January 20, 1943– Janis Joplin:
“You know you’ve got it, if it makes you feel good.”
An indelible icon of the 1960s, and a sort of Gay Icon too, Janis Joplin had affairs with women, men, and Southern Comfort. She would cruise the streets of Los Angeles in a groovy Porsche 365 Cabriolet that was painted in far-out psychedelic designs.
I never saw her in concert, and I didn’t drop acid with her. I did see the concert film of Monterey Pop (1968), concert film by the great D. A. Pennebaker, where she certainly makes an impression as the lead singer of the then little-known San Francisco psychedelic band Big Brother And The Holding Company. I only owned a single Janis Joplin album, Pearl (1971), yet I still instantly recognize her voice, her style, and her songs. I can conjure up her image on my own personal hard drive. I like to think that if she had been alive today, for her 79th birthday, she would be enjoying the success of her new album of standards, including her duet with Barbra Streisand on Irving Berlin‘s Sisters.
She appeared at Woodstock in the summer of 1969, and the film of the festival, Woodstock (1970), and on the Festival Express train tour and the film of that 1970 train tour across Canada taken by some of North America’s most popular bands, including the Grateful Dead, The Band, and the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Five singles by Joplin reached the Billboard Hot 100, including a cover of Kris Kristofferson‘s Me And Bobby McGee, which went to Number One on the charts in March 1971. Her most popular songs include her cover versions of Blues classics Piece Of My Heart, Cry Baby, Down On Me, Ball And Chain, and a soulful version of the George Gershwin‘s Summertime; plus her original song Mercedes Benz (1971), her final recording.
The emotional wounds Joplin endured are not the kind that someone recovers from easily. The worst came from her high school classmates in Port Arthur, Texas. The very opposite of the All-American Prom Queen, Joplin suffered merciless verbal abuse, bullying, and rejection. As a teen, she became overweight and suffered from acne, leaving her with deep scars. Other kids at her high school taunted her, calling her names like “pig”, “freak”, “nigger lover”, and “creep”. This is just one of the reasons she was embraced by queers. She stated:
“I was a misfit. I read, I painted, I thought. I didn’t hate Blacks.”
Joplin was an outspoken advocate for Civil Rights, betraying her Southern roots. She survived by adopting a hippie persona and presenting herself as a naughty bad girl. At the University of Texas in Austin, a fraternity campaigned to elect her the “ugliest man on campus”. Joplin put on a brave face, but how does anyone ever really shake that off?
Joplin’s most vulnerable times followed her high-energy concerts when her band mates went home with the groupies and she found herself all alone.
Her sexual adventures with both men and women never ended well. San Francisco, in its hippie apex, was her salvation and her destruction.
Her stardom was result of hard work. She was ambitious. Her initial idol was Bob Dylan, but she was also influenced by Bessie Smith, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin.
Joplin left Big Brother and that darn Holding Company, but she found it tough to be the head of her own band. Her posthumously released solo album Pearl proved that she was a truly great artist. Joplin had total control of the project and did the arrangements for all the tracks. That album made me think that maybe she was the Rock ‘n’ Roll equivalent of Billie Holiday. Pearl went quadruple platinum, selling more than six million copies. But she didn’t stick around long enough to experience the success. Pearl is still in release and still a bestseller 50 years later.
By early 1969, Joplin was allegedly shooting at least $200 worth of heroin per day ($1400 in 2022 dollars). Joplin’s last public appearances were two 1970 broadcasts of The Dick Cavett Show. In one, she announced that she would attend her 10-year high school class reunion. When asked if she had been popular in school, she admitted that when in high school, her schoolmates: “…laughed me out of class, out of town and out of the state”. The Dick Cavett Show broadcast a month later also featured Gloria Swanson, and Joplin discussed her upcoming performance at the Festival For Peace to be held at Shea Stadium three days later.
Also, that summer, Joplin and Juanita Green, who as a child had done housework for Bessie Smith, paid for a new tombstone to replace Smith’s previously unmarked grave.
In San Francisco in 1963, Joplin met and briefly lived with Jae Whitaker, a Black woman whom she had met while playing pool at a bar in North Beach. Whitaker broke off their relationship because of Joplin’s hard drug use and sex with other people. Joplin also had an on-again-off-again romantic relationship with Peggy Caserta They first met in 1966 when Joplin was performing at a San Francisco club where Caserta was one of 15 people in the audience. She ran a boutique in the Haight Ashbury. Joplin visited the boutique and said she could not afford to buy a pair of jeans that was for sale, asking to put down the first 50 cents on the $5 jeans. Caserta was amazed that such a talented singer could not afford them and gave her the pair. Caserta was in love with a Big Brother guitarist, but he was not into a serious relationship. Joplin sympathized with Caserta’s disappointment and the two women began a romance.
Woodstock, the, film includes 37 seconds of Joplin and Caserta walking together before they reached the tent where Joplin waited for her turn to perform. By the end of Woodstock, they were both intravenous heroin addicts.
Caserta introduced Joplin to friend Debbie Nuciforo, an aspiring drummer who wanted to meet Joplin. Nuciforo was high on heroin at the time. Caserta did not see Joplin again, although she later claimed she had made several attempts to reach her by phone. Nuciforo introduced Joplin her drug dealer. He sold her the dose of heroin that killed her, as Caserta later learned from the drug dealer.
Once she was famous, Joplin swore like a truck driver, did not believe in wearing underwear, was rarely seen without her bottle of Southern Comfort and delighted in playing the role of sexual predator.
In 1970, Joplin made a revealing statement to Richard Hundgen, the Grateful Dead’s road manager:
“I hear a rumor that somebody in San Francisco is spreading stories that I’m a dyke. You go back there and find out who it is and tell them that Janis says she’s gotten it on with a couple of thousand cats in her life and a few hundred chicks and see what they can do with that.“
In 1970, heroin got her. She joined the 27-Year-Old Club along with Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and her spiritual sister, Amy Winehouse.
Her story continues to tantalize Hollywood. Her life is just crying out to be made into a film biopic, but starring who? The Mamas & The Papas‘ song Pearl (1971), from their album People Like Us is a tribute. Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel #2 (1974) is about Joplin. Jerry Garcia‘s Birdsong from his first solo album, Garcia (1972), is about Joplin and her death. Mimi Farina‘s In The Quiet Morning (1972), covered by Farina’s sister Joan Baez, is also a tribute to Joplin. Serge Gainsbourg‘s sad song (recorded by Jane Birkin), Ex Fan Des Sixties (1978), references Joplin along with Hendrix, Jones and Marc Bolan.
The film The Rose (1979) is inspired by Joplin’s life. Originally planned to be titled Pearl, the film was fictionalized after Joplin’s family declined to allow the producers the rights to her story. Bette Midler earned a nomination for the Academy Award for her performance in the film.