JANIS: “I just like to say one thing when I’m onstage,” says that phenomenal pop-rock-soul-blues singer Janis Joplin. “Let yourself go and you’ll be more than you’ve ever thought of being.” Probably there are some people who are repelled by her abandoned, all-out style. But no one can help but marvel at it. She’s a living force, the idea of emotional freedom made flesh, the glory of the uninhibited and the unbridled. “Being an intellectual,” says Janis, “creates a lot of questions and no answers. You can fill your life up with ideas and still go home lonely. All you really have that really matters are feelings. That’s what music is to me.”
Last week at New Year’s Fillmore East, Janis was preaching her gospel, exhorting her willing audience with revivalist fervor, making more converts per capita than Billy Graham, her audience crying out their own kinds of amens after every song. “These kids need and want something big,” says Janis, “and that’s what feeling is. They say the hell with practicality, I want to feel something, and that’s what I give them. I’m so full, so full I could laugh and scream and pound the walls.”
There is something monumental about her performance, in its raw power, like a prehistoric sculpture come to life with all its primal force. As if one Janis was not enough, a closed-circuit television system intermittently projected her larger-than-life image on a psychedelic screen behind her. She’s an action singer, flinging her unruly long hair from her eyes, wiggling her hips and chest, rescuing an errant shoulder strap on her clinging black silk pajamas, the fissionable body vibrating to seismic impulses as she urges it along or follows it helplessly.
EARTHY: It’s easy to mistake her thing for sheer sexuality, with her sinuous movements and earthy voice that can rasp the blues or shout hard rock, and even do a little crooning smooth as velvet, as in “Ball and Chain.” Sometimes the words, as in “Raise Your Hand,” are pretty explicit: “I want you to come along right now, Now, NOW, NOW!” But she still embodies the female principle rather than the sex act. “It’s all feeling,” she says. “That rolling good thing like sex, but much larger in concept. It’s that love, lust, warmth, touching thing inside our bodies that everybody digs. Sex is just one of the things in it. When I’m singing I’m not thinking. I’m just closing my eyes and feeling, feeling good.”
It’s the sound of that feeling that she’s after, and with a voice like a nutcracker she fragments the syllables, looking for the kernel of sound within. She turns the melodic line of “Summertime” into a flamenco-like lament and transports “Work Me Lord” from a mundane gripe into a metaphysical prayer. Her voice has few dynamics but plenty of dynamite, with a range in volume from ear-splitting to deafening. That fullness she talks about needs release, and to empty herself she resorts to any kind of unholy screech and shriek, exposing her nerve ends pitilessly, holding nothing back, squeezing out sounds that are pure feeling.
“I don’t worry about whether it’s musical,” she says. “But did it get off? Did they dig it, and digging it, dig themselves? If they like me, that liking comes back into themselves.”
LYING: They like her not only when she sings, but between songs, as she slugs down Southern Comfort and banters with the audience. they plead for favorite songs. “That’s past,” she tells them. “You can’t go back.” And later, she confides, “that was why I left Big Brother and the Holding Company and started this new band - which hasn’t got a name. We were lying. We were repeating ourselves, not creating.” But so far neither is the new six-man band, which includes a saxophone and a trumpet, and which acts simply as Janis’s accompaniment.
She comes on strong offstage as well as on. Last week, she was drinking her breakfast late one afternoon, an unlovely concoction apparently of woodgrain alcohol and chocolate syrup, and happily displaying a sheepskin coat given her by the distillers of Southern Comfort in recognition of her unwitting efforts on their behalf. (She wouldn’t be caught dead using a word like “unwitting” - or not using an avalanche of four-, five-, ten-letter words and some hyphenated combinations that are not only unprintable but barely pronounceable.)
But her language is the vulgarity of protective coloration, like her odd assortment of clothes from the Harold Lloyd-like spectacles, big around as doorknobs, that adorn her attractive, open face. The spectacles had no lenses. (Nobody asked her why, who wanted a kisserful of that chocolate alcohol?) Ideas on ethics, sex, freedom, dart from her and are withdrawn with the rapidity of a lizard’s tongue, and she tends to bristle when challenged. “I’m changing,” she admits. “I’m trying to be more of a singer and less of an entertainer. I’d like to be less excessive - but not all the time. Just letting go used to be everything. Now what I really want is the right thing. I’m just learning my trade. The whole thing is to dig yourself.”
TACKY: Janis has been trying to dig herself ever since she found herself an alienated, defiant teenager in Port Arthur, Texas, where she was born 26 years ago. “Do you know they once threw things at me in the halls at school?” she said. “I don’t know why. It was like the whole environment turning on me, as if the trees all lit up and said, go home. they lead such tacky lives there.” But oddly she can’t get Port Arthur out of her system. “I “I went home last year,” she says “thinking they would accept me now. And they kicked me out of a restaurant because my skirt was too short.”
She has always called singing the great release for her emotional well-springs. The wanton demands she makes upon her vocal chords hardly encourage a long career. “I don’t want to do anything half-assed,” she says. “I’m 26 and all I’m worried about is 26, not 95. I don’t want a return on my investment years later. I want it now. And when I can’t sing, I’ll worry about it then. Maybe I’ll have babies.”