Revenge is sweet for Janis Ian

By Jeff Walsh, Oasis Editor
March 1996

Before I was born, Janis Ian was making beautiful music. And with her spare, acoustic recent album "Revenge," the tradition continues. Going into the interview, I was more familiar with her humorous and poignant columns in The Advocate. For some reason, although I had picked her CDs up in stores, I never bought them.

When her publicist sent me a review copy of "Revenge," my first realization was what great music I had been missing. Quickly thereafter, I felt fear. I was about to interview a Grammy-award winning singer/songwriter based on listening to one of her albums, once.

That fear disappeared when Ian answered the phone. She was friendly, receptive, and even through the phone exude her incredibly warm personality. Apparently, I'm not the only person coming to her music by way of her writing, and she's glad people are finding her either way.

Breaking her silence

Ian, 44, of Nashville came out as a lesbian several years ago, near the release of her previous album "Breaking Silence," which also serves as the name of her column. Since I was most familiar with her writing, that's where we started. I was shocked to learn her stint as one of The Advocate's best columnists in recent memory almost didn't happen.

"The Advocate column was really as much an accident as anything else, I think. An editor decided for some unfathomable reason that I would be a good writer, and I had never written any kind of prose," Ian says. "I really had zero interest in doing it. I thought it would be really time-consuming and a royal pain in the ass."

But Ian agreed to meet the editor for lunch with her partner, Pat, a law school student, in tow. Ian says her motivation for the meeting was clear: free lunch. Ian went to the bathroom, and says she was shocked when she returned a few minutes later.

"My partner had a list of due dates and (my editor) had a list of topics. I had sort of been committed," Ian says. "That's really how it started, with the understanding that if I ever wrote anything that we were all really unsatisfied with, we would run it as a black-bordered page and I could say 'This column sucks.' And that's kind of how it stayed."

Ian's frank, funny take on lesbian life began March 1994 and has proved to be controversial. Feedback over her columns always peppers The Advocate's Letters section, from both the supportive and offended. "It's certainly a daily lesson in how seriously people take themselves," Ian says. "I did a Christmas column that was pretty obviously tongue-in-cheek, and I was really surprised at how upset some people got.

"But the only thing I've regretted is when I did a column about lesbian chic, and there were a few women who felt like I had taken an issue with people being overweight, and that wasn't the issue," she says. "I was bothered that people misinterpreted that, because I wouldn't want people to think I felt like that."

The overwhelming response to her column has made writing it a "little more frantic," she says.

"Because the response has been so big, that kind of weighs on me now and then, especially with all the other stuff I'm in the middle of," she says. "Like this week, I have to finish two of them because I have to go to Germany."

Ian says she has always been a reader of The Advocate, despite constant community criticism of the publication for being too male-oriented. "When I was a kid, it was literally the only thing you could read, the only thing available for a gay person," she says. "I disagree with them a lot of the time, but in terms of my own stuff, my original deal with them was that there would be no censorship for anything other than literary style. And they've never suggested I do something or not do something."

Meet Mr. Lesbian

One editor's suggestion Ian did take was referring to Ian's partner in the columns as Mr. Lesbian. The nickname has appeared in nearly every column, often providing the final laugh or sarcastic closing remark. It was a nickname that began on The Howard Stern Show, on which Ian has appeared three times.

"I was doing the Howard Stern New Year's Eve show, and this guy was trying to suck up to me because I was a judge," Ian recalls. "He said, 'This must be Mr. Ian,' and Pat went for his throat. I said 'Calm Down,' and said 'Call her Mr. Lesbian, for God's sake.'

"So, we started joking about it, and when I wrote that first column, because it was about Howard, that came up and was in," Ian says. "The editor called and thought it was a brilliant device. So, we left it in."

Ian says she is a fan of Stern, despite his hot-and-cold popularity in the gay community. "I like that he says what he thinks. Howard, to me, is really blatant," she says. "He's very clear that he's doing this because he likes being wealthy, he likes being famous and that's all he cares about. That's refreshingly honest in this industry.

"Most of the people I've met who criticize his show, like Linda Ronstadt, who just blabs off at the mouth about it, have never seen nor heard the show," Ian says. "I always find it fascinating when people are willing to commit themselves to being that nasty about something when they don't know what they're talking about."

Just as she uses "Mr. Lesbian" as a device in her columns, Ian is quick to throw out a joke and then follow it up with a more heartfelt sentiment. Melissa Etheridge is a huge fan of Ian's, and cites her as a musical influence. How does Ian react to this? "I wish I had Melissa's bank account," she says, laughing. But then, she thinks about it more, and says: "It's always peculiar when you spent your life looking up at other artists and suddenly people are telling you they look up to you. That's a strange thing."

