According to musical lore, blues rocker Janis Joplin grew up an outcast in her own hometown on the coast of Texas in the 1950s. It’s said that she didn’t discover who she was and how she might fit in until she went to college in Austin and found her calling, singing the blues with other college beatniks. Soon thereafter, she hitchhiked to San Francisco where she found fame and recognition, only to die far too young from a drug overdose.
There’s truth to this story, however, as is often the case, there’s more to it: things were complicated for Janis. Always had been.
By the time Joplin made it to Austin to attend art classes at the University of Texas in 1962, she’d already been through hell and back compared to the average 19-year middle-class white girl. She’d been carrying a sadness with her for some time. Hers was the kind of sadness that comes slowly over the course of growing into adulthood when you realize that you’re still different, and not in a good way. Hers was the kind of different that people around her would never accept. This slow, aching realization that emerged from her formative years – she was never going to fit the ’50s-era mold of a sweet girl with bobby socks and a cute hairdo – her a desperate creature at a young age, in constant need of love and approval. By the time she found the blues, the hole in her soul was just too big and too deep.
By the tender age of 17 and long before her short-lived fame, Joplin was already abusing alcohol and pills to the point where she was hospitalized on at least one occasion. Conflicted emotions about being attracted to both men and women in a state where such behavior was still considered criminal did not help her inner turmoil. Her solution was to sleep indiscriminately with both men and women.
Before she was confident enough to perform in front of others, she had discovered the blues. She immersed herself in the music, poured over books on the subject, and listened to old 78 records she ordered by mail. She was fascinated with Bessie Smith, whose singing was described by Carl Van Vechten as Smith “cutting her heart open with a knife, until it was exposed …so that we suffered as she suffered, exposed with a rhythmic ferocity”. B.B. King said that when he first heard the blues it was like having a toothache and someone gives you something soothing that stops the pain. Maybe for Joplin too, letting the blues pour over her was a relief from all the problems she was facing, both inside and out.
By 19, she was going on two miserable years since graduating from an equally miserable high school experience. She was still stuck in her segregated hometown, trying to connect whenever she could with the blues and music generally, and still only half exploring her own singing. That all changed the night a friend drove her to visit Austin. They had been driving all night when they pulled into downtown Austin just before dawn and could hear live music in the air. Joplin felt she had finally arrived to a place where she might fit in.
Desperate to finally escape her hometown, she moved to Austin to attend college. By this time in the early ’60s, rock ‘n’ roll had been co-opted by the white-dominated music industry and the Beatles had yet to arrive to save it. The more thoughtful youth of the time turned instead to American roots music in search of something authentic. This folk revival drew a small contingency of young white enthusiasts in every college town to cramped, dingy places where they could hear America’s history in the blues.
That spot in Austin at the time was an old gas station out at the city limits. Its owner, Kenneth Threadgill, was an eccentric old country singer who survived the depression by selling bootleg beer out of the back door. Every Wednesday night there was an open mic that attracted the beatnik folkies whom Joplin started singing with, a tiny contingency of supportive musicians performing before an equally tiny score of like-minded souls.
They saw something special in Joplin and accepted her as a member of their tribe, but they knew that she was already damaged goods. One among them later remarked, that “by the time she got to Austin, she’d already been profoundly hurt.” Playing old school blues for free beer in the back of an old gas station at the edge of the town must have seemed like heaven to young Janis. She thought she was finally home, surrounded by people who accepted and appreciated her. But it wouldn’t be enough in the end.
When you look at photos of Joplin from this period in her life, you’re taken aback: This isn’t the image you expect of the sassy mama from San Francisco, sporting bell bottoms, flowing boas, and funky tinted glasses. This is Janis still stuck in Texas, trying to break out from the doubt and pain that she feared would overtake her and send her back to despair at any moment.
Austin proved no safer than her hometown in the end and the real blues caught up with her again when a college fraternity announced Joplin the winner in an ‘ugliest man on campus’ poll. Her friend Powell St. John (of Waller Creek Boys) could see that she was devasted by this, later commenting that the cruel joke “had crushed her…saddest thing I ever saw. To that point I’d never seen Janis cry. Janis had a very tough exterior, but it really got to her. Got to her bad.” (George-Warren). It must have seemed to her that the world she’d tried to leave back in her hometown had followed her to college only to continue to mock and bully her. She would leave for San Francisco soon thereafter, hoping to shake off those Texas blues.
But her first trip to San Francisco did not end well. Friends she’d met in the big city, fearing for her life, bought her a one-way bus ticket back to Port Arthur and she moved back in with her parents, emaciated from drug abuse. Back home and on the mend – physically, anyway – she abandoned her music in an effort to go straight. She got engaged to a con man who kept her hanging on the hopes of a respectable life until he ultimately vanished. Joplin hit rock bottom yet again. Full of shame and self-loathing, she was only 22 years old.
Ultimately, she picked herself up and tried one more time to do what she loved best when a friend told her about a band back in San Francisco, Big Brother and the Holding Company, who were auditioning for a female singer. Of course, for all of us, the rest is history. But things never really improved for the lonely girl who needed love and acceptance. Her sudden rise to fame with Big Brother only led to calls for her to leave the band and pursue a solo career with A-list musicians, versus sticking with what was in comparison, a garage band. But the guys in Big Brother had been the only real family she’d known since leaving Austin.
She lost all of that when she reached for the golden ring, quitting the band to sign with Columbia records. As David Getz of Big Brother described it, “she started to lose her emotional honesty, (and) started to become something that people expected of her, a caricature of what she was and play it for people.” San Francisco had been the first place where Janis felt at home and when she left Big Brother, she lost what little grounding she had. (Amy Berg)
It’s no wonder that Janis was drawn, indeed clung, to the blues. Janis was always on the outside looking in, never quite fitting into white America’s myth about itself. Janis didn’t just play the blues, or even live the blues, she was the blues – a figure of interminable longing and loneliness: the blues incarnate. And just like the music, she could be upbeat and full of brashness and bravado, but this was just a brittle veneer hiding a soft center of insecurities and alienation.
Things didn’t really change for Janis, even at the very apex of her career, when the people who gathered to hear her sing for beer at the gas station were replaced by cheering throngs at a sold-out show in London’s Royal Albert Hall. She once remarked in a moment of sad candor, “It was like making love being on the stage, but it’s an illusion and when the show’s over, the audience leaves, and you’re left with yourself”.(Berg). She wrote a letter to her family at the height of her commercial success revealing that her ambition wasn’t for money or fame but instead, “just for love, lots of love” (Berg).
Here’s wishing you lots of love Janis Joplin, wherever you may be singing the blues.