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Elsewhere by Graham Reid

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Wide angle reviews, interviews and opinion by writer Graham Reid

JANIS JOPLIN: Singing out the painful sparks within

Janis Joplin: What Good Can Drinkin' Do (1962)
JANIS JOPLIN: Singing out the painful sparks within

Of all those admitted to that illustrious pantheon of Dead Sixties Rock Stars, Janis Joplin has been the one least well served.

Jimi is revered and regularly remarketed; and Jim has his reissued albums, an Oliver Stone bio-pix, a new headstone in Pere La Chaise and people still seem to refer to him as “a poet”.

And Janis? Like Otis, she is pretty much forgotten other than by a few.

It’s one thing for Stone to recreate The Doors with an eye for verisimilitude (wow, those trip sequences maaan) but quite another for Bette Midler to sidestep the complexities of Janis’ life and create a movie composite of Joplin and a debauched rock’n’roll lifestyle. A “Joplin-like singer” is how most film guides refer to Midler’s The Rose, and that’s about right.

But maybe Janis Joplin is of too little interest to be taken seriously these days anyway. The blues is a minority music again and white blues has been mostly reduced to cliches by guitar boys whose musical ideas are fashioned their potential to be used in Levi ads.

So a white woman singing the blues means you are down to what the smart suits call “a niche market”.

Not that the people in smart suits -- even those influential baby-boomers in the States who grew up with Janis -- have shown much interest in her. Not for Joplin the marketing strategy to re-present her catalogue on the 20th or 30th anniversary of her death, not for her the repackaged albums with bonus tracks and high-profile ads in the trade papers and music press, no touring art exhibition or iconic t-shirts . . . janis2

In December 1997 Rolling Stone, the magazine which charted Joplin’s early career, did a special anniversary Women in Rock issue: Joplin got scant and scattered mention (mostly noting the wildness of her lifestyle) and on a word count the vapid singer Jewel was accorded more space, and a much bigger photo. 

The solid tombstone of Janis Joplin music arrived in 1993, apropos of no particular anniversary. The three-disc set simply entitled Janis and with rather muted artwork was appropriately enough on the Columbia Legacy label, which also carries the catalogue of Joplin’s hero Bessie Smith, a blues singer whose alcohol intake and pained singing almost seemed a role model and lifestyle template for Joplin.

Janis Joplin was on of the truly great singers (and misfits) of rock culture, one who epitomised the out-of-it liberation that rock culture can offer the dispossessed. And that’s probably why she means so little in the current climate.

Few women singers point to her as an influence and that’s hardly surprising. Turn on any video channel and what do you get? Adult women acting like coy teenagers feigning fey innocence, sucking on their sleeves or going cow-eyed for the camera.

These wind-blown and well-marketed types would be terrified in the company of Janis, as would most of us perhaps, and are more at home with -- and certainly of the same lineage as -- bantam weights like the Veronicas who profess to be a rock band.

Maybe those former Riot Grrrls who were noisy and politicised would get Janis?

Well, few things are more stupid or dangerous than saying what the dead would have thought, but you sort of feel Janis wouldn’t have had much time for Courtney Love or Riot Grrrls.

Janis didn’t want to be one of the girls, she wanted to be one of the boys.

She wanted to have as much booze, sex, dope and fun as the rest of the band.

She usually did -- all except for the fun.

Maybe I won’t last as long as other singers,” she said of her fast-forward lifestyle, “but I think you can destroy your Now by worrying about Tomorrow. If I hold back I’m no good Now, and I’d rather be good sometimes than holding back all the time.”

Unusually for someone of her age and period, she seemed intuitively stepped in the blues.

With the blues,” she said, “I felt there was an honesty there. Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin -- they are so subtle. They can go just from A to B and make you feel like they’ve told you the whole universe.”

Evidence of that is dramatically presented on the opening track in the Janis collection. The year is 1962 -- a full four years before the world started paying attention to her as the front person of Big Brother and the Holding Company.

She’s sitting at a tape recorder and when she plays it back she hears, for the first time, her voice. She must have been stunned too.

And the song? Ironically for someone for whom drink was a lifestyle necessity, it’s her original What Good Can Drinkin’ Do, an untutored piece of primal, confessional blues of the kind that white voices can rarely carry.

Blues this emotionally loaded and soul-baring wasn’t all that Janis did however. The times were loud and electric, the mood fuelled by chemicals and possibilities, her setting shifting from smalltown Texas -- the brutally ugly refinery town of Port Arthur about which she said “they laughed me out of class, out of town and out of the state” -- to wide-open San Francisco.

It was the world of kindred souls like Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead . . .

That story is best told in books such as Love, Janis by her sister Laura and Ellis Ambler’s Pearl (“a litany of sleaze,” salivated Entertainment Weekly).

Some of the essaying of her short life -- pushing the post-modern envelope in places -- is covered in the extensive booklet accompanying the Janis set.

The story of the music is told in the 49 tracks of the set which include eight previously unreleased tracks (including Trouble in Mind recorded with Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen in his apartment as someone bangs a typewriter in the background). There are such throwaway oddities scattered throughout.

But more interesting is to be reminded again how Joplin could cut it both in the studio and live (no mean feat, despite the popular myth). So the inclusion of half a dozen live cuts gives breath to a set which offers the familiar Janis (Piece of My Heart, Mercedes Benz, Me and Bobby McGee) in chronological order.

Janis is often loud, raucous and raunchy, but that was Joplin. Take it or leave her.

She was, by all accounts, a sad and silent drunk -- and a loud in-ya-face drunk. She was openly bisexual (really, not in a coy I Kissed a Girl way), pushed herself to whatever limits were out there, seems to have been mostly wasted and/or loaded, certainly not career/market orientated as today’s climate has shaped so many . . . and never had as much real fun as she should have had.janislive

I was the same chick,” she said once, “because I’ve been her forever and I know her and she ain’t no star: she’s lonely, or she’s good at something.

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.”

She died at 27 in the Landmark Motor Hotel in Los Angeles full of Ripple wine, tequila and the hit that killed her. It was a dirty death.

A skyrocket chick,” said her friend Jerry Garcia. Well, we all say stupid things when our friends die; the pain is too big to engage or articulate.

In her will she left money for a wake.

The drinks are on Pearl,” the invitation read.

What she left behind, more importantly, was a legacy of rock-driven blues which can still chill or confuse, delight and frighten.

Skyrockets can leave a long shower of sparks . . . even in the shortest of bright flights.


Like this? Then check out the interviews, reviews and overviews at Blues in Elsewhere.

Your Comments

Lynn - Mar 12, 2009

It's a really good piece. I was very disappointed to see that you uses the NON-word 'orientated'. After all the impressive pronouns you used skillfully. That 'word' just blew the whole fucking reading experience for me.

What a shame.

tom - Mar 13, 2009

orientate has not been a non-word for over a hundred years. maybe time to move on?

verb
another term for orient .
ORIGIN mid 19th cent.: probably a back-formation from orientation.

Lynn - Mar 18, 2009

My apologies for being so unneccesarily rude. I was in a horrible mood that day, though it's no excuse. Your writing is very good. Sorry.

dave - Mar 23, 2009

thank you for that 'dirty death' she was great,beautiful, and I only got to see
her live once in vancouver,bc; but we mourned her.

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