No one ever accused songwriter Janis Ian of dodging life’s difficult issues. Two decades ago, when she was scarcely 15, she tackled the problem of racial prejudice and pushed it to the top of the pop charts with her song, Society’s Child. She later returned with At Seventeen, this time limning the gray days of adolescence in which lonely girls “…remained at home/ Inventing lovers on the phone.” It was all a bit cheerless perhaps, but then Ian was always at her best when brooding.
Those fans who might have missed her during her five-year absence from performing can now take heart: Things are looking down again. Fueling the singer’s latest comeback is a new song, Uncle Wonderful, whose subject is as dark as ever: child molestation. “I learned to cry behind locked doors/” sings Ian. “I know the truth that he conceals/ It left a wound that will not heal.”
For Ian, now 35, the creative spark was reignited by allegations of child abuse at the McMartin Preschool center in Manhattan Beach, Calif. Though her initial reaction was ‘real disgust,” she couldn’t ignore firsthand accounts. “One friend whose father I knew told me he had her masturbate him twice,” says Ian, who herself had fended off advances from a neighbor when she was 12. Another friend told Ian, “These scars never heal. It’s the theft of innocence.”
Though she has performed the piece on tour this year, she says, “It’s not the kind of song where you can go to a record company and say, ‘Hey guys, I have a real important song here.’ I don’t know if the industry is ready to accept me at this point,” she adds. The reaction “is a lot like that to Society’s Child, and that’s dismaying.”
Society’s Child, about a white girl pressured to drop her black boyfriend, was rejected by 22 companies before Verve records signed the singer in 1965. Soon, the 4′ 10½” New Jersey-born daughter of Pearl and Victor Fink was being hailed as the female Bob Dylan.
For Ian (who adopted her brother’s middle name), that new status proved to be a tough billing to fill, and by 17, Ian had burned out. She quit performing, submerged herself in drugs and psychotherapy and finally ended up in Los Angeles with $2,000 in her pocket. Her reception was hardly overwhelming. She managed to procure the odd club booking, “but people were throwing bottles at me,” she recalls. “It was all the dues I never paid when I was 15.”
Things finally hit bottom in 1972, when her two-and-a-half-room house in Hollywood was burglarized. “They stole the only thing in the world I cared about—a guitar my father gave me for my 16th birthday.”
In 1973 lan’s career rebounded with her song Stars, a bitter indictment of celebrity, and two years later At Seventeen propelled her into the Top 10. lan’s personal life eventually began to mend itself as well. She met Portuguese businessman Tino Sargo, now 55, at a party and in 1977 offered him her New York apartment while she was away. When she returned unexpectedly a couple of months later, the two were flung together. The couple married in 1978 and now live in Los Angeles. “It’s not easy, God knows,” says Ian, once an admitted bisexual, of their eight-year marriage. “It’s as solid as any marriage can be when two people are constantly questioning it.”
Ian toured in the U.S. with modest success during the late ’70s, then dropped out again in 1981. (“You can grind out only so much, then you need time to just be alive.”) Last March she signed a new contract with MCA Music, then went to Nashville, where she met Rhonda Kye Fleming, a songwriter with 40 Top-10 country hits to her name, among them I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool. “We had breakfast and ended up talking for six hours,” says Ian, who then presented Fleming with Uncle Wonderful. “We had so many things in common. We just sparked,” says Fleming, who revamped the song. They have now collaborated on 10 additional tunes to accompany it on lan’s first album in six years, due out in January. Not only is the music new, but so is the sense of maturity Ian says she’s found. “It’s neat to have finally reached a point where I can accept what I was and what I am. I feel I was born with the music coming to me, and that’s not something to be wasted.”