At the age of 27, in October of 1970, Janis Joplin died of a drug overdose. At the time of her death she was one of the most prominent figures on the popular-music scene despite a number of continuing problems – particularly the difficulties with her own tendency towards blatancy in stage manner as well as her singing. Personally, I was never one of her admirers. I saw her in concert only once. She was then with her original band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, a bunch of semi-amateurs who had picked her up in California and with whom she stayed for a couple of years out of loyalty. I remember that she came onstage at the Fillmore East dressed in an outfit that looked like a whore’s underwear, and that she spent the next hour alternately screaming her guts out and carrying on outrageously. There was obvious musical talent in her performance – somewhere – but it was all buried in her unrestrained playing to the crowd. I felt the same way about her records too, (and I still do): a tremendous voice being constantly abused.
Those of us who did not care for Janis Joplin’s singing were obliged to do quite a double-take upon listening to her last, posthumously-released studio album, “Pearl” (Columbia KC-30322). Here was a different singer all together! Some of the rasping blatancy was still there, yes; but the voice was under control, and at the service of expression rather than affectation. In short, Joplin was a transformed artist in her last days – partly because she was working for the first time with a good band, but also because she had changed, matured.
This new book on Janis Joplin, put together by a man who interviewed her at length, is disfigured by the pretentiousness which is cropping up more and more often these days as rock begins to take itself too seriously. Dalton’s own section of the book (roughly the first third) has absurd chapter titles like “The Mechanics of Ecstasy” and a very great deal of very purple prose. Yet the book as a whole is successful and worthwhile. You can skip paragraphs or even pages of Dalton’s writing, but he also includes transcriptions of some extremely revealing taped remarks that present the singer as a sensitive, vulnerable, and self-aware human being – not at all her public image during her lifetime. For example:
“I have to get undressed after the show, my clothes are ruined, my heels are run through, my underwear is ripped, my body’s stained from my clothes, my hair’s stringy, I got a headache and I got to go home and I’m lonely, and my clothes are all fucked up, my shoes have come apart, and I’m pleading with my road manager to please give me a ride home, please, please just so I can take these fuckin’ clothes off, and that ain’t no star, man, that’s just a person.”
Dalton’s contribution is followed by a large group of well-chosen photographs. If ever a performer’s face revealed the personality behind it, it was Janis Joplin’s. And she never seems to have had exactly the same face for very long!
The last third of the book assembles a collection of pieces from the rock paper Rolling Stone. All of them are interesting. They include interviews with her father and with musicians who knew her well, reviews of her performances, and a touching eulogy by Ralph Gleason. Then the volume is rounded out with a selection (14) of her best known songs. This is a welcome bonus, although I am obliged to note that Joplin certainly did not write the words and music of “Down On Me.” (It is an only-slight adaptation of an old gospel song, as she freely acknowledges in one of the interviews.)
What really makes this book a true collector’s item is the accompanying seven-inch one-sided record. It contains not only a brief interview with the artist but also three songs, recorded in 1962 by an amateur in a Texas bar where she used to sing regularly. They are fascinating, and they show that the singing ability was there long before she made the big time – and before she started letting audiences control her instead of relying on her own musicianship.
Even without the record, however, the book would be well worth having. As an attempt to humanize a show business personality it succeeds more than most, and it may even help some skeptics to understand the genuine grief that swept through the rock world when Janis Joplin died.