Janis Joplin

 Janis Joplin

 Janis Joplin – circa 1970

 “Each time I tell myself that I, I can’t stand the pain / When you hold me in your arms and sing it once again” – ‘Piece Of My Heart’ (Jerry Ragavoy, Bert Berns)

The inscription on the tombstone reads: ‘The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing.’  That epitaph is written by John Hammond of Columbia Records.  The grave is in Mount Lawn Cemetery in Philadelphia, U.S.A.  It houses the mortal remains of Bessie Smith.  Her demise is a tragic tale.  An African-American blues singer, Bessie Smith sustained serious injuries in a car accident while on tour.  She was turned away from a ‘whites only’ hospital in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and died on 26 September 1937.  It is not until 8 August 1970 that this tombstone is finally arranged for the singer.  It is paid for by Janis Joplin, a white American rock singer.  Janis Joplin’s demise is also a tragic tale.

Janis Joplin (19 January 1943 – 4 October 1970) is born in Port Arthur, Texas.  She later describes Port Arthur as “a little s***kicker town.”  Janis is the daughter of Seth Joplin, an employee of the oil company, Texaco, which manufactures fuel for motor vehicles.  Janis has two younger siblings: Michael and Laura.  It is ‘a comfortable middle class family.’

As a teenager, Janis Joplin is ‘overweight and has a severe case of acne.’  She becomes ‘something of a loner.’  “I was a weird kid,” Janis admits.

Like many other white youths of her generation, Janis Joplin discovers the blues.  A music of heartache, economic deprivation and sorrow, the blues is popularised by African-American recording artists in the 1920s to 1950s.  Youngsters like Janis Joplin feel this music resonates with their own adolescent angst.  Folk music, traditional songs passed down over generations, is another style that catches Janis’ interest.  The division between blues and folk is sometimes blurred.  Similarly, the borders between these genres and country music (rural, corn-fed twang) and bluegrass (hillbilly rock with a country accent) are indistinct.  Janis Joplin absorbs all these elements.  She particularly likes Leadbelly (a.k.a. Huddie Ledbetter) and the ‘Empress of the Blues’, Bessie Smith.  “I started singing blues because that’s what I always liked,” says Janis Joplin.

It is at a party that Janis Joplin first begins singing in public.  She goes on to sing in local bars and coffee houses.  This activity only increases when she moves to Austin to attend the University of Texas.  “At school I majored in art, painting,” Janis recalls.  She spends most of a year (1961) at the University of Texas.  After being voted ‘ugliest man on campus’, higher education loses any appeal for her.  “They laughed me out of class, out of town, out of the State,” is how Janis puts it.  “They thought I was completely insane…They didn’t like me.”

Somewhere around this time, Janis Joplin tries her hand at a few jobs.  In one of them, “I worked I.B.M. [International Business Machines] cards,” she recalls.  Writing out guides for punch cards is how programming is done at this time which is really the infancy of computers.  Her first recording is a commercial for a local bank.

“Texas is O.K. if you want to settle down, but it’s not for outrageous people, and I was always outrageous,” Janis Joplin offers by way of explaining her decision to relocate to San Francisco, California, in 1963.

From 1962 to 1963 Janis Joplin sings folk and blues in the bars of San Francisco, while ‘getting addicted to amphetamines.’  Her friends become so concerned, they club together to buy her a bus ticket back to Texas.  Janis abides by their wishes.  She intends to get herself straight, go back to college and get married.  When her fiancé runs off, Janis returns to San Francisco.  She will call this place her home from now on.

“I didn’t have any ambitions…I didn’t set out to be a singer,” Janis Joplin says.  Regardless, she falls in with a group of musicians working under the name of Big Brother And The Holding Company.  The rest of the line-up is Sam Andrew (guitar), James Gurley (guitar), Pete Albin (bass) and David Getz (drums).  Janis Joplin’s debut as the vocalist in Big Brother And The Holding Company takes place at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom on 11 June 1966.  The group’s name is derived from two sources.  ‘Big Brother’ is the name of the repressive authoritarian regime that controls society in George Orwell’s novel ‘1984’ (1949).  In business terms, a ‘holding company’ is a corporate shell used to mask the identity of the true owners or controllers.  So both ‘Big Brother’ and ‘the holding company’ are terms that evoke a sort of paranoia about the rulers of society as we know it.  To understand why such a name is chosen, some historical context is needed.

