“I’ve worked with three bands, four including when I was a kid, but three pro bands. We got on stage and did it anyway under the lights, but those boys really help you. The singer is only as good as the band, and this is the first band that really helped me. I got a drummer, man, that drives me up a wall. I wanna tell you, I was doing this shit in a tune last week, you know how you have verse, bridge, verse, and then you have a vamp. The vamp is free, it’s Janis, Janis gets to sing or talk or walk around the stage and act foxy, whatever she wants to do, right? It’s free, and all the band is supposed to do is keep up the groove. So I was singing, ‘Well I told that man, I said baby, I said baby, I said baby,’ I went up in thirds, and when I hit that high ‘baby’ and I did a kick with my ass to the right the drummer went bam! With a rim shot, and I turned around and said ‘My God, where did you learn that part, man, I just made it up a minute ago.’ I walked off stage and said ‘Where did you learn to play behind singers like that?’ and he said, ‘I used to back strippers.’ That’s how you learn to play, man.”
When Janis Joplin died of a drug overdose on October 4th 1970 she was far from the pretty girl singers who have thronged the pop charts with candy floss love songs. Outside of jazz, from Doris Day to Lulu, there has never been a woman who was prepared to stand on a stage and sing openly about her own emotional, often animal needs with such devastating honesty.
“I’ve got lots of tie-dyed velvet… I had these die-dyed satin sheets, the most beautiful fuckin’ sheets in the world and I started makin’ it with this cowboy and he shredded them up with his cowboy boots. Three-hundred dollar satin sheets shredded by cowboy boots. I loved every minute of it.”
Janis was born in 1943 in Port Arthur, Texas, a small oil town on the Texas-Louisiana border where, as she grew up, her first interests were painting and poetry, and in the ultra-conservative South this was the start of Janis getting an early bad girl label. Her father recalls Janis’s early years as being difficult.
“She mostly kept to herself. She had a pretty rough time of it in high school. She insisted on dressing and acting differently and they hated her for it. There were no people she could relate to, talk to. As far as Port Arthur was concerned, she was one of the first revolutionary youth. There’s lots of them now.”
In her late teens Janis began to become interested in music, listening to records of Leadbelly and Bessie Smith, and learning to play the guitar. In college she began playing for drings, but had little idea of making a career in music until Chet Helms, one of the men who masterminded much of the formation of the mid-sixties San Francisco music scene, that was to sweep the world as the “West Coast Sound”, introduced her to a then little known band called Big Brother and the Holding Company. The experience of singing with a rock band transformed Janis.
“All my life I just wanted to be a beatnik, meet all the heavies, get stoned, get laid, have a good time, that’s all I ever wanted, except I kenw I had a good voice and I could always get a couple of beers off of it. All of a sudden someone threw me into this rock band. They threw these musicians at me, man, and the sound was coming from behind, the bass was charging me, and I decided then and there that was it, I never wanted to do anything else. It was better than it had been with any man, you know. Maybe that’s the trouble…”
Their big break came at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, where, in competition with such stars as the Who, the Beach Boys and Jimi Hendrix, Janis, from a position way down on the bottom of the bill, made the audience her own and rocketed to virtual overnight stardom, a contract with CBS Records and an offer of management from Al Grossman, who at the time handled the business affairs of Bob Dylan.
Rock impressario Bill Graham remembers Janis and that first band as “wild and raucous.”
“I don’t think Janis tried to be black. I think Janis sang as a young person coming out of Texas and having kicked around San Francisco, and her voice was her voice and that was her interpretation of the songs. She sang blues. And in her own way… you know, when someone is a stylist or the originator of a style and… a particular style of blues, I don’t think you can compare her. And I keep coming back to Hendrix. Hendrix was an innovator on the guitar, Janis was an innovator in a certain style… very few tried to play like Hendrix – you couldn’t. Well, Janis was that: the mark of a great talent, creative talent and original talent is also in its difficulty to copy that talent. And I think that’s what Janis has.”
Janis’s own description of her early shows is characteristically tough and earthy. “I had a couple of shows where I played the whole show really into it, completely giving it all I had, man, and I was doing a free-form thing, talking, bring it all out, let it all go, man. Just talked about Janis and all the men that hurt her, and all the men that maybe she let down, and everything that you got to say, man, all of a sudden it starts coming out of your mouth, and you didn’t even intend it to, and all of a sudden I heard them talking in the middle of my fucking shit, man, and I stopped and I waited to see if they’d quit.
“They didn’t quit, and I grabbed the microphone and said, I ain’t cryin’ my ass off for you, man. I put the microphone down and walked off the stage. I blew my contract and all that shit, but fuck that, man, I ain’t gonna get out there and cry my soul out for people that are talking about ‘How’s your brother, did you get laid on Thursday, that’s a cute dress.’ I’m up there talking about my pain, fuck you, man.”
Much of Janis’s work is tied so closely with the pain of being a woman. It recurs constantly in her song titles, “Women Are Losers”, “Piece Of My Heart”, “I Need A Man To Love”, the list goes on and on.
The songs themselves are not the usual idealized love songs that pledge eternal faith. Janis pleads for a man who’ll buy her a drink and hold her “at least until the morning comes.” In her songs love is positively and inseparably linked to sex, and together with booze and earthy good times they, in her philosophy, provide a brief respite from a hard, ugly life.
To a great extent Janis drew her image from the great Hollywood Saturday night bar room broad, the Mae Wests and Bette Davises. Her taste for booze became legendary to the point where the manufacturers of a previously obscure liqueur bourbon, Southern Comfort, presented her with a mink coat for unconsciously promoting their product all over the world by constantly being photographed with a bottle in her hand.
