Janis Joplin sang old-soul blues in a raspy voice that slithered and surged effortlessly yet precisely through folk, through jazz, through psychedelic rock. She should have been turning 71 this weekend, approaching the age of old souls. She should still be crooning swamp blues in some dive bar just over the Texas-Louisiana state line. Instead, she's going to be on a U.S. Postal Stamp.
The Postmaster General announced this past Friday that Joplin will be the next Forever Stamp in the Music Icons Series. The news arrived just in time for the January 19 birthday of Joplin, who died at the tender age of 27.
Joplin never quite knew what to make of her great gift. Egotistical, self-important and outspoken, she was forever socially insecure, uncertain of the true in her talent and, on those occasions when most certain, doubting others would validate it. She yearned simply to be loved. She yearned more fantastically -- since the household variety of suburban, white-picket-fence happiness held little appeal -- to be adored. "I make love to 25,000 people every night," she is reputed to have said, "and then go home alone." The subject of a Broadway hit launched this past October (A Night with Janis), already a 1995 inductee into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, forever a tower-of-song voice playing on real FM and Satellite radio stations across the country -- Joplin is perhaps adored now more than ever.
"It would have floored her," says Sam Andrew, contemplating the fame that chases Joplin so many years after her death. Andrew is a founding member of Big Brother and the Holding Company, the band with which she recorded two studio albums, including the 1968 gold LP Cheap Thrills, one of those essential records every American music fan ought to own. "She thought we would be around, we all did, maybe five years, and then have to find something else to do with our lives."
Joplin inspired an entire generation, as the voice of the hippie counter-culture, but also as a symbol from the start for upstart young women then coming of age. "As a rebel, Janis taught us," her biographer Ann Angel recalls, "that it's okay to be unique. You should be willing to stand up for what you believe in. She was a natural leader of women."
"Janis came along, and I could be me," Angel says. As a bookish, artistic kid, often overshadowed by a popular, glamorous older sister, Angel recalls blasting "Ball and Chain" or "Piece of My Heart" from her room, turning on to Cheap Thrills over and over again. With Joplin as guardian angel, or maybe just the precursor to perimeter alarm systems -- since as long as Janis moaned, ached and seared the ears of uninitiated, under-appreciative family members -- Angel could carve out space for her own imagination.
As author of the terrific YA biography Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing, Angel was called on to serve as consultant for the USPS. She reviewed the biography to be issued with the stamp, approved artwork and weighed in on the final image. The stamp is testimony to a singular voice, an undying spirit.
Of course, Joplin's isn't simply a triumphant tale. She was a troubled soul. It's hard to imagine an untroubled singer of blues, the genre par excellence of troubles, but not all blues singers implode so fantastically. Joplin fought addiction for much of her all-too-short life. Sometimes she slowed or broke the hold of the drugs, only to be lured in again, most often by alcohol, but also by amphetamines, heroin, LSD and another not-quite-good-enough man or woman. "Man, I'd rather have ten years of superhypermost," she once said in a magazine interview, "than live to seventy sitting in some goddamn chair watching TV."
Joplin's "overnight success" -- according to the formula of rags-to-riches -- came at the Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of 1967. In reality, she had been singing folk and blues wherever and whenever she could for seven years -- in coffee bars, in dive bars; in Lamar, Texas; in Austin; in Los Angeles; briefly in Greenwich Village; most significantly in San Francisco. Obsessed by song as by mood-altering substances, she tried to go cold turkey several times, moving back in with her parents in the small oil-rich town of Port Arthur, Texas. But the draw of music was too great, and the drugs came tumbling after.
