The Quest of Historical Janis Joplin

by Jimmy Smith


The Quest of Historical Janis


The writer speaks directly to his editor and thereby gains the reader’s interest and trust


This is it, the one review I am allowed when I pretend I am not writing a review but am instead writing a letter to you about my failure to produce. Like the naively self-reflexive and I thought clever essay I wrote for Ed Minus in English 102 at Wofford College, 500 words starting out “I am sitting down to write an essay” and ending “I still can’t think of what to write my essay about” (Mr. Minus saved me a lot of time and snottiness by failing holy crap out of that paper). But this one, my review of last year’s Janis Joplin re-issues, has a purpose, other than, of course, trying to excuse myself for promising it to you so many times before.

I had to put my research skills to use for this essay. That’s because, truth be told, Janis Joplin has never meant as much to me as she ought. I know, as someone who was sentient when she died, that she occupied a space in the generation immediately preceding mine that should commend her work, or at least her story, to me now. But I can’t get past the simple fact of my preferring any number of great sixties performers over Joplin and feeling that what they had to do with reconfiguring culture was significantly more important. So, in addition to listening to these CDs, with great pleasure (and, may I add, that Joplin is, talking off the top of my head now, one of very few sixties icons whose complete recorded work I have owned for years, partly a result, I am afraid, of her relatively scarce output), I have had to worry both Larry and Vicki the librarians as well as go online into the weird wilds of fan-sites.

The bio at Rolling says that, “of her deceased contemporaries (Hendrix, Jim Morrison, et al.), [she was] perhaps the least well known to younger audiences.” This estimation suggests that coming to terms with Janis Joplin is not exactly a requirement of modern PopLife (as, say, coming to terms with Elvis and Madonna is), not an archetypal act, not the PopCultural equivalent of reading Moby Dick or Paradise Lost. If she is not so iconic as Jimi or Jim or et al., getting to know Janis Joplin is more like reading Miss Lonelyhearts or Pnin: optional, and in some ways more meaningful because less-compelled. In other words, her body of work still occupies a fluid position in a field, Pop Cultural Studies, that once promised such fluidity before settling down and becoming nice’n'academic: what middle-class intellectuals think about when they’re pretending not to be middle class.

But in the review I wish I were writing (instead of this letter of complete apology), I reject what has to say, or at least has to imply. Because I have for so long bought into rock, and PopCultural, orthodoxy, I am convinced that the sixties were tremendously important, an epoch that reverberates through all levels of current cultural and political life, and that the spate of rockdeaths attaching to that year was thus Very Significant, no matter the substance-abusing sheer dumbassed causes of those deaths.

Cultural Symbolism for Beginners: If Jimi is the great instrumental genius of rock’n'roll and Jim the great doofus-clown (as Lester Bangs claimed), Janis is its martyr-queen, rock’s Plath or Dylan (not Minnesota Dylan, Welsh Dylan), its Anne Sexton. In a chapter called “The Public Suicide of Dylan Thomas” in his memoir Remembering Poets, Donald Hall recalls the—apocryphal?—story that Sexton had a bonus clause built into her contract for public poetry readings: extra money if she had a psychic meltdown, went mascara-running weepy, on stage. “It makes me sad to think of her” is something you will read over and over when you surf the various Janis sites on the Web: her fans’ pleasure locates itself precisely in their acceptance of, their yearning for, the catastrophe that climaxes tragedy, not in the hubris that is so often the tragic flaw/error motivating the hero/ine’s Great Fall, i.e., not in the sporadic grandness that makes Joplin’s life more than a soap opera for dopers.

Listening to the live version of “Ball & Chain” on the Greatest Hits album (this is the one performed with her Full Tilt Boogie Band, not the more frantic, less satisfying Big Brother version on Cheap Thrills) is uncomfortable: you are spying on private catastrophe, an agonized/ing descent into psychic hell that completely overcomes the blues and rock cliches Janis would like, as a professional entertainer, to aspire to. “Tomorrow never happens, man” she says in a bonechilling rant midway through, “it’s all the same fucking day, man. [from the grave laugh] So you gotta, when you wanna hold somebody, you gotta hold ‘em like it’s the last minute of your life”—an altogether convincing preview of the void, that has, in my experience, only two worthy precursors: Dylan Thomas’s recorded of Dr. Faustus’s final speech, his failed bargaining with the demons come to drag him down to the hell he made a deal for; and Jesus’ last night, his “Take this cup” pleading, either (depending on your point of view) the most terrible moment in history or a fiction so profound and terrible it got me back into church.

“Janis died for our sins,” is what I’d like to say, Sarah. That’s where this review was supposed to be heading. But then I listen to these CDs once again and realize just how far this sad soul came from cutting the messianic mustard. She was good—a better singer by far than her bands deserved—but how far does her ability take us when we separate the myth from the person? That is, suppose we follow the lead of D.F. Strauss, who distinguished the historical Jesus from the mythic Christ? Once myth is gone, how much Janis is left?


