Old letters can sometimes reveal the key to a person’s soul.
This is the lesson Laura Joplin learned when she revisited the letters her older sister wrote to her family back home in Port Arthur, Texas.
Her sister, of course, was rock singer Janis Joplin, who in the late ’60s took the music world by storm. Hootin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’ the blues, she blasted into every performance like it was her last.
“It was great to hear Janis’ voice again after living so many years with other people’s interpretations of her,” Joplin said of the letters. “It was an emotional experience, like revisiting an old friend.”
Joplin was rediscovering the other side of her sister–a side that she hopes comes across in the musical “Love, Janis.” The play is based on her book of the same title, which in turn was inspired by the rediscovery of the letters.
“The person I grew up with had incredible energy and charisma,” said Joplin, in an interview from Aspen, Colo., where she was attending a conference. “When she was around, there was a sparkle in the air. But she also could be very frustrating and outrageous.”
Plagued by a crippling addiction to drugs and alcohol, Janis Joplin died in 1970 from a heroin overdose. She had been hailed as one of the greatest white female singers to take on the blues, and was only four years into her promising career.
Laura Joplin says the family had been kicking around the idea of a musical play because “theater seemed a real natural for Janis’ story.”
Randal Myler’s “Lost Highway,” a stage piece about country great Hank Williams, caught Joplin’s eye. Myler, in turn, was mesmerized by the letters, which Janis wrote home from the time she hitchhiked to San Francisco in 1966 and joined Big Brother and the Holding Company, until she died.
Myler, a 1999 Tony Award nominee for “It Ain’t Nothing But the Blues,” adapted “Love, Janis,” and split the character of Joplin into two separate roles: Janis, the public singer and rock icon, and Janis, the private person, the lost girl who searched for approval and affection.
In the Chicago production (it’s already played to good reviews and sold-out audiences in Cleveland and Denver), Catherine Curtin portrays the private Janis, with the demanding performance of the singer Janis split between Andra Mitrovich and Chicago rock veteran Cathy Richardson.
The words Myler uses are all Janis’ (from the letters and interviews), said her sister. “The veil of other’s interpretations of her are gone,” she said.
Getting to know Janis has been an eye-opening experience for Richardson.
“She was deep and soulful,” Richardson said. “And quite a hearty and powerful singer.”
An added advantage the musical has in capturing Janis’ essence is Sam Andrew, who is serving as musical director. The founder of Big Brother and the Holding Company and, later with Janis, the Kozmic Blues Band, he had the honor of “playing more nights with Janis than anyone else.”
“In a situation like that, you get to know the other side of a person better than the stage person,” Andrew said. “We spent a lot of time together singing and writing. We had many, many discussions trying to figure out how things work.”
Outfitted in boas, beads, wild hair and brandishing a big bottle of Southern Comfort, Joplin belted out songs with an abandon unheard of at the time. (Twenty songs are performed with earsplitting perfection in “Love, Janis,” including “Summertime,” “Little Girl Blue” and “Mercedes Benz.”)
It was a perfectly calculated performance by a smart woman, Andrew said.
“She worked on her stage persona,” Andrew said. “She analyzed what the audience would expect from a red hot blues mama.”
But Janis became unable to separate the stage act from reality and eventually the drugs and alcohol took over. She had many voices in her but she only got to use one, Andrew said.
“Eventually she could never get away from that hippie mama thing. She was frustrated with it and indulged it with drugs and alcohol. She became a parody of herself, and that was scary and sad to see. But Janis was highly intelligent and, given time, I think she would have seen through it all.”
Despite her early demise, Joplin’s legacy to female performers continues, Andrew said.
“Janis was a woman forging her own path,” he said. “She had no references to look to in order to see if she was doing the right thing. She made it up as she went along. In that regard, generations of women in rock have followed in her footsteps.”
Additional information mentioned in a column by the above article…
Pearl Shines Again
Janis Joplin released only four albums in her short career: “Big Brother and the Holding Company,”Cheap Thrills,” “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!” and “Pearl,” her classic swan song released after her death.
Now Sony Legacy has reworked the Joplin catalog and is set to release the multidisc set on Aug. 31. Songs have been remastered from better tape sources, bonus tracks have been added, along with more complete liner notes and previously unpublished photographs, said a Legacy spokesman.
Among the many bonus tracks are Joplin’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Dear Landlord” and session outtakes of “Roadblock” and “Flower In The Sun.” Live tracks of Joplin performing “Summertime” and “Piece Of My Heart” at Woodstock are notable because neither has been released previously.
Also on Aug. 31, Legacy will release a limited-edition box set, “Box Of Pearls-The Janis Joplin Collection,” featuring the four studio albums and a bonus disc, “Rare Pearls.”
Laura Joplin, who was involved in organizing these projects, says the remastered songs are “breathtaking” and “really show how Janis’ music evolved.” Does she have a favorite song?
“I like them all,” she confessed. “But the one that best represents Janis’ sense of humor is ‘Mercedes Benz.’ That little chuckle at the end is pure Janis.”