We love our dead pop icons – frozen in time, perfect (or perfectly imperfect) forevermore, mannequins to hang whatever projections, merchandising, etc. on that we choose, where the mythologizing goes on unabated, the real flesh and blood person conveniently unable to correct or contradict the image crafted by profiteers and a public’s fevered imagination. Many of the most beloved fallen figures – say Marilyn Monroe and James Dean – weren’t actually all that talented, more beautiful creatures with massive charisma and romantically tragic lives that make for fine folklore. However, some early departers are genuinely special and blessed with gifts that make their work crawl inside us in ways others simply cannot achieve. Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison endure not just because of their fucked up lives but because the music they made reverberates with truth and originality – a raw, undiminished spark – each offering a downright sensual discourse that never pussyfooted around the hard stuff of the Human Condition. And while her catalog and time on the public stage was brief, Janis Joplin is the same kind of standout, literally a voice for the ache of living and loving that echoes through to today, where she is still continually cited as the benchmark for women in rock.
Janis wasn’t a pop queen in looks or style, particularly by 1960s mainstream standards, but her obvious moxie, her gruff-but-bruised personality, her primal sexuality, and above all, her barn-burning, powerhouse voice set her apart from the pack very quickly. Anyone who’d ever felt left out, overlooked, or profoundly dejected responded in a visceral way when Joplin moaned, “There is a light but it never shone on me.” She directly engaged rock’s Boy’s Club mentality, which prevailed even amongst the supposedly enlightened hippie class, offering a crooked smile and a very un-ladylike “fuck you” to anyone who suggested she wasn’t where she belonged. She could drink the best of them under the table, and if she grabbed you by the balls you’d go wherever she told you, and likely do whatever she wanted once you got there. Some people have that kind of will to power, and try as we might we’re hard wired as a species to respond to it.
But, it’s ultimately Joplin’s vulnerability that’s key to her continued place in the rock pantheon. She bravely showed us her scars, bled in plain view, and paraded her imperfections in a way that was appealingly unattractive, the ugliness of desire and bad choices dealt with in song, a cry from love’s dark pits that showed resilience even as her legs gave way beneath her. It’s not that Joplin wasn’t afraid of these places in her psyche but she seemed unable to avoid them. Some folks can’t tell a lie no matter how hard they try, and her work shoves thorny reality right down on our heads.
Oh, she could croon, too, as witnessed by her haunting reading of Gershwin’s “Summertime,” a performance that rivals any jazz greats’ treatment. She could have fun, too, and seemed to revel in cajoling men to action in her tunes. While rarely polished – the phrase “ragged but right” could have been coined for Janis – she brings something memorable to nearly every piece in her canon. It’s a rightness another singer would likely never stumble across, something made evident by the myriad imitators of her style that never quite hit the mark like Joplin herself.
When she wept her tears were real. When she ran her hand up your thigh sex dripped from her fingertips – “Try (A Little Bit Harder)” is a sonic cure for erectial dysfunction that no pill can rival. And her laughter was infectious, even when tinged with unmistakable madness. Yes, there’s plenty of fireworks in her performances and a blues-basted spirit Bessie Smith would have loved, but it’s how Joplin’s work feels that makes it stick, makes it prick and pull at us until we shed a little blood right along with her – a tenderizing force in a hard, hard world.
On this day, October 4, in 1970, Janis Joplin was found dead of a heroin overdose. It was an abrupt end to a fast burning life, but like kindred spirits Cobain and Morrison, one always had the sense it would end badly for her. Those that step into our collective pain, our collective longing, our collective inhumanity towards one another rarely emerge unscathed. That we had Janis around as long as we did is a blessing. Hell, she’s a beacon to march towards in our own honesty and attack in our art and expression. That is if we’re sturdy enough to walk in her shoes for a spell.
Though born just two years before her demise, Joplin has been a lifelong love of mine. In my pre-pubescent days when others had Charlie’s Angels bikini shot posters on their walls, I had the Robert Mapplethorpe cover shot from Patti Smith Group’s Horses next to a poster of Janis sticking her tongue out. These are not glamour shots, but their personalities and strengths shone through. They made me want to engage with the world as they had, and yes, they made my young self oddly flushed at times, drawn to things I fully did not understand at 12 but was eager to figure out with a quickness. While the poster is long gone, Janis lingers, a sore spot that never fully heals, and maybe I don’t want it to.