A section of this review-essay that is supposed to have a William Blake title, “Forms of worship from poetic tales,” which means that both Jim Morrison and Kris Krisofferson would have got it

As Who’s Who would have put it, had Who’s Who considered her worth noticing: Joplin, Janis; American singer; b. January 19, 1943, Port Arthur, Texas; d. of Seth and Dorothy Joplin; ed. Thomas Jefferson High School, Lamar State College of Technology, Port Arthur College, University of Texas at Austin. Singer, Port Arthur, 62-63; San Francisco, 63-65; Recovering Addict, Port Arthur, 65-66; Chick Singer, Big Brother and the Holding Company, San Francisco (and Monterey International Pop Festival), 66-69; Singer, Bandleader, Kozmic Blues Band, San Francisco (and Woodstock Music & Art Fair), 69-70; Singer, Full Tilt Boogie, Los Angeles, 70. Leisure interests: drinking, drugs, sex, reading, hitchhiking. Recordings: Big Brother and the Holding Company 67, Cheap Thrills 68, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! 69, Pearl 71. D. October 4, 1970, Los Angeles.

And add these things as well, these plain portentous facts, in quotes because they signify poetic tales that never go gray: “Avalon Ballroom (managed by Chet Helms, hitchhiking partner)”; “Southern Comfort”; “Hollywood’s Landmark Motor Hotel.”

Strip a life down this far and it becomes either pitiful or grand, a skeleton whose every bare bone glares. Where can such facts take you but plunging into decay or myth?


The original introductory paragraphs, as they have been waiting in the word processor for two months, ever since I ran full tilt (insider reference) into a metaphysical quandary re: the subject, with an epigraph from a half-remembered poet who I act like he’s famous or something

“Remember me when I am dead, / and simplify me when I’m dead.”

When Keith Douglas died during the Normandy invasions, he surrendered his body to “the processes of earth” and his reputation to the vicissitudes of memory. What he has become since then-war poet, latecoming Wilfred Owen, genuine war hero (as all latecoming Wilfreds are)-is the man reduced, even if, as seems common among artists, such reduction erodes away the true character of the human being and leaves us with myth.

Or: Myth. Capitalize that and consider the case of Janis, who walked among us and who died, miserably and alone, to atone for the sins of the sixties (or not, no certainly not, because she shot up one time too many). In her liner notes to a ‘93 box set, Ellen Willis writes: “Joplin belonged to that select group of pop figures who mattered as much for themselves as for their music; among American rock performers she was second only to Bob Dylan in importance as a creator-recorder-embodiment of her generation’s mythology.” The facts are brutal and stupid and banal and so dead-on clichéd brilliant, as if acted out by a robot with a script, that they resonate, begging to be discovered significant, emblematic of “her generation’s mythology.”

You just know where the story’s heading when its protagonist is born in Port Arthur Texas. Cf. “Jesus was born at Nazareth, a small town of Galilee, which before his time had no celebrity. All his life he was designated by the name of ‘the Nazarene,’ and it is only by a rather embarrassed and roundabout way… that, in the legends respecting him, he is made to be born at Bethlehem,” wrote the Higher Critic Ernest Renan. Janis Joplin goes the Messiah one better by being born where a Hollywood-scripted legend would have had her be born.

And what about all those people who keep telling us that we sure missed out on something, that the real Janis was never captured on record, that they have special reportorial privileges in this matter because they were there? Again, Renan:“The strong imagination of Mary Magdalen played an important part in this circumstance. Divine power of love! Sacred moments in which the passion of one possessed gave to the world a rescusitated God!”

“SBiWF, looking for fun and games, leading perhaps to LTR. Into barefeet, flowered mini-dresses, balling. Are you the one? No games, honest answers only. Don’t break my heart.”

But you just know that her heart was meant to be broken, that the sixties had peace and love and sex and dope and cheap thrills, and now it needed a sacrifice, a poor soul to die terribly and thus legitimize youth culture just as Dallas legitimized Camelot and the war in Vietnam.


Record review

As if to belie the “you had to be there” disciples’ claims, the mythic Janis appears often enough on disc, specifically in those moments when she seems most to be flaying the sad unpretty flesh from her very own bones: “Down On Me” from Big Brother; “Combination of the Two,” “Summertime,” and “Piece of My Heart” from Cheap Thrills (which album seems an honestly ragged recording when you first hear it, but hippie indulgence soon thereafter—when Country Joe asks, in his liner notes to the posthumously-released Farewell Song, how Janis would have fared among the punks, he does not want the answer he would probably get: not well, unless she dumped the tends-to-noodle band and got to the point); “Try,” “To Love Somebody,” and the title track on the horns-driven Kozmic Blues (an earnest and usually successful attempt to move beyond sloppiness and into Otis-style soul); and “Move Over,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” and “Mercedes Benz” from Pearl.