In the mid to late 1960s San Francisco is the centre of the counter culture.  Dropouts, hippies, long-hairs, experimental drug users, all flock to the city by the bay.  These are the youngsters disillusioned with the conservative, commercialised existence of most U.S. citizens.  They try to create an alternative society, a ‘counter culture.’  Someone like Janis Joplin who has been reviled as a freak in straight-laced Texas, becomes a symbol of this new lifestyle.  Not only does she belong here, she is acclaimed.  Big Brother And The Holding Company, despite the political overtones of the name, are really more about a hedonistic pursuit of a life denied to ‘square’ society.

For Janis Joplin, the drugs and the booze offer both escape from the confinement of a drone-like pre-planned existence and an anaesthetic from the pain of everyday life.  “I’m just a chick who is hung over at 11.00 in the morning,” she claims somewhat disingenuously.  Her hard-drinking, hard-living persona is also part of her public image, a way to seem like ‘one of the boys’, a means to fit in with this new environment.  The counter culture may be more welcoming, but this tribe has its own rituals.  Declining another drink or refusing drugs brings scorn from the pack and leads to isolation all over again.  So that’s not an option for someone who proclaims “I want people to love me…I dig it.”  This is not to say that Janis Joplin doesn’t crave these artificial stimulants.  “I’m a victim of my own insides,” she admits.

Those insides do not equip Janis Joplin for songwriting.  Although she pens the odd number, most of her output consists of cover versions or songs written for her by others.

Janis Joplin is better equipped as a singer.  For the most part her voice roars like a passing train, though, on occasion it slips into the tiny squeak of an abandoned child.  For all her brash demeanour and free-wheeling chic, there is a real vulnerability underlying all her work.  Part of this has to do with Janis Joplin’s own low self-esteem and her conception of herself as a woman.  In the late 1960s feminism and women’s liberation are yet to flower.  Though the seeds of these concepts are certainly present, it is the early 1970s before they properly bloom.  Thus, Janis Joplin’s attitudes belong to an earlier worldview.  She is frighteningly prone to bouts of uncertainty, doubtlessly due to incidents like ‘the ugliest man on campus’ slur and the runaway fiancé.  Janis sees herself as a victim, made to suffer by society in general and callous men in particular.  She yearns for love and affection and desperately pleads with the men in her songs to reward her steadfast devotion.  A later generation of female rock stars will threaten to unleash their venom on any man who does them wrong, but that’s not Janis.  The best she can do is wrap her insecurity in the armour of the good ol’ gal who can drink any man under the table with a hoarse cackle on her lips.

Although Big Brother And The Holding Company gig consistently around San Francisco, the first time most of America learns about Janis Joplin is when the group plays at the Monterey Festival in California over 16 – 18 June 1967.

Their debut album ‘Big Brother And The Holding Company’ (1967) (US no. 60) is released in August.  This set includes the pseudo-vaudeville of ‘Bye Bye Baby’ with its hippie lifestyle salute “I know you got things to do and places to be / I may end up livin’ in the street or sleepin’ underneath a tree.”  More representative is ‘Down On Me’ (US no. 43), a traditional song whose arrangement is credited to Janis Joplin.  It’s a raw and driving assault as Janis howls “Everywhere I go they’re down on me” with the pain of personal experience.

