Elvis said, "You can't know another man's struggles 'til you've walked a mile in his shoes." Well, I've been walking for miles and miles in Janis Joplin's shoes and the only person I've gotten to know better is myself.
Janis Joplin epitomized creative freedom because she and her musicians were not confined by musical style or the need to be successful. The counter culture of San Francisco in the late 60s was the fertile ground that grew so many wild artists searching for truth and meaning through creative expression, not fame. Janis wanted to transcend her physical and self conscious boundaries when she was onstage. She and Big Brother weren't about being perfect, they were about being present. They were about, like the bop in jazz that proceeded them, being in the moment; creating, stretching, bending and thrusting the moment forward or holding it back, the freedom of trusting the connection.
Janis has taught me not to perform, but to act. To play with each consonant and tone to find more shades of feeling as the lyrics or the monologue hang like ripe fruit to pick. She has taught me to be really in charge, and to be comfortable naked in front of an audience. Janis has taught me to stop worrying about what everyone else on that stage is doing and just sing, sing like I have nothing else left.
"Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." Kris Kristofferson gave that, or pinned that, to Janis Joplin. I get to live that when I jump on stage to channel her. I get to live her uncompromised passion for inner freedom. And I've discovered that the only place to find it is in my heart.
I'm a born and bred New Yorker who cut my teeth as an African drummer, and worked my way through the ranks of jazz, emulating Milt Jackson, Max Roach and Thelonius Monk on their various instruments. I listened to Janis and Big Brother as a drummer, as a songwriter, not as a singer or soloist.
When Gigi Gaston, the writer and director of Room 105, said, "You are going to play Janis Joplin," I should have said, with Janis exuberance, "Hell no!" But I said hell yes. I knew I wanted, needed, to climb Mount Everest, and being Janis is that challenge.
To my surprise, I have much more in common with Janis Joplin than I knew. She loved to read, and discuss everything she read and experienced like a Sophist. She had discipline when it came to her art. She began as a painter, but when she discovered that her voice moved people, riled people, impressed people, she honed it like a Callas. She loved the Chili at Barney's Beanery, cheap hotels and cheap shoes. Men, women and sex. She laughed all the time, in spite of her pain, insecurities and innate seriousness. (Her cackle is legendary, and her sister says she developed it to annoy the kids who bullied her in school.) She wouldn't let anyone define her, and she abhorred labels.
I also now have some of her closest friends in common: Donny Hoyt, Peggy Casserta and Dave Archer. They are not my friends like they were Janis', but they have helped me find Janis, and have shared such fabulous and intimate stories with Gigi Gaston and I, that I feel Janis' love and blessing, in bringing her back to West Hollywood. Janis' world can never be repeated, and I am so lucky that I have been included in the oral telling of it.
Of course the greatest American artists were her palette; Big Mamma Thorton, Jimmy Johnson, Lead belly, Odetta, Jack Kerouac and so many more, but after imitating and studying them, she allowed her ears, her soul, to play off James Gurly's guitar and transform into something no one had ever heard before.
In studying Janis and her influences, I was blown away by the personal discoveries I made about the evolution of her style. I use those keys to open up and let her out inside of me so I don't have to imitate her -- so I can improvise as if I'm channeling her. It's a phenomenal freedom she has given me. I am so grateful to Janis Joplin for the master class in being present with heart and balls.
I've also learned to love California as she did, and I see her here, in Venice, West Hollywood, and of course in Frisco. I understand how it gave her the space and acceptance to expand herself, even though Port Arthur, Texas, molded her. Janis really loved Texas, and her family, but like Sal Paradise in Kerouac's On The Road, she was, "mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time." Janis was also mad to be loved, and that's really why she had to leave Texas and hitch to California like a "regular old beatnik on the road." If she had lived, she would have been mad to love herself, and that's where we come in.
Read more about Room 105 here on the play's website.
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