Still, it is nearly impossible to listen all the way through any individual CD without encountering some egregious sin of the sixties that annoys more than entertains. On Kozmic Blues, for example, her Big Brother crony Sam Andrew’s noodly guitar on “Little Girl Blue” threatens to sink a fabulous vocal take on a Rodgers and Hart standard; the overzealous performance of “Dear Landlord” (bonus track) proves that, with ten times the natural vocal oomph of Dylan, Janis still doesn’t measure up to his restrained John Wesley Harding original (though, of course, Dylan was, perhaps is, one of our greatest blues singers, though not a shouter or belter); and a screechy, speeded-up “Piece of my Heart” (another bonus track) suggests that not everything Janis did at Woodstock earns its place in the mystery cult, though its jaw-dropping stream-of-consciousness intro rap is classic sixties something or ‘nother. And the entire album’s understanding of soul horns, while owing a lot to Stax-Volt, sometimes approaches too closely the horrid showband sound that washed over Eric Burdon’s failed late-sixties big-production recordings for MGM. (Though some of the other hornwork here does, unfunkily, lay claim to the same kind of coolness that Beck borrows from The Notorious Byrd Brothers for Midnite Vultures.)

The problem—constantly—is that Joplin surrounds herself with far less-talented players than she deserves. Even Pearl, a professional recording, suffers from having no one to tell the guys that they are not the stars of this show. Even on that recording, the classic of the Joplin oeuvre, there are moments you’d rather not hear when someone whose name was not on the cover of this album, steps forward and favors us with a tasty solo—though (on this re-issue) there is a terrific collection of stuff from same show that yielded the Greatest Hits’ “Ball & Chain.” And there is also “Mercedes Benz.” This song, a goof on hippie politics and communalism that got played a lot on radio (and was probably a semi-hit among some kid-haters because it seemed a joke that Joplin and the Young did not get) (though, as her introduction makes clear, she did) succeeds beautifully because it strips away most everything that makes Pearl occasionally dull: overproduction, unwise sidemen. One of the cliches of Joplinology (from the top of the professional heap right down to the Internet groupies bottom) is that she died too soon, with so much left unsung. I’d avoid that and be satisfied, if only “Mercedes Benz” did not imply what Joplin could have done had she survived another couple of years and begun making albums influenced by, say, the Band and post-Altamont Grateful Dead. Those unmade countrified albums are indeed a loss to our culture.


“God, Your Priest St. John became a model of perfect self-denial and showed us how to love the Cross. May we always imitate him and be rewarded with the eternal contemplation of your glory. Amen.” Lives of the Saints.

Sarah: I have been trying to get Janis Joplin for some time now. But I keep running into what may, after all, be the typical problem in our collective response to her talents and to the you-had-to-be-there discipleship that spread the Janis cult in the several years before I became financially equipped to participate in the spread of her legend. I mean, to bring up a singer Joplin is (oddly to me) sometimes compared with, Patti Smith thrills me, which has to be partially a function of my age (18 when Horses appeared and terrified me into taking both rock and Rimbaud seriously). Janis Joplin mostly just entertains me; we listen to her confront demons when Sharee and I drive the kids to the lake and she always sets the Probe rocking.

Now, I admit that there are moments when she gets to me, and I have already discussed those. But, as John Donne said, batter my heart. Like St. John of the Cross, I am ready.

I said: I am ready.

All right.

Never mind.


Not-to-be-missed, picked-to-click

The analogies break down about here, Sarah. My plans for this review—to turn it into a treatise on discipleship, an attack on the you-had-to-be-there mentality that suffused rock journalism for so long and made those of us in the boondocks feel as if we’d only hear about rock’n'roll salvation, never experience it—run into the simple fact that I apparently am not so open to Joplin’s very real angst that I am able to value enough (or, in my estimation, overvalue) her recordings. So I am left with no recourse but to end unconverted, the last CD I take note of the least characteristic of the Joplin corpus.

The till-recently buried treasure of these re-issues is the first Big Brother album, a collection of dumb little ditties—jug band tunes, kiddie songs, hippie jingles—from when the band didn’t know enough to let Janis be the star. Not only do the barbed-wire guitar hijinx of “Light is Faster than Sound” bury Joplin, but so too does a frustrating urge, evident throughout the record, to cast Joplin as a harmonizer, a co-lead vocalist in the San Francisco folk-rock mold of Grace Slick. And, if instrumentalists’ tendency to stretch out on her other recordings dates those CDs, so too does the compact popcraft of the songs here: nothing over three minutes. Just when some of this stuff is getting good, it’s over.

And, still, this may be the most consistently amusing of the four recordings Joplin worked on during her lifetime. Janis doesn’t yet bear the weight of mortality or legend on these 10 songs (with four bonus tracks). Big Brother and the Holding Company is a silly little time-capsule CD that takes time out for a kiddie song called “Caterpillar” and for an experimental nuisance called “All is Loneliness” that Janis steps into and single-handedly rescues halfway through (this song, rather than “Combination of the Two” from Cheap Thrills, strikes me as her career’s star-is-born-and-I-was-there moment). “Down on Me” here is bubblegum blues, at least by comparison with the epic concert recording you’re likely to be familiar with from Greatest Hits. Sure, she feels the blues, but she’ll get over it. Here is someone who simply sounds happy to be out of her dull little hometown and hooked up with a record company.

I am not sad when I listen to this CD. I think it’s neat and I can dance to it. I am sorry I don’t hate it for being happy. I am waiting for Janis to batter my heart.

Topics: janis joplin
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