In January 1968 Janis Joplin signs a management contract with Albert Grossman, best known as the manager of 1960s counter culture icon Bob Dylan.  Grossman hooks up Big Brother And The Holding Company with Joe Simon who has been working with Dylan’s former backing group, The Band.  Simon produces ‘Cheap Thrills’ (1968) (US no. 1), an album whose cover art is a drawing by R(obert) Crumb, a cartoonist whose work is published in underground (i.e. non-mainstream) comix.  Released in August, this album features Janis Joplin’s greatest song, ‘Piece Of My Heart’ (US no. 12).  This is a track that was a minor pop hit (US no. 62) in 1967 for Erma Franklin, the elder sister of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.  Over serrated guitars, Joplin sings “Didn’t I make you feel like you were the only man? / Yeah, didn’t I give you nearly everything that a woman possibly can? / Honey, you know I did / And each time I tell myself that I think I’ve had enough / I want to show you, baby, that a woman can be tough.”  This neatly encapsulates the swing from needy victim to larger-than-life wild girl that is so much a part of Janis Joplin’s legend.  These characteristics make this her definitive performance.  Demonstrating considerable breadth, Big Brother also tackles a burnt-out version of ‘Summertime’, the George and Ira Gershwin piece from the musical ‘Porgy and Bess’.  Is there some envy in Joplin’s reading of the line “Your daddy’s rich and your ma’s so good looking”?  As well as tracks like ‘Combination Of The Two’ and ‘I Need A Man To Love’, ‘Cheap Thrills’ extends to a cover version of Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton’s ‘Ball And Chain’.  In this cry of pain, Janis Joplin finds that “When it’s too heavy, you can’t hold it in no more.”  She’s referring to a love that gnaws at her “Just ‘cause I got to need you.”

Big Brother And The Holding Company are described as ‘raucous, ill-disciplined, and in some areas, musically inept.’  Janis Joplin cheerfully acknowledges “We’re just a sloppy group of street-freaks.”  However, there is a common distinction made between the vocalist and the group: ‘The band are good, and with Joplin as vocalist, they are something special.’  It is also said that ‘there are tensions between Janis and the group.’  On 28 September 1968, manager Albert Grossman announces that Janis Joplin will leave Big Brother And The Holding Company in November after fulfilling current commitments.  According to Grossman’s statement, Janis and the rest are not “growing together anymore.”

Janis Joplin is one of the acts to appear at Woodstock, a three-day rock festival held over 15 -17 August 1969 on Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York.  This is perhaps the apex of the utopian side of the counter culture and, as one of the icons of the hippie community, it is entirely fitting that Janis Joplin is part of this celebration.

‘I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again, Mama’ (1969) (US no. 5), released in September, is Janis Joplin’s first album apart from Big Brother And The Holding Company.  Sam Andrew from Big Brother plays on the album, but the makeshift Kozmic Blues Band while ‘more polished musically, are not nearly as sympathetic accompanists as Big Brother; purveying a soul-rock groove.’  The highlight of this ‘uneven’ set is the Jerry Ragavoy / Chip Taylor composition ‘Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)’.  Amid groovy syncopation, horns and organ, Janis promises to “Try / Just a little bit harder / So I can love, love, love him.”

At a concert in Tampa, Florida, on 15 November 1969 a police officer with a bullhorn urges Janis Joplin’s audience to sit down.  Janis shouts “Don’t f*** with those people!  Hey, Mister, what’re you so uptight about?  Did you buy a five-dollar ticket?”  Police backstage instruct the singer to tell the audience to sit down.  This draws an angry response from Joplin: “I’m not telling them s***!” She is arrested on a charge of using ‘vulgar and indecent language.’  Janis Joplin is released after posting a bond of five hundred and four dollars and the charges are eventually dropped.

In March 1970 Janis Joplin is fined for using profane language on stage at a concert.

Although superficially more popular and successful than ever, there is a growing void within Janis Joplin.  “Onstage, I make love to twenty five thousand people,” she declares, before adding, “then I go home alone.”  This sour realisation comes out again when she says, “I was the same chick, because I’ve been her forever, and I know her, and she ain’t no star: She’s lonely.”

On 12 July 1970 Janis Joplin debuts her new backing group, The Full Tilt Boogie Band, at a gig in Louisville, Kentucky.  Having ‘cleaned up her act’ Joplin hired this ‘bunch of straight musicians’ consisting of John Till (guitar), Ken Pearson (organ), Richard Bell (piano), Brad Campbell (bass) and Clark Pierson (drums).

On 8 August 1970 Janis Joplin sees to the erection of a tombstone on the grave of her teenage idol, Bessie Smith.

On 4 October 1970, less than two months later, Janis Joplin is found dead in a room at the Landmark Hotel in Hollywood.  According to the autopsy report, she died of ‘acute heroine [sic] morphine intoxication due to injection of an overdose.’

