Janis Ian on Godzilla haikus and touring with Tom Paxton
Janis Ian is a natural writer. In addition to being a Grammy Award winning songwriter, she’s also written a children’s book, short stories, journal entries about the ups and downs of life as a Jewish lesbian, independent musician, and now she’s taken to writing Godzilla haikus.
The Godzilla thing started years ago when Ian would pick up Godzilla souvenirs from Japan for her spouse, Patricia Snyder. When she was sent a haiku about Godzilla, Ian posted it on her Facebook page and started looking for more. The project soon took on a life of its own and Ian posted as many Godzilla haikus as she could find. When she couldn’t find any more, she started writing them herself. She has now posted more than 300. A recent one has a photo of Godzilla crushing a building and reads, The loneliness here / is unimaginable / only I exist.
“I keep asking people to send me Godzilla haikus,” Ian says. “But they send me haikus about myself and Godzilla, [which is] kind of weird.”
An artist who has been in the spotlight for five decades, Ian has the professional musician thing down pat. She’s friendly but direct, intensely serious and throw-your-head-back funny. In a recent post on her Facebook page, she gave a 2,500 word narrative of the days running up to her departure for this tour. It’s a belly-laugh-inducing read that illuminates her rich sense of humor—a trait she attributes to her lineage.
“I’m Jewish,” she says. “We were kind of brought up to see the humor in things—otherwise we’ll die from it.”
Celebrated for her songwriting and magnetic stage presence, Ian is also an outstanding guitarist, and she has a Santa Cruz Guitar Company signature model to prove it.
“I learned to play a very clean guitar,” says Ian, who was brought up on Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Odetta. “As I started soloing, I learned to leave things out. It’s more impressive to play less.”
For this tour, Ian is performing with folk icon Tom Paxton who is retiring this year. The two share the stage, singing and playing on each other’s songs. They’re joined by Celtic musician Robin Bullock who adds masterful guitar playing and a third harmony.
When asked if she still enjoys touring, Ian says she loves the shows, loves her fans, and feels good about what she’s doing. The downside is that it’s tiring.
“No matter what you do, you’re sitting in a van for four to eight hours a day or you’re sitting in airports waiting,” she says. “Who wants to live like that? The older I get, the less I want to do that.”
Before Ian was a veteran of the music industry, she was a 13-year-old kid whose 1966 hit song “Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking)” was removed from radio station playlists for its portrayal of an interracial relationship. After the song’s release, Ian found herself on the receiving end of heckling, hate mail and death threats.
After years of not performing “Society’s Child” live, Ian put it back into her show eight years ago because a lot of Vietnam vets were requesting it. Radio stations in the U.S. wouldn’t play the song, but it was played regularly on Armed Forces Radio.
“The song is so acceptable now,” says Ian. “It’s amazing, it’s great.”
Ian is quick to acknowledge, however, that racism is still an explosive issue.
“It’s unfortunate, but those kinds of ideas become ingrained and people pass them down to their children,” she says. “Children don’t start out selfish and they don’t start out hating. They really need to learn that from somebody.”
Ian’s show closer is a song called “I’m Still Standing Here.” She started the song in Australia 12 years ago, but finally “got the verses where she wanted them” last year. The hook reflects Ian’s resilience, her desire for peace, and the simple brilliance of her songwriting: I want to rest my soul / be where it can grow without fear / another line another year / I’m still standing here.
“One of the advantages of being an older writer is that you know when to stop,” she says. “You know what to leave out, and you know not to push that river.”
Janis Ian and Tom Paxton perform at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, April 22 at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $29/gen, $45/gold. 423-8209. PHOTO: Janis Ian with her custom ‘parlor-size’ guitar from Santa Cruz Guitar Company. GERARD VIVEIROS