Society’s Child     by Janis Ian

Society's Child cover

Society’s Child – My Autobiography
by Janis Ian
Jeremy P Tarcher/Penguin USA, (2008)
£12.37 (hardback), £10.27 (paperback)
available from
Amazon and The Book Depository
and from Janis Ian’s Website

Autobiography Collection CD

CD Best of Janis Ian – The Autobiography Collection ,
released to coincide with and link to the publication of the book,
is available from Amazon and other outlets.

I have always been an enormous fan of Janis Ian. Along with my whole generation in the 1970s I was stunned by the sharpness and excruciating honesty of At Seventeen. All my teenage fears and anxieties – the certainty that everyone else was more attractive, more loved and coping far better than I was – expressed in the stark, under-stated lyrics of Janis Ian's song. Nobody had ever put that in a song before, or, as far as I knew, said it out loud. Of course it was written from the female point of view but its message was gender-universal. This was the song that convinced me at the deepest level that I was not alone. The song has proved immortal. Each new generation rediscovers it, and has no idea how long it has been around. The song will never grow any older, but thankfully those it speaks to will.


I wrote about things it humiliated me to talk about—the mortification I felt when I realized I’d lusted, not to be an artist, but to be famous. The shame I felt when television directors would ask me to “Move, damnit!” and my body would freeze because I was convinced it was so ugly.


By the time I finished the second verse two months later, I’d decided I’d never sing it in public. It was just too humiliating. I was sure no one else felt that way. Everyone else was more popular, more socially adept, than I’d ever been. No one would relate to it; they’d probably laugh.


        This was by no means Janis' first song; Hair of Spun Gold had been published in Broadside alongside the works of such as Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger and Buffy Saint-Marie when she was thirteen years old, and she began performing publicly in that same year. Society's Child, the song that confronted racist attitudes in American society (and which gives the autobiography its title) followed shortly afterwards to a storm of death threats and controversy. As her career progressed, Janis continued to produce intensely intimate and heart-rending songs, dealing with topics such as loneliness, loss, desertion, casual relationships, obsessive love, falling out of love, jealousy, resentment and self-delusion – as well as some happier topics too of course. What they all had in common was the superb technical craftsmanship, powerful original imagery and unmerciful honesty that is the Janis Ian trademark.

" Nigger lover! Nigger lover! Nigger lover!

I was standing alone on a stage in Encino,
California,halfway through the first verse of
my song “Society’s Child.”

Come to my door, baby
Face is clean and shining black as night
My mama went to answer
You know that you looked so fine
Now, I could understand the tears and the shame
She called you “Boy” instead of your name

The problem had begun with a lone woman
screaming out the words “Nigger lover!” Then the
people sitting around her had joined in, chanting as
though they were at a religious service. They were
even chanting in time to the song.
“Nigger lover! Niggerlover! beat beat beat beat
Nigger lover! Niggerlover! beat beat beat beat.”

It was difficult to concentrate on keeping my own time.
The chant degenerated into yelling, twenty or
thirty people in the sold-out concert hall. I peered to
the left, where the sound came from, and saw some
of them beginning to rise. They were shaking their
fists in the air as the rest of the audience looked on in
stunned silence.

I was having a hit record.
I was singing for people who wanted me dead.
I was fifteen years old.


        But let me be honest also: when I requested a review copy of Society's Child, I imagined it would be pretty much another celebrity autobiography; fairly impersonal, full of false modesty, chronicling the artist's rise to fame, mentioning some musical influences, flattering her fans and remarking about how wonderful all her friends in the music industry are. I couldn't have been more wrong.
        This is not only the intimate life story of someone who was by any standard a child prodigy, talking at seven months, reading and learning the piano at age three, and condensing what seems like a lifetime of experience and insight into each decade, it is also in part the life story of all of us who were born towards the turn of the 1940s and had our youth in the 1960s, when we were certain we would change the world for ever and greatly for the better by creating a human society powered by love instead of hate, cooperation instead of competition. All the things we felt and believed back then, the music we listened to and the causes we fought for – an entire forgotten view of the world – is brought back to life in this book, leading on to the various ways in which the dream slipped away, to be replaced by a harsher and more selfish age.


People threatened to burn down the venues I worked in, to run me over in the street, to shoot me while I was on stage.


        The book contains the most sickening account of child abuse that I have ever come across, as well as many examples of the paranoid fear of socialists, intellectuals, or people different in any way, that poisons such a large section of American society.
        Janis uses one of her song titles and a brief quotation from the lyrics as a heading to each of the chapters. There is a descent curve in her life, bottoming out with the chapter called ‘Jesse’, when she was (perhaps significantly) seventeen, and slowly rising again as she recreates herself into the Janis that we know today. Of course it’s far from a smooth ascent, there are some huge crises both in her personal and professional life. She is black listed over an ill-advised South African tour, left virtually homeless and penniless by vindictive Income Tax officials behaving like agents of the Mafia, betrayed by her lovers, her health undermined, her spirit almost broken; and yet despite all this it is essentially the story of a woman finding her strength and taking control, refusing to be chewed up and spat out by the music industry, the lifestyle that goes with it, and its shady hangers on


I automatically began making an excuse for him, saying, He’s only hit me twice, in seven years . . . I stopped myself short. Even I could hear how bad that sounded.


        The feeling you are left with is one of boundless optimism for what talent and determination can overcome, and equally boundless admiration for Janis herself and the way she has lived her life.
        This is an obvious baring of the soul – as I should have expected from Janis Ian. Nothing is left unsaid, nobody and nothing is spared, most especially herself. Be assured, it’s all in the book.


At its best, my business is the business of failure. You fail every single day. I don’t know of another business that grinds your nose into the dirt quite so often. You have to be stubborn. You have to have faith in yourself. You have to be egocentric, and stupid about hanging in there.


        I started after midnight and read the book at one sitting: it was the most compulsive thing I read all year. It is before all else a marvellous, intensely personal story, gracefully told. Even if you have never heard of Janis Ian and have no more than a passing interest in contemporary music, this is something you really don't want to miss.

This review first appeared in Issue 13 of Gold Dust magazine and was accompanied by an interview with Janis. For the sake of completeness I have included this interview:

The Janis Ian Interview