Wednesday, December 24, 2014


I vaguely remember listening to an 8 track of Janis Joplin a few times when I was a kid, and even more vaguely remember liking a song or two but not others. I’m not even sure what album it was (probably Cheap Thrills or Greatest Hits) or who owned it—I don’t think it was me because I recall always hearing it at a cousin’s house. I doubt he owned it since he was younger than me; maybe one of my aunts who lived there though that seems even more unlikely.

In any case, even though music has always been very important to me, as an adult I never owned copies of any of her music. So it was a complete whim which caused me to borrow a new book when I saw it at the library—On the Road with Janis Joplin by John Cooke, her road manager. And that whim has led to reading a couple more biographies, buying several albums, watching dvds, and downloading videos. Forty four years after she died, she got a new fan. It’s only in part due to her music and more due to getting a sense of who she was from the books, so it might be more accurate to say I had a crush despite her often obnoxious behavior (always less painful when the woman is long dead).

It’s her mix of intelligence and pain and vulnerability and bravado and isolation, simultaneously rebelling and needing approval and attention, which fascinates me. Unfortunately all that came with an addictive personality/gene, so that sex, speed, alcohol, heroin, and fame destroyed her. If I was addiction prone, I would have been dead long ago myself. 

Although she was maturing in some ways in the months before she died, caring about her singing future and getting off heroin for a couple months, from what I read none of the people who knew her ever believed she’d permanently go straight and live a healthy life. Her speed addiction and weight loss in the mid-sixties scared her so much that she moved back to Texas and spent a miserable year living the way her parents wanted, but despite her eventual intentions to try singing again without the drugs, she was soon hooked again.

Photos and film of interviews and performances alternately reveal glimpses of a hurt little girl, an average looking woman looking attractive, and previews of a pathetic middle-aged drunk. Watching the press conference from her tenth high school reunion (attending was a very bad decision), it’s stunning to see her on the verge of breaking down and how much she was still devastated by old emotional wounds despite her later success.

As for the actual singing, sometimes it’s wonderful and moving. After her famous performance of Ball and Chain at Monterey, the film caught her skipping offstage. Singing was one of her few sources of joy and getting all the attention she constantly craved. At other times, as often criticized and as she herself sometimes worried about (never having much self-confidence), it’s shouting and screeching to be heard over the band. 

Some country/folk/blues material from the early sixties was released once after she died. Most of it is now unavailable—from the few I’ve heard, I’d love to get my ears on the rest of those songs recorded before all the posturing and years of self abuse. She introduced the earliest one I’ve heard by saying it was a song called What Good Can Drinkin’ Do that she wrote one night after drinking herself into a stupor. She was broken from the beginning, but it was no less a waste.

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