian, Chico Women’s Club, Friday, Aug. 23, 8 p.m., Tickets: $16-$18

Janis Ian burst onto the music scene as a 16 year-old prodigy in 1967 with “Society’s Child,” and the Associated Press dubbed her “a white teenager indicting America for its racism and hypocrisy.” In the 35 years since, she has been a singer, songwriter, activist and magazine columnist. Next Friday, courtesy of North Valley Productions, she’ll visit Chico for the first time.

Born Janis Eddy Fink, the singer/songwriter, who can arguably be grouped with a handful of old-wave singer/songwriting women that includes Phoebe Snow, Carole King and Laura Nyro, infuses different subtleties into her songs that set many moods.

After the accolades and fame from her earliest work died down, Ian re-surfaced in the mid-'70s with three critically acclaimed records. The first one, Stars, featured “Jesse,” a song that Roberta Flack recorded and turned into a classic. In 1975, she released her most popular album, Between the Lines, which included her signature song, “At Seventeen,” which reached No. 3 on the U.S. pop singles chart. In 1976, Aftertones, featuring Phoebe Snow and Odetta, completed the triad and found success all over the world.

The Grammy Award winning singer stopped recording in 1982, after she grew dissatisfied with her writing. For the next 10 years, she studied in Los Angeles and then Nashville, the town she’s called home since 1988.

In 1993, she came back with Breaking Silence, a full collection of all-new material. The album coincided with the public announcement of her sexual orientation, and she began talking openly about her lesbianism. Ian became a champion of such issues as spousal abuse and AIDS.

God & the FBI, her 17th album, was released in 1999. Now shopping for a new label, she plans to return to the studio and release another album next year.

Over the years, her songs have been adapted by a wide array of artists, including Stan Getz, Bette Midler, Vanilla Fudge, Glen Campbell and Cher. And she, in turn, has guested on records by Joan Baez, Mel Torme and more.

At 16, Ian performed on Ed Sciaky’s radio show on WRTI, the Temple University radio station.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Michael Biel

She’s also the answer to a trivia question. Ian was the first performer to sing on Saturday Night Live on its very first show in 1975.

In 2002, aside from playing about 100 shows, including a bunch of festivals in the United States and Canada this summer, Ian got a lot of attention tackling issues with her pen. Most noteworthy are her recent articles in “Performing Songwriter” magazine concerning the common consumer practice of downloading music files via the Internet.

In the May 2002 issue, her words, which refuted the music industry’s claim that MP3 downloads are spelling doom for the music industry, reached far and wide, sparking replies from powerful music industry aristocracy organizations such as the RIAA and NARAS. One by one, she refuted RIAA CEO Hilary Rosen’s assertions that free downloading and CD copying are destroying the music business. Speaking like the voice of Davey as he stands up to Goliath, Ian accused the music industry of having a short memory, for one.

“Let me remind you of something,” she said. “The music industry had exactly the same response to the advent of reel-to-reel home tape recorders, cassettes, DATs, mini-discs, VHS, BETA, music videos (‘Why buy the record when you can tape it?'), MTV, and a host of other technological advances designed to make the consumer’s life easier and better. I know because I was there.”

Ian has also, over the last six years, devoted a lot of time and energy to The Pearl Foundation.

“I started it to honor my mom, who went back to school in her 40s, to send other people back to college,” Ian said. “It started as an on-line auction in ‘96 (it initially raised $66,000). We got 501C3 status as a charitable organization, and now we offer stuff on eBay and hold contests.”

You can even bid on your very own Janis Ian living room concert. Much of the money from Ian’s merchandise sales goes back into the fund. “It’s nice for the fans,” she said. “Some of the money is going to do something good, rather than just sitting there.”

Ian, who also has a line of guitars, should showcase a mix of soft pop, rock, country and even a bit of techno in her new live show. Drawing from her own real-life experiences, she offers sometimes graceful and melodic, sometimes biting songs of humor, sadness, love and political commentary. In addition to her guitar and piano, the solo acoustic Chico show promises some special effects via outboard equipment and sampling pedals.

Ian, who was interested to hear that Chico is an oasis of progressive consciousness in this generally conservative part of Northern California, wants Chico fans to know that they can bring their old vinyl records to the show. She’ll stick around the Women’s Club to sign memorabilia and chat with fans.