She returned to San Francisco in the summer of 1966, joining up with Big Brother and the Holding Company. With a first LP already recorded, with the band slowly gathering laurels for live shows, acid rock jams and Joplin's ripping melodies strung across ethereal guitar feedback, Big Brother took the stage at Monterey. Joplin's performance that day left the crowd stunned. Those vibrato oh-wo-wo-woh's and no-no-no's, Joplin's stuttering, jilted sorrows, those raspy screams held with perfect pitch before sliding into tender, vulnerable high notes -- the range and wonder of her voice bored into the sun-stroked souls of the crowd. Footage from the festival finds Mama Cass in the crowd, famed singer of The Mamas and the Papas, then the biggest American group in the world, with six Billboard Top 5 singles and three Top 5 LPs in 1966 and 1967 alone. And Mama Cass is just shaking her head, wowed, sputtering unimaginatively. "Wow," she says, just "wow." In its retrospective of the year, Rolling Stone featured Joplin on its cover.
Much of the legacy of Monterey, as Ann Angel sees it, was that unsuspecting kids in the Midwest discovered rock 'n' roll. "Janis called us to stand up for what we believed in, she called us to change the world for the better," says Angel. "We became extremely outspoken about the Vietnam War."
Joplin came from an altogether middle-class family. Well-loved even in her most far-out states of being, she could never quite win her parents approval -- how many rockers have? -- of her lifestyle. Earning the approval of high school and college peers in Texas proved harder still. "They laughed me out of class, out of town, and out of the state, man," she remarked at her own expense during a 1970 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show.
Ann Angel emphasizes this part of the story when she speaks to young adults about Janis Joplin. "She demonstrated that you can survive being bullied," says Angel. "When Janis was down, or put down, she came back stronger than ever. I want teenagers to see her strength, talent, and vulnerability."
The vulnerability creeps into Joplin's several television interviews with Cavett, host of the then most popular talk show in the country. Joplin comes across as shy, witty, flirtatious, bantering, yet altogether in sync with the nerdy, nattily dressed, semi-hip Cavett. More important, her raw vulnerability shows up in the intimacy of her voice during performances. It's in the way she nestles against a microphone and burrows inside a song, swaying her hips, stomping her feet, waving her arms at the crowd, desperate to make them feel what she's feeling.
After she left Big Brother late in 1968, Joplin released an LP the next year with her Kozmic Blues Band that was poorly received. One snarky reviewer deemed her already passé, referring to her as the "Judy Garland of rock." oplin, who couldn't get enough of the praise when it came, was as devastated by criticism. In 1969 and 1970 she amped up the drug use. But she mended herself musically, and by the mid-1970s began jamming with her Full Tilt Boogie Band, appearing again on Dick Cavett's show, enjoying the ride. She had developed an alter ego she called Pearl.
On October 3, in the midst of Hollywood studio sessions with her new band, she enjoyed an especially good day's work, then went out for drinks, many, many drinks, before returning alone to her room at the Landmark Motor Hotel. She would be found dead the next afternoon, having od'd on heroin. Not long after, she was assumed into the rock 'n' roll pantheon. A song recorded days before her death, "Me and Bobby McGee," written by former flame Kris Kristofferson, would take Joplin to the top of charts in 1970, only the second posthumous #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100. She graced the cover of Rolling Stone four times from 1967 to 1970, three more times after her death.
Sam Andrew can't help seeing some irony in the fact that a fake version of Janis has been nightly dazzling crowds on Broadway for the last several months. Mary Bridget Davies, recently designated by Broadway.com as one of the 10 best debuts of 2013, is damned good at pretending to be Janis. But Andrew wonders whether Janis could ever have played a role on Broadway.
"I'm just not sure if she auditioned she could land the part," says Andrew. "Some singers can do that, step into role and imitate others. Then there are the singers who can't do it, who can't be anyone else. On stage Janis could only ever be herself."
Joplin's voice stands the test of time, strong and resonant on studio or live recordings. It was such an amazing instrument; she could harmonize with herself. As Andrew says with matter-of-fact admiration, informed by his decades of work in the industry, Joplin always hits her notes. He replays the records every now and then, and Janis sounds better to him today than she did in the late 1960s, her voice independent, cautionary, perfectly true every time. "I realize that even more now than when I was with her," says Andrew. "I was standing right next to her, but I had no idea just what she was doing."
R. Clifton Spargo is the author most recently of the novel Beautiful Fools, The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald.
Start your workday the right way with the news that matters most. Learn more