"It's real different now"

Ian says she never went through any major grief over her sexuality. "I always knew I was gay, it was pretty obvious," she says. "I read 'The Well of Loneliness' when I was about 11, and I had some confusion because I thought, 'Well, I don't want to be a guy, so maybe I'm not gay.'

"You really didn't use the word (gay) then, and we're looking at 1962 to 1963. We used homosexual for everybody," she says. "The books were very dismal, and yet I knew a couple of gay people. You didn't talk about it, but I knew that they were gay. I'd see people on the street when we went into New York, in the Village, where two men would be holding hands."

Ian slept with her first girlfriend when she was sixteen and a half. She thought finally sleeping with another girl would confirm she was gay. It didn't. "I thought I would sleep with somebody of the same sex and go 'Aha! I am gay,'" Ian says, but adds that "the sex wasn't real good, but the love was."

When Ian was 18, she read "Patience and Sarah." After reading that book, she recalls saying, "Oh well, I am gay."

Ian says being openly gay in the 90s is so much different from being gay in the 70s. "When I had my first girlfriend, my first intense, live-in relationship, I must have known maybe two other gay couples," she says. "I think the most amazing thing about being out and gay in the 90s is just that you know so many more people. It's such a non-issue for so many more people. It's not like in the 70s where, if you stated it for almost anyone, you would immediately risk forfeiting your job, if you were in the middle of the street you risked them running you over, and a crowd gathering and stoning you to death. It's real different now in that sense."

A different side of Ian

I was out of non-music topics at this point in the interview. It couldn't be avoided any longer. So, I tell Ian the first thoughts I had when I heard her album. I told her that when I heard "Tenderness," which features an easy tempo and her soothing, lilting voice, I was sorry -- sorry I was single, and didn't have anyone to be in bed with, cuddling, while the album continued. It was just so easygoing and touching, that only having a half-naked guy in bed with me could have improved it.

"Aww, how sweet," Ian says. "That very nice, and that would be a good thing to be able to do."

I then admit that I had no clue what I was going to hear when I first played her CD. Her columns are always a little raucous and playful, but her music was a whole new Ian -- one of a mature, practiced songwriter I need to hear more of.

"You thought you were buying a Romanovsky and Phillips record?" she asks, laughing. She said she intentionally keeps the two writing styles distinct, with their own voices.

"I think it's really hard to sometimes, but you have to keep your lines clear," she says. "I try to keep my other writing separate from the Advocate writing. Because The Advocate is really gender-specific, and specific to those issues, and it's reaching a very specific audience talking about those issues. Whereas the songwriting has got to be more universal, since probably 70 percent of my audience as a songwriter and singer is overseas."

Ian says her audience has always had more gay men than women, at least among those she could discern as being visibly out. But more gay women are starting to come to the shows, and the attitudes of the gay men in the audience are also changing.

"The identification used to be so strongly with the Judy Garlands and the Edith Piafs, the traditional victims," Ian says. "That's really changed, and gay men don't seem to need to self-identify to that anymore, which I think is great.

"I know I draw a really varied audience. I know record companies are always kind of shocked," Ian says. "I get a lot of transvestites lately, I don't know why. I also get a lot of baby butches because they read the articles in The Advocate, and a lot of them are not familiar with my music at all. It's such an eclectic audience."

"It does get better"

Since younger people might see Ian as a role model, does she have any advice for them? "I guess my advice would be that it does get better and much easier as you get older," she says. "It's a horrible clichˇ, but it is true, particularly the gay issue within your family. When you're a teenager, they can still keep telling themselves it's a phase that you're going to outgrow. And when they see you in a relationship for four or five years, it's difficult to say that."

Ian's definitely had an interesting life. Aside from making some incredible music, she was touring at age 14 with a song "Society's Child," about the pressures of a white teenage girl dating a black teenage boy. The song was banned, and people yelled "nigger lover" at her. But she had some friends who would look out for her, people like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. It seems like a surreal youth, but to Ian, it's just her life.

"When you're hanging out with somebody, they're not an icon. It doesn't occur to you to think of them that way," she says. "You're just hanging out."

Now in her 40s, with a loving partner of over six years, Ian's sweet soul is evident in her writing and music. Both are highly recommended to help people break their own silence, and eventually get their own revenge.

Janis Ian is allowing Oasis to reprint the following Advocate columns, which she hand-picked:

The author, Jeff Walsh, may be contacted at jeff@oasismag.com.
General information: Jeff Walsh
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