Joplin, Janis (1943-1970)

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Joplin, Janis (1943-1970)

Regarded as the greatest white female blues singer, Janis Joplin is also remembered as a hedonistic, hard-drinking, bra-disdaining, bisexual challenger of social conventions. She often is associated with Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, a trio of dynamic performers who all died within a year of each other between September 1970 and July 1971, and whose "live hard, die fast" philosophy not only epitomized the 1960s but also tolled the end of that spectacular, turbulent epoch.

The young Joplin was an intelligent, creative girl with many interests and talents. Born January 19, 1943, in Port Arthur, Texas, she was raised by liberal parents who encouraged her interests in music, art, and literature. Her favorite author was F. Scott Fitzgerald, and she identified with the glamorous, ruinous lives of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and her favorite singers, Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith. She learned to sing the blues, as well as play guitar, piano, and autoharp. But Joplin's main ambition was to become an artist: she drew and painted, and majored in art in college. Her interests drew her to the beatnik scene in San Francisco in 1964, where she met Robert Crumb and other artists. She sold paintings, sang with various blues bands, and developed an amphetamine addiction. In 1965 she returned to Texas to withdraw from the temptation of drugs, and she returned to college.

A year later she was invited back to San Francisco to sing with Big Brother and the Holding Company. She returned to find the beatnik scene succeeded by the hippie scene. She partied with the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, and Jefferson Airplane. Joplin soon distinguished herself even among these luminaries with her booming, unbridled vocals and the raw, electric blues of Big Brother. They cut several singles, and their growing reputation took them to the Monterey International Pop Festival. Cashing in on Joplin's new popularity, Mainstream Records repackaged their singles as Big Brother and the Holding Company, Featuring Janis Joplin (1967). Released without the band's permission, it is an uneven album wavering between folk, psychedelic, and pop music. Their next album, Cheap Thrills (1968), revealed a band that had found its identity in raunchy electric blues. Joplin is at her best in the sultry, sizzling "Summertime" and "Piece of My Heart," which reveals the tortured combination of toughness and vulnerability that became her trademark.

Big Brother was never esteemed by the critics, and Joplin was persuaded to form a new band for her next album, I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! (1969), but she never developed a rapport with the Kozmic Blues Band. With two sax players and a trumpeter, they had a brassy sound that smothered Joplin's vocals. Nor was there anything particularly cosmic about their blues style, which was more mainstream than Big Brother's. Joplin recognized the unsuitability of this group and formed the Full Tilt Boogie Band. The brassy sound of the Kozmic Blues Band was discarded, and the two keyboardists—rather than the two aggressive guitarists of Big Brother—allowed Joplin's vocals free rein.

Joplin wrote few of her own songs, but turned others' songs into her own through wrenching, probing performances. She chose her songs well, finding a medium through which she could express her soul in all its passion and insecurity. Prescriptive feminists are uncomfortable with the sexual desperation Joplin revealed in her recordings, but singing was her catharsis; she was not only rebelling against the double standards of the age but also exploring her soul more honestly than prescriptivism allows. Ellen Willis claims that Joplin was compelled to stay in show business because of the limited opportunities that would have awaited her as a woman. The truth is that Joplin sang because she loved and needed it, and she had plans to open a bar when her singing career ended. The female=victim equation shows little appreciation for the bold young woman who left her hometown for San Francisco in 1964, relying only on her talents to make it on her own, and announced to the male-dominated rock world that "a woman can be tough."

Joplin's popularity was now at its zenith, and she felt pressured to live up to her hedonistic image, attempting to sustain the intensity of her stage performances in her daily life. She drank constantly and resorted to heroin. She lost contact with the sensitive woman she had been and started rumors that she was unpopular in school and had been estranged from her parents (although letters printed in Love, Janis reveal that she was always close to her family). This side of Joplin was exploited in the sensationalistic 1979 Bette Midler film The Rose, loosely based on Joplin's life.

On October 4, 1970, after a recording session with Full Tilt, Joplin died from a heroin overdose. "Buried Alive in Blues" was left as an instrumental, but Pearl (1971) is otherwise complete. It is Joplin's most polished album, containing the unforgettable "Me and Bobby McGee." It is difficult to listen to Joplin's music without a pang of regret for her tragically wasted talent, but she often said that she would rather live intensely than spend a long life in front of the TV. When friends warned her that she would lose her voice if she kept shrieking, she replied that she would rather give it her all and be a great singer while young, rather than be a mediocre singer with a long career. Joplin's excess was part of her artistry.

The enduring fascination Joplin commands is testified by many posthumous releases, including Janis Joplin in Concert (1972), Janis Joplin's Greatest Hits (1973), Janis (documentary and soundtrack, 1975), A Farewell Song (rarities, 1983), Janis (three-CD box set, 1988), Janis Joplin: 18 Essential Songs (selections from the box set, 1995), and Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, Live at Winterland '68 (1998). Joplin was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.

—Douglas Cooke

Further Reading:

Dalton, David. Janis. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1971.

Friedman, Myra. Buried Alive: The Biography of Janis Joplin. New York, William Morrow & Co., 1973.

Joplin, Laura. Love, Janis. New York, Villard Books, 1992.

Willis, Ellen. "Janis Joplin." The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. Rev. ed. New York, Random House, 1980.

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Joplin, Janis (1943-1970)

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