Monday, November 10, 2008

Rock & Roll Heaven: Janis Joplin

It is hard to believe that it has been nearly four decades now. On Saturday, October 3rd, 1970 Janis Joplin had stopped at Sunset Sound Studios in L.A. to listen to the instrumental for a song that she would be recording the following day. She failed to show up on Sunday for that recording.

The producers became upset and sent a roadie to the Landmark Motor Hotel where Janis had been residing since the end of August. He found her custom-painted psychedelic Porsche in the parking lot, and proceeded to her room. No doubt he was likely thinking that the hard partying 27-year old was sleeping off a Saturday night hangover or high.

On entering her room, however, he was stunned to find her dead on the floor where she had collapsed after an overdose of heroin during a night in which she had also been drinking alone. A small, private funeral service was attended by her immediate family, and Janis was cremated with her ashes scattered by plane into the Pacific Ocean and along California's Stinson Beach.

Just three days earlier, on October 1st, she had made what she never realized would be her final recording, a birthday greeting of the song "Happy Trails" for John Lennon. Lennon's birthday was October 9th, and the recording did not reach his home until after Joplin's death. It was like receiving a gift from the grave, the haunting voice of a ghost. But the tragedy of Janis Joplin's death is not that she died so young, with so much talent, and with so much still to offer the world. The tragedy is that Joplin did not have to die. She died thanks to the choice of a lifestyle filled with excessive alcohol and drug abuse.

As a child, Janis' parents had considered her unhappy unless she received excessive attention. As a teen, she rebelled by joining up with an outcast group of friends, and began to listen heavily to blues music. She joined a choir, took up painting, put on weight, and broke out heavily with acne. She had a rough school life, often being taunted and called names, and stated herself that she was "a misfit."

After high school she moved on to college in Texas, but never graduated. Hearing the call of the blues musicians and the 'beat poets' that she stylized herself after, Joplin picked up in 1963 and moved out to San Francisco where she eventually settled in the Haight-Ashbury section that became legendary as the home of the 'flower children' generation. Joplin emersed herself in the music, drugs, and drinking culture, and could keep up with anyone in all three categories. She got heavily into heroin and amphetamines, was known as a 'speed freak', and took a particular fancy to shots of Southern Comfort whiskey.

Thanks largely to what today would be termed an 'intervention' by some friends, Jopline returned to Texas in 1965 and tried to get her life together. She cleaned up physically and in her lifestyle, went back to college, and even got engaged for a short time. But in mid-1966 her life changed for good, and not necessarily for the better, when she was 'discovered' musically by an early hippie band known as 'Big Brother and The Holding Company'. She was persuaded to join the band in June, and they began to tour and record.

Money was tight, however, and by the end of the summer the band had driven back to San Francisco and moved in with members of 'The Grateful Dead' band. Here, Joplin once again got heavily into booze and drugs. Over the next couple of years her band toured and recorded, and Joplin became increasingly popular and famous, with Time magazine eventually dubbing her "the most powerful singer in the white rock movement." The band got their first hit in late 1968 with the song "Piece of My Heart" which rose to and stayed at #1 on the Billboard charts for two straight months, but by the end of the year the problems with egos and substance abuse led Janis to leave the band and embark on a solo career.

Over the next couple of years Janis sank further and further into heroin abuse, but continued to make music and television appearances. In the summer of '69 she appeared at the legendary Woodstock music festival, but by the time she hit the stage after a lengthy wait she was wasted on booze and drugs. In the months leading up to her death, she began a relationship with Kris Kristofferson, and recorded one of his songs titled "Me and Bobby McGee" for an upcoming album. Alas, that album would not be released until after her death, and 'Bobby McGee' became a posthumous hit and legendary signature song.

Janis Joplin became a legend because of her talent and her timing. The talent was the obvious part. The timing involved her particular emergence during a counter-culture revolution for a certain segment of America that embraced drugs, booze, free love, personal irresponsibility, and folk-rock music. That her talent didn't last longer was a direct result of those very same excesses and quirks that enamored her to her fan base during her times.

Joplin's tattoo's, a wristlet and a heart on her breast, became signatures and led to some mainstream acceptance of the art form. Her scarves, beads, and zany hairstyles became as much a part of her image as the drugs and her powerful, gravely voice. Had Janis somehow made it through this period of her life intact, and ultimately lived a normal lifetime, she would be 65 years old right now. Can anyone imagine an aging Joplin still belting out "Piece of My Heart" or "Me and Bobby McGee" as an older woman? That may be a hard image to bring to mind. But more importantly, how much more could Janis Joplin have brought to her public, to us all.

The sad lesson of Janis Joplin's life in the end is not how brightly a star can burn, but how quickly it can be extinguished, especially by it's own means. Is Janis Joplin a lead singer again in some Rock and Roll Heaven? Who knows. But we know this, she died of her own accord, from too much booze and too many drugs, alone on the floor of a dingy California hotel room.

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