ARTS: ROCK; Musical differences

As a lesbian singer-songwriter living in Nashville, Janis Ian is not only unusual but illegal. David Lister met a Sixties survivor
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IN NASHVILLE you do not have to look very far or very hard to understand the city's raisons d'tre. The main streets are lined with shops selling records, cowboy boots and hats. The suburbs are lined with churches, a gobsmacking 700 of them. The clubs are filled with country singers praising or brooding on the highs and lows of heterosexual love.

But in the Bluebird Caf, one of the premier music venues, there is not even standing room left to watch a diminutive (4ft 7ins), dark-haired, middle-aged singer defying not just the musical conventions of "Music City, USA" but also the statute book.

A Janis Ian concert is reminiscent of a Lenny Bruce performance. It defies the Tennessee cops to come and raid the joint. Her first number says that "people go to church but they won't let me in, they call me queer", before bursting into the chorus: "in Tennessee where I live it's illegal to kiss my baby on a Saturday night".

This is accurate. Tennessee is not the best place to come out as a lesbian. Any form of penetration, in-cluding kissing, between the same sex is illegal (though if it's any consolation you are entitled to instant divorce in the state if your husband steals an out-house).

And Ian's lover, Pat, a university archivist training to be a lawyer, smiles at her from the front row as she performs. The singer-songwriter eschews the city's country roots for resonances of Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez but most of all of her own idiosyncratic style, an intricate interplay between jazz and folk rhythms with a voice that starts on a high, almost plaintive note then swoops into unanticipated richness.

This is not a new discovery. Nearly 20 years ago Ella Fitzgerald des- cribed Janis Ian as "the best young singer in America". She has won two Grammy awards and is one of the most admired songwriters in the American music industry. But among record buyers in America, let alone in Britain, her name rings only the vaguest of bells.

Strange for someone who talks to me about how she was jamming with Jimi Hendrix on the night Martin Luther King died; who recalls with unconscious tautology that "when Janis Joplin died I went into a rage for two days. It was so unnecessary. I could have killed her"; who was outed in the Seventies with Elton John by an American forerunner of Outrage; who tells me that "Jimi, Janis and I were all doing well. We didn't think then who would become legends, or even who would be famous." She seems curiously unaware that in the Hall of Fame she is several floors below Hendrix and Joplin.

Yet her life story is as far-fetched as either of those icons'. Even now, in her mid-forties, she lives outside the law in a way that makes the challenges to the Establishment of some, better-known rock stars look tame. And with her eclectic new album Revenge (the title being a two-fingered salute to the major record companies that dropped her) she may achieve the international acclaim her admirers believe that she deserves.

One track about Aids, "When Angels Cry", took her four years to write and has left many listeners in tears. But then she never went for the simple love song nor the simple life. The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants to New Jersey, Ian made her first record at the age of 14, a political song in the style of Joan Baez on whom she had an intense schoolgirl crush. But she was to suffer for her first hit more than Baez ever suffered for her protest songs. "Society's Child" was the tale of an inter-racial affair: white girl, black boy. Twenty-two record companies turned the song down in 1965 before Leonard Bernstein championed it and it was nominated for a Grammy.

Success was short-lived. She had razor blades sent to her in the post, was spat at and called "nigger lover" in the street. "I'm 14 years old at the time," she recalls now, "and you don't have the strength to deal with that at that age - all you can do is buckle, and I buckled."

So at 15 she quit the music business for the first but not the last time, had a nervous breakdown and went into therapy, returning 10 years later with her biggest hit, a Grammy winner, and the one song with which British audiences associate her name. "At 17" was a wistful, melodic ballad about an ugly-duckling adolescent, a rejection of the certainties of the traditional teenage love-song. In-stead, the lyrics lament: "Those of us with ravaged faces, / lacking in the social graces, / desperately remained at home, / inventing lovers on the phone, / who whispered vague obscenities. / It isn't all it seems, at 17."

She still performs the song in her act, but for the first year after she recorded it, she could only sing it with her eyes closed. "Singing that song is like unzipping in public. I was afraid people were laughing at me. I wrote it because I never had a date, and except for my brother and father I never had a valentine."

A minor source of angst compared with what was to follow. In the early Eighties Ian's world fell apart. In one 12-month period the following happened: her marriage to a Portuguese-born film-maker broke down, him leaving her with a black eye; it emerged that her manager had neglected to pay any tax on her behalf; she was pursued by the authorities and bankrupted, keeping only her car and guitar; her mother developed multiple sclerosis and lost the ability to walk; and she herself narrowly escaped death when she was rushed to hospital with a ruptured intestine.

Not surprisingly she quit the business again and also quit any pretence to being heterosexual. During a decade's sabbatical she took up theatre classes and moved to Nash-ville (she had previously been living in New York). Three years ago she went back to songwriting, releasing an album called Breaking Silence - the title song, in the Ian tradition of avoiding simple love songs, actually dealt with incest.

She also met her lover. Encount-ering Ian in Nashville today is to find her part of an extremely happy, joking couple. She and Pat exchange banter continually and she admits Pat is the inspiration for some of her songs. She didn't intend originally to come out so publicly, "but the fact that as a gay person I'm illegal in my own state and have to worry about being arrested in my own home for being homosexual, that plus the Aids epidemic, made me think: 'OK, I've got nothing to lose, I'll be the example.'

"What the last years have taught me is that what I thought of as a private and intimate sexual and gender issue is no longer intimate and private. It's a matter of civil rights. In this state you lose custody of your children if you're in a gay relationship. OK, nothing has happened to me yet. But the threat is always there hanging over your head."

She strongly disapproves though of outing, remembering how it affected her. "I think it sucks. When I was outed I got into bed and stayed there for a couple of days until my girlfriend hauled me out."

Though Ian is emotionally secure now, arguing only with her lover about the exact time they met in a Nashville caf, though she has formalised their relationship by "registering for domestic partnership", and though she writes a column for a lesbian magazine, it's also true that she was married for five years and tried to have children before being told she was medically incapable of childbearing.

"I have always been with women. Women were my primary attraction," she says. "But I don't think that precludes being interested in the opposite sex. My husband was a stupid asshole. He was absolutely wonderful in the first six months. But I guess it's very hard to live with somebody who makes it their goal to be in the public eye. He had a real need to build himself up by tearing me down. I wasn't fulfilled my entire marriage."

She moved to Nashville in 1988 so she could be surrounded by songwriters and because it is one of America's most crime-free cities. "I can go to the supermarket and leave my keys in my car. Can you imagine that up north?"

Ian does not join in the town's religious mania. "It's like Ireland here, a priest and a bar on every corner. I'm Jewish and it's one of the few things I would consider laying my head on the block for, but I don't go to synagogue. I'm not into organised religion."

The next day at a party for Revenge in a Nashville studio, Janis and Pat circulate, chatting to slightly bewildered country singers in their cowboy tassles. She tells me that Nashville, for all its macho pretensions, has a higher proportion of gay people than New York or Los Angeles. "I'm still waiting for the first country singer to come out, though," she sighs. "I can't tell you what a big thing that will be for the gay movement."

! 'Revenge' (Grapevine, CD/LP/tape) is released on 22 May.