Thursday, 3 September 2015

FOLK ICON PENNY LANG ON COMING OUT, JANIS JOPLIN AND LEONARD COHEN

"I think you become a legend after living all your life and I haven’t lived all my life yet. I’ll be a legend when I die." Photo courtesy Borealis Records

This interview with Penny Lang originally ran in Three Dollar Bill on May 4, 2006

Montreal folk singer Penny Lang was going to teach Janis Joplin how to play guitar back in the fall of 1970. But Janis died on Oct. 4 of that year at the Landmark Hotel during the L.A. recording sessions for her album Pearl, and Joplin’s keyboardist Ken Pearson, a Montrealer who was the love of Penny’s life, returned home without Janis.

"Once I spoke with Janis on the phone," Lang recalls. "I was in pretty bad shape. I’m bipolar and I’ve had some rough periods. I take lithium now but back then it wasn’t legal. I was looking for Kenneth and Janis was great."

Lang had two things in common with Joplin – Ken Pearson, of course, and that they both loved women.


Today, Lang lives in a B.C. sunshine coast trailer park with her female partner of 19 years, and she has at last found real stability. "I’m not a big-city person," Lang says. "I lived all my life in Montreal but I don’t miss it. I like being surrounded by the trees, the birds, the bears and the eagles."

Lang first emerged on the North American folk-music scene in the 1960s and played all the prestigious folk clubs. Following her 1988 and 2000 comebacks (the latter after suffering a stroke), she was hailed by The Globe and Mail as the "first lady of folk" and by The Toronto Star as a "folk/blues legend."

But Lang says, "I think you become a legend after living all your life and I haven’t lived all my life yet. I’ll be a legend when I die."

Whether Lang likes it or not, she is a folk icon and she’s back in the saddle with her just-released terrific new album Sand & Stone & Sea & Sky, which features such musical guests as Kate McGarrigle (who is also the mom of Rufus Wainwright), Ken Pearson and Lang’s own son, guitarist Jason Lang. The album was recorded in NYC and was produced by Oscar- and Grammy-nominated producer Roma Baran.

Lang will perform tracks from the album on a promotional tour that brings her back to Montreal on May 13. And just in time too, because Lang could use a bit of cash: "I wanted to see Taj Mahal and Mavis Staples [in Vancouver] last week," Penny says, "but I was broke, man!"

While Lang is back on the road, one place she won’t be performing any time soon is the famed outdoors Michigan Womyn’s Festival, the self-described "all womyn’s cultural event" – read: dyke – held each August since 1976.

"We have tried to get there and we have sent them stuff," Lang explains, "but I don’t write the radical lesbian stuff they want. I’m not really out there. I don’t write those kinds of songs [nor do I] live the kind of lifestyle that they want to put on display."

Mind you, I gotta say living in a trailer park in the B.C. wilderness is about as dyke as dyke gets.
Lang continues, "I would love to go to Michigan. As a gay woman singing I think I should have a shot. But lyrically I don’t think I’m there."

Lang has lived a full life, though, and has helped blaze a trail for other women, gay and straight.

"When I first fell in love with a woman, it just happened. I was not consciously aware of my sexuality. I had met some great guys in my life and fell in love with one man [Ken Pearson]. And the people I have fallen in love with since have been women."

That sometimes proved tough for her son Jason. "When his [childhood] friends found out his mom is a lesbian they taunted him. He had to learn how to deal with that. And he did. Punching them in the nose wasn’t dealing with it. He used humour in the end, but he was given a hard time up until university where his [new] friends thought that having a lesbian mother was fabulous. That was the turnaround. He talks about that. He’s a wonderful son, and we all have struggles no matter who our parents are."

As for Canada’s Tory government threatening to repeal same-sex marriage, the never-married Lang says, "I think human beings ought to be allowed to live their lives as they wish as long as they’re not stepping on anyone else when they do it. That’s that. I don’t know if equal marriage is a necessity in terms of legality, but gay people should not be crucified for wanting it. I think when we’re in love we reach different plateaus and sometimes one of those plateaus is you want to marry the person you’re in love with. So it’s not just a legal status, it’s also a feeling. Men have loved men forever, and women have loved women. It just wasn’t out in the open. Now learn to live with it."

There is one more tale about Lang I must share. While her father taught her to play guitar when she was just 10, and later Lang herself was supposed to teach Janis Joplin, Penny Lang was also once asked by Leonard Cohen to teach him how to play guitar. "Not today," Lang replied to Cohen. "I’m very depressed."

That was the last time they spoke. With Cohen now living in L.A. and Lang in B.C., Penny returns to perform in the city that made them both who they are.

"I have a love affair with Montreal," Lang says. "It’s my home. It will always be my home."

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