Friday Song: Janis Ian’s JESSE

A reliable indicator of songwriting talent is when a writer takes a hoary, overworked theme, one that has been mauled and murdered in countless second-rate songs, and makes it entirely new. Janis Ian, one of the great unsung heroes of the modern song, has done it several times in the half-century she has been writing.

My Friday Song was originally going to be ‘At Seventeen’, her  huge 1975 hit about being a lonely, misunderstood teenager.

‘I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear skinned smiles
Who married young and then retired.’

Teenage angst: no theme has been more plundered by songwriters since the invention of the teenager in the 1950s to the new golden age of self-pity today, but this song, by being specific and hard-hitting (‘those of us with ravaged faces/ Lacking in the social graces’), makes it feel utterly individual. It’s no surprise to learn that at first she refused to perform it live, fearing that audiences would laugh at her.

Janis Ian is a brilliant melodist and chooses to cut across the gritty lyric with a jaunty bossa nova rhythm and clever chord sequences – few songwriters manage to capture mood so perfectly with their accompaniment. Forty or so years after its release, Janis Ian still sings ‘At Seventeen’ and, like so many great songs, it takes on a different meaning as the singer gets older, as two versions sung on YouTube, one in 1976, the other nearly 40 years later show.

It’s not my Friday Song partly because no song is ever quite as good after being a hit, and also because, as with many songs of that time, it takes the occasional dive into the pretentious  and wordy – ‘Debentures of quality/ And dubious integrity’ and so on.

‘Jesse’ (1973) takes another cliché, loneliness after a loved one has left, and makes it memorable, personal and devastating. It was written originally about a Vietnam veteran but has a universal feel to it.

‘Jesse come home
There’s a hole in the bed
Where we slept
Now it’s growing cold.’

Again, the lyrics have a touch of reality to them and the tune – she writes such good tunes – carries the emotion along to the end. The best songs are simple.

‘And I’m leaving a light on the stairs
No I’m not scared – I wait for you
Hey Jesse, I’m lonely, come home.’

Janis Ian became famous in her early teens. She was in the charts aged 16 – here’s an interview with her on New York Public Radio from that time –   and both ‘Jesse’ and ‘At Seventeen’ were part of her comeback in her early twenties. Her star was at its highest during the flowering of personal songwriting that occurred in the first part of the 1970s. She really should be selling out large sports arenas like her near contemporaries James Taylor and Paul Simon.

It’s not difficult to see why she isn’t. She has an impressive history of not playing the game in the way those in charge expect it to be played.

Her first hit ‘Society’s Child’, written when she was 14, was about a black-white relationship, which was not the normal material for songs by teenage girls: it was banned by several radio station and caused one to be burnt down. Bill Cosby, that pillar of propriety,  tried to get her barred from TV. She has gone to war with record companies and has stood up for the rights of musicians on the internet. Even when she has behaved impeccably, as when she appeared with Neil Finn and Ryan Adams on the BBC Songwriters Circle in 2011, it all went wrong (entirely due, it appears, to Ryan Adams behaving like a petulant brat (in an online blog , he later commented,‘Old people, they are so fussy! LOL’).

The programme is worth watching, particularly for Janis Ian’s wonderful performance – singing and playing – of ‘Bright Lights and Promises’ (37’47 in).

For over 50 years as a writer and performer, she has remained sane and strong and the best of her songs connect to human sadness with subtle lyrics and wonderful tunes.

The original version of ‘Jesse’, as with many songs in the 1970s, was a bit over-produced. I like this recent performance.