I have often wondered why I feel so strongly about her music and her life. Of course, the romanticism of her rebellious personality and the tragedy of her battle with drugs and alcohol were major factors, but they were temporal; yet, even from a more mature and “norm”al perspective, her work remains extremely close to my heart, meaning much more than music for recreation or songs in the background. For me, her songs symbolize the battle cry of the individual against the might of the system, the unshakeable conviction and the pain of knowing how simultaneously powerless and overpowering that battle cry is, and the longing to share with others the glorious vision of a just and compassionate world.
Today, 42 years after that sad and quiet morning when she died, I put together some of what I have tried to write about her in the past.
My first exposure to the music of Janis was as a kid at Trincas in Kolkata on nights they’d allow kids in, while Pam Crain sang Move Over and Summertime, and then as a teenager listening to Anjum Katyal at Calcutta School of Music with Nondon Bagchi and friends singing Cry, Cry Baby. I was curious to hear what these gut wrenching renditions sounded like in the original. The first time I saw and heard Janis was in the documentary on Woodstock on a Sunday morning at Metro Cinema. It was part of a much more overwhelming experience but her act (definitely not among her better performances) remained etched in my mind, and my friends and I set out looking for the music of Janis Joplin.
When I first got hold of the Cheap Thrills album, I had never seen any album art that came close to it. For those not familiar with LPs, these were large hard board sleeves, often with additional sleeves, printed or plain, paper or polythene, inside, and within that lay the black vinyl record, with its label which also was often used as part of the artists’ creative expression. Like CD covers and booklets, these albums were another avenue to express what the band or singer wanted to convey through the album itself. During the 60s and 70s, these album covers often became very strong statements of personal belief. I had seen the covers of Sticky Fingers and Bitches Brew, but this was something else. Straight out of pages of EC Comics, the cover art by Robert Crumb of Fritz the Cat fame (for those interested in comicbook history, Harvey Kurtzman actually published Crumb’s work at one point), set the tone by demolishing any expectation that one might have had. The music set out as standard 60s psychedelic rock till Janis sang. You sit up and wonder what on earth is this woman doing?
Janis broke into the spotlights with the San Francisco band Big Brother and the Holding Company. They were already an established band and with Janis lending her voice, the act just got groovier. Her stay with Big Brother was short and at the end of 1968, Janis left the group and went solo with the Kozmic Blues Band as her backup.
She could take a song and make it her own in an inimitable way, torturing the words and the melody to give in to her own personal anguish. Her live recordings are my favorite (Cheap Thrills is not live, just made to sound that way for some strange reason), and you can feel your hair rise as you hear her shrieking and wailing the lyrics as if in doing that she was expiating lifetimes of karma. Almost all her live concerts are available in bootleg versions, and trust me, the bad audio does nothing to get in the way of the music. Her rendition of Summertime (all her versions of it) is the finest I have ever heard, and it brings tears to my eyes every single time. You just know that she is singing about her own pain. Another song she made her absolute own was Erma Franklin's (sister of Aretha, in case it don't ring a bell) Piece of My Heart. Big Mama Thornton's (on whom she modeled her vocal styling) Ball and Chain was another song that she interpreted so intensely that when she did the encore at Woodstock, she just sang Ball and Chain over again, to rapt attention followed by thunderous applause.
Time magazine called Joplin "probably the most powerful singer to emerge from the white rock movement," and Richard Goldstein, in Vogue magazine, wrote that Joplin was "the most staggering leading woman in rock… she slinks like tar, scowls like war… clutching the knees of a final stanza, begging it not to leave..."
Born January 19, 1943, in staid and conservative Port Arthur, TX, Janis quickly moved into the world of blues and white boys trying to imitate black musicians till she found her way to the creative melting pot of Haight Ashbury. She felt she was large and ugly and that no one loved her. Her drinking and drug use might have added to her public charisma but tore her apart as a person, getting in the way of performance as well as relationships. Always insecure over her appearance and her acceptance by her peers, she lived the best life her time would allow her to know. Her friendships with Kris Kristoferson (whose Me and Bobby McGee is better known as a Janis song) and Seth Morgan brought her no solace though Seth and she even got engaged just a month before she overdosed to death on October 4, 1970. Nearly three decades after her death, Janis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and posthumously given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.
At the peak of her brief career, she was praised by critics, adored by her fans, but behind her tough blues mama image lay a highly sensitive thinking person who longed to be loved and accepted for the person she was. This quest of hers led her in and out of relationships, with people, with ideas, and with drugs. Like she said herself, on stage she made love to twenty-five thousand different people and then went home alone.
She sought the perfect love, and died without knowing she had already found it in her music. May she be at peace wherever she is. May all who seek the acceptance and love she sought be able to see that it begins within, with our loving and accepting ourselves as we are and by relating honestly, trustingly and fearlessly with our environment.
Let me leave you with the lyrics of a song by Mimi Farina but made famous by Joan Baez called In the Quiet Morning – A tribute to Janis Joplin. You can find a tribute video of the song here in case you want to hear it.
In the quiet morning
There was much despair
And in the hours that followed
No one could repair
That poor girl
Tossed by the tides of misfortune
Barely here to tell her tale
Rolled in on a sea of disaster
Rolled out on a mainline rail
She once walked right at my side
I'm sure she walked by you
Her striding steps could not deny
Torment from a child who knew
That in the quiet morning
There would be despair
And in the hours that followed
No one could repair
That poor girl
She cried out her song so loud
It was heard the whole world round
A symphony of violence
The great southwest unbound
The material for this was originally posted at my blog on music, The Operative Note.