This good time broad image seemed to separate her from the majority of American women. “You really damage and offend their femininity. You know, ‘no chick is supposed to stand like that’, you know, your tits shakin’ around, and your hair’s stringy, and you have no makeup on, and seat running down your face, and you’re coming up to the fuckin’ microphone, man, and at one point their heads just go click, and they go ‘Ooooh, no.’ You get that a lot. It’s really far out, when you’re standing on stage you can’t see the whole crowd. The trouble is the groovy crowd is usually in the back, because they can’t afford the seats down front – the seats down front are the local rich people – and they’re the ones that are just sitting there, man, with their knees just so… and you know, you only cross at your ankles, keep your panty girdly tight together, and you sit with your hands in your lap, and I’m up there singing, I’m going ‘Cha-cha-boom quack-quack’, and I look out at the crowd, and these girls have these little pinched smiles on their faces, and I must be an absolute horror, man, they’ve never seen anything like it, and they don’t want to again, man. The chick’s up there, shakin’ it all, ‘How do you like that, boys?’ and the boys all go ‘Aaaaaaghhh!’ and the girls are going ‘Oh my God, she may be able to sing, but she doesn’t have to act like that.’ That’s the way I was raised, man, I know exactly what’s on those bitches’ minds, they don’t like me, man. But that’s not most of them, I figure most of them who go to the trouble to buy a ticket to come to my shows are ready to rock.”
“At my concerts most of the chicks are looking for liberation, they think I’m gonna show ’em how to do it. But the ones right in the front are always the country club bitches, they always are. It’s so weird playing to 14 panty girdles. I used to get really uptight when they turned on the house lights, and if you’ve got an audience that’s a little timid, the minute they see everybody else standing up and getting goony, they say, what the fuck, and everybody just stands up and starts getting sweaty. I used to think, if they couldn’t see me singularly and watch me turn them on, they wouldn’t get turned on, but now I know if they can see each other get tured on, they’re gonna get turned on even more. The fact that I look small and human like I do when the lights are on don’t matter one fuckin’ bit.”
“I’m a strong believer in magic. I’d fly across the country to see Otis for ten minutes, I’d go see Little Richard anywhere, I’d go see Tina anywhere, because they work, they happen, they’re electric, they’re exciting, they sweat for you. Fuck, they’re so great, man, I just love ’em.”
In 1969 she split with Big Brother and the Holding Company and formed her own band, which subsequently came to England with her. This first band was something of a failure. It never quite seemed to gel properly and at the same time Janis was experiencing serious drug problems. Within a year the band had fallen apart.
Another disappointment was in store for her the same year. The Melody Maker reported it thus: “Janis was to have been on the cover of Newsweek… but General Eisenhower’s death had elbowed her out. [She was shown the discarded Newsweek cover and] in quick succession came a display of pleasure at the way the photo came out and anger at the fact it wouldn’t be seen. She grasped it in her hands, stared at it for an instant, stamped her tiny foot bullet-like into the floor, and swung a clenched fist skyward. A stream of devastating curses accompanied the action. ‘Goddamit, you mother%#$! You #%&$! And swinging round to appeal to the gathering: ‘Fourteen heart attacks and he has to die in my week. In MY week!’
After a period of inactivity, Janis put together the final band, Full Tilt Boogie, and with them recorded probably her finest album, Pearl. Plans were going ahead for a full scale tour with the band, and t seemed that Janis’s emotional problems had been, for the most part, overcome, when she was found dead at her home in Larkspur, California.
Her death came only a matter of weeks after guitarist Jimi Hendrix had died in London. The entire pop world was profoundly shocked. Rolling Stone magazine devoted an entire issue to a Janis Joplin memorial, and tributes poured in from the world’s top musicians. Jerry Garcia, guitarist with the Grateful Dead, summed up the predominant feeling.
“Janis was like a real person, man. She went through all the changes we did. She went on all the same trips. She was just like the rest of us – fucked up, strung out, in weird places. Back in the old days, the pre-success days, she was using all kinds of things, just like anybody, man.
“When she went out after something, she went out after it really hard, harder than most people ever think to do, ever conceive of doing.
“She was on a real hard path. She picked it, she chose it, it’s OK. She was doing what she was doing as hard as she could, which is as much as any of us can do. She did what she had to do and closed her books. I don’t know whether it’s the thing to do, but it’s what she had to do.
“It was the best possible time for her death. If you know any people who passed that point into decline, you know, really getting messed up. Old, senile, done in. But going up, it’s like a skyrocket, and Janis was a skyrocket chick.
“She had a sense of all that, including the sense that if somebody was making a movie of it, it’d make a great movie. If you had a chance to write your life, I would describe that as a good score in life writing, with an appropriate ending.”
Janis was found with four dollars clutched in her hand, and signs of recent heroin use. Rumours circulated furiously: Janis had committed suicide, Janis had overdosed. The evidence seemed inconclusive, her career was going well and the drug problem of the previous year had apparently been solved. As with Marilyn Monroe, the truth about the last lonely hours of Janis Joplin will never be known.
To mark the second anniversary of her death, CBS have released a double album package that contains some of the best of her live performances.
Of all the epitaphs probably Janis’s own words stand as the most fitting:
“I gotta go on doin’ it the way I see it. Hey, man, I ain’t got no choice but to take it like I see it… I’m here to have a party, man, as best I can while I’m on this earth. I think it’s your duty to. When I’m ready to retire I’ll tell you about it.
If I start worrying about everything I’m doing, you know, like – like this’ll give you cholesterol or cirrhosis or some other dumb, unaware trip, I’d just as soon quit now. If that’s what I gotta do to stick around another forty years, you can have it… I’m gettin’ it now, so I’m just gonna keep on rocking, cause if I start saving up bits and pieces of me like that, man, there ain’t gonna be nothing left for Janis.”