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Three Dollar Bill

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Penny Lang is in my ears and in my eyes

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 LA 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
they also both loved women.

Today, Lang lives in a BC 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 her upcoming Canadian
promotional tour. 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
anytime 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’ve gotta say that living in a trailer park in the BC
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 was 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 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 LA and Lang in
BC, Penny, on her cross-Canada tour, will return to 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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