Janis Ian at Berklee

By 
Roger H. Brown
April 16, 2010
Songwriter Janis Ian performs at the 2010 Liberal Arts Symposium on April 9.
From left: Lawrence J. Simpson, senior vice president for academic affairs/provost; Janis Ian; Roger H. Brown, Berklee president
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

In the novel Zorba the Greek, the main character says: "Am I not a man? And is a man not stupid? So I married. Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe." Building on that idea, Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote a book entitled Full Catastrophe Living. His argument is that life will have triumphs and tragedies, transcendence and pain—and that the richest life is one that embraces the "full catastrophe."

Meeting Janis Ian, hearing her perform, watching her teach Berklee students last year in Nashville, and reading her remarkable autobiography, I finally found the role model for full catastrophe living.

Janis is very smart. A gifted musician: songwriter, guitarist, pianist, and vocalist. She is a natural teacher. She is opinionated. In fact, I saw Livingston Taylor the other day and told him that I had finally found someone with more opinions than him. Janis is a seeker, a relentless soul not fully satisfied with herself or any of the rest of us.

Her lyrics are beautifully constructed. I still remember the first time I heard the line "We all play the game, and when we dare, we cheat ourselves at solitaire." I was arrested by that image as a teenager and aspired to face my own loneliness and that of others. And she has continued to write, perform, blog, question, challenge, cajole, inspire, and connect to people all over the planet. She even writes science fiction, for goodness's sake.

She ascended to popular music stardom at an impossibly young age—and not through the manipulations of some clever grown-up Svengali or by starting as a Disney Mouseketeer. She wrote amazing songs as a young teenager and had the chutzpah to promote them and be discovered. She was brazen and vulnerable at the same time. And she still is.

It has been a wonderful honor to get to know Janis and her partner Pat just a little bit. She is a person who has tried to live it all, to live it right, to take no shortcuts, and to infuse everything she does with ferocious intent. She is living the full catastrophe. We are honored to welcome Janis Ian to Berklee.