At the time of her death, Janis Joplin had been working on a new album.  ‘Pearl’ (1971) (US no. 1) is released posthumously in January.  This album is unfinished – two tracks lack lead vocals – but it is issued anyway.  ‘Pearl’ was Janis Joplin’s nickname.  This ‘more assured and intimate album’ is produced by Paul Rothschild, best known for his work with The Doors.  Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Me And Bobby McGee’ (US no. 1) is a posthumous hit for Janis Joplin.  The song’s simple country-folk setting making more poignant its assertion that “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”  ‘Move Over’ is one of Janis Joplin’s own compositions.  Its ominous downward-heading chords are belied by its rock bluster.  Janis repeats incredulously “You say that it’s over, baby” while arguing that “You know that I need a man.”  “Please don’t you do it to me,” she cries while struggling to master her emotions.  The throat-tearing ‘Cry Baby’ (US no. 42) is written by Jerry Ragavoy and Bert Berns.  Overflowing with compassion for a dumped guy, Joplin advises “But you know, honey, that I’ll always be around.”  ‘Get It While You Can’ (US no. 78) sounds almost like a gospel number with its strong organ tones and Janis’ heartfelt exhortation “If someone comes along’s gonna give you some love and affection / I say get it while you can.”  This is a Jerry Ragavoy / Mort Shuman tune.  The almost a cappella ‘Mercedes Benz’ lends a humorous note to the proceedings.  ‘Pearl’ is Janis Joplin’s best album.

Janis Joplin’s life ended tragically when she was only 27.  Her low self-esteem led her to play the victim in her songs and, perhaps, in her own life.  Yet it is Joplin’s achievements that should be remembered.  It’s not about the boozy good-time gal persona; it’s about a vulnerable young woman who, despite the cruelties of society, turned that sensitive nature into a means of creating music of great beauty.  Janis Joplin grew up admiring blues vocalist Bessie Smith.  If the blues is a way of turning pain into something more aesthetically satisfying, then rock singer Janis Joplin also led the life of a blues woman.  Let that – and her music – be her epitaph.  ‘Both a product and a victim of the drug culture, Janis remains the female personification of the psychedelic rock / hippie era.’  ‘Her metamorphosis from the ugly duckling of Port Arthur to the peacock of Haight – Ashbury [the street corner in San Francisco that is the centre of the area’s rock scene] meant that a woman could invent her own beauty.’

Sources:

  1. ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 117, 131, 148, 161, 164, 174, 175, 177
  2. A Janis Joplin television interview in Louisville, Kentucky, c. 12 July 1970 (posted on You Tube 29 May 2011)
  3. janisjoplin.net as at 22 April 2013
  4. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 75, 76
  5. ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 98, 124
  6. A 1969 Janis Joplin interview (posted on You Tube 11 April 2008)
  7. ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Janis Joplin’ by Ellen Willis (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 382, 384
  8. ‘The Dick Cavett Show’ (U.S. TV program) – Janis Joplin interview conducted by Dick Cavett (3 August 1970, posted on You Tube 1 October 2009)
  9. wikipedia.org as at 1 April 2013
  10. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 119
  11. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 51, 65
  12. allmusic.com, ‘Janis Joplin’ by Richie Unterberger as at 21 April 2013
  13. ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p.107

Song lyrics copyright as follows: ‘Piece Of My Heart’ (Webb IV Music & Ragmar Music Corp.); ‘Bye Bye Baby’ (Mainspring Watchworks Music); ‘Down On Me’ (Brent Music Corp.); ‘Summertime’ (Gershwin Pub. Corp. & New Dawn Music Corp.); ‘Ball And Chain’ (Cristeval Music & Bay-Tone Music Co.)’ ‘Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)’ (Ragmar Music Corp.); ‘Me And Bobby McGee’ (Combine Music Corp.); ‘Move Over’ (Strong Arm Music); ‘’Cry Baby’ (Robert Mellin Music Pub. Corp. / Rittenhouse Music, Inc.) and ‘Get It While You Can’ (Hill & Range Song, Inc. / Ragmar Music Corp.)

Last revised 4 September 2014

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