I had a peculiar dream last night. I was at a car dealership, Chevrolet by trade name, and there were two bronze colored Chevys that I was considering buying. I was trying to choose between the two, and it was particularly weird because they were both hanging in mid-air and had a look about them like a cow would have if suspended in the air, perhaps being picked up by a helicopter to be taken to some undisclosed location. Probably for slaughter. Both of these cars were similar and both were used. The main difference was that one had a lot of damage on the top of the roof and you could tell that it had been rolled. In fact, it seemed obvious to me that both of them had been wrecked and that was why they were so cheap and that was why I was trying to decide whether or not to buy one of them, even though I had no need for another car at this time. Both of them had knitted cloth covers over all four wheels, as if some grandmother had made cozy covers for them since they were being stored in the unheated open showroom. And, while I was looking over these two unneeded and probably seriously damaged bronze Chevrolets with the knitted wheel covers, I realized that Janis Ian's "At Seventeen" was playing on the showroom sound system.
It's both marvelous and sad when an artist does his or her best work when they are just a kid. The good news is that they will receive royalties on that work until they die, and the work will outlast them and they can die knowing that something they produced will be listened to and enjoyed by whatever passes for humans perhaps as long as 500 years from now. The bad news is that they will never do anything that good again and yet will nevertheless probably keep trying. The other bad news is that every time they do any sort of public performance, they will be forced to play that song again. In fact, it is quite likely that they will play that song so many times that they come to hate the song with a passion and sometimes even think, "I will not play that song tonight, no matter what." That is not possible, however. And they know it. This is probably the reason it sometimes seems as if Bob Dylan is fighting his old songs when he plays them.
My daughter bought me a DVD of "Bob Dylan Live" for Christmas, and I quite enjoyed watching it. He had a young black drummer, a blonde keyboard player who looked like he just got off a surfboard, an older white man playing slide guitar/dobro, and two similarly dressed front men of indeterminate race up front with him, one playing the rhythm guitar and the other playing the stand-up bass (also known as both the "double bass" and "bull fiddle" among other names). Both of these men were quite mysterious, as they had on what appeared to be polyester suits of a dark color and hats from somewhere in the late 1800s. The bass player smiled a lot and the guitar player seemed lost in another world. Bob Dylan sang several old songs that I have known and loved, but it seemed as if he was having a fight with them. He seemed to be singing them intentionally off beat and hiding the melody by never matching the words to the tune being played behind him. At first it pissed me off, but after watching it a second time, I assumed it was his way of saying, "I used to love these songs and I'm glad I wrote them, but I cannot sing them the 'correct way' any longer or I will go batshit insane." He is probably attempting to feel something new in his soul in order to connect to those songs in a way that neither you nor I will ever have to.
I have not seen Janis Ian perform "At Seventeen" since it first came out in 1975. She was born in 1951 and that means she was 24 when this song was released. Since she wrote the shit-stirring song "Society's Child" when she was only 12 years old (yes, that's correct), it's quite likely she wrote "At Seventeen" when she actually was 17 years old. There is no doubt that it captures the essence of being seventeen years old as well as it could be possibly captured.
It captures the awkwardness of a lonely 17 year old girl as well as "(My Name is) Luca" captures the loneliness of an abused child living in one of the hundreds of thousands of lower class apartment complexes all over the world. Suzanne Vega was born eight years later than Janis Ian, and you can tell that she probably listened to songs like "At Seventeen" more than a little. "Luca" came out in 1987 and it will also probably be played for hundreds of years after Ms. Vega is dead and gone, no matter how much the adult alternative radio stations want to promote a much less important song called "Tom's Diner" because it matches their ennui and pretentious natures. Suzanne Vega knows she will never write a better song than "Luca," and she probably sings it the same way she always did every time she does a live performance and she probably doesn't feel a thing in her soul when she's forced to do so.
A look at Janis Ian's website shows that she is a long way from seventeen. She has the granny-gray hair and looks fairly content with her life. She even looks like the kind of woman who would knit booties for used Chevrolets hanging in mid-air if she thought it might turn cold in the open-aired showroom at night.