Janis Joplin would have been seventy five years old on Friday. It seems impossible to think of her as ever being that old. It also seems impossible that all this time later, she would still have been that young, that all that was effectively only yesterday. She died, as everybody knows, as the great wave of “the sixties” broke, leaving the debris of those whose vulnerability as well as talent seemed to define that still extraordinary era.
Even at the time, there was something of an air of ritual inevitability about it. First there was Jimi…then a few weeks later there was Janis…then Jim Morrison a few months after that. All damaged, all publically bearing their wounds to the hungry world, all burning out with a rapidity contiguous with the brightness of that burning. All 27, of course, famously, and all, too, in the process of renegotiating the congruence of personal, cultural and world history that focussed on their unready persons, and devoured them raw.
In Janis’s case, there was never anything private about what was happening to her. Heart on her sleeve wasn’t in it. The whole basis of her sudden fame had lain in what she had represented as female, freaky and young. Bewildered hurt was what she did, it was her schtick. In the way she sang, tearing at herself to find and display her damage, in her rambling but poetically focussed monologues in between songs on stage, in her alternately reckless and needy personal relationships, at any time and place, Janis Joplin would have been a troubled soul, dangerous to know, or know too well. But it took a very particular time and place to take her out of the provincial, hip coffee bars of Austin, Texas, and make her personal pain into the global cultural commodity that it was…and still is.
What happened, basically, upon the discovery by corporate America that there was money to be made out of “rebellion”, was that the outcasts and losers…they self-identified as freaks…who have always and will always be on the failed fringes of home owning consumerism, were handed guitars and money and the very best of them conquered the world. Whenever you watch film of them, something like the Band’s great, elegiac concert movie, The Last Waltz, for example, you find yourself thinking, “would any one of these funny looking fuck ups have been signed to a record label at any other time in history?” The answer is probably “no.” It was a particular moment of cultural dislocation combined with economic expansion that brought these culturally dislocated people into the economic mainstream. For a giddy year or two, in their early and mid-twenties, still children, really, with the Beatles at the top of the pyramid, these glorious inmates had the run of the asylum…and produced what are still some of the most arresting and brilliant “moments” in the history of popular culture.
The version of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain” on Janis’s “breakthrough” album with big Brother and the Holding Company is one of the musical highlights of the century for me, never mind of the decade. A voice breaking into chords over Sam Houston’s visceral, tearing guitar, reinventing the personal in the appropriation of a black woman’s blues by a young white woman that, for me anyway, transcends a later era’s cross-cultural queasiness through the sheer force of that individual witness. It couldn’t have happened before the moment that it did happen. And it sure as hell couldn’t have happened afterwards.
The dumb accidental tragedy of her death, which is brought to mind by thinking of her as alive today - a cackling, life affirming firebrand of a certain age, on her fourth marriage to a younger guy with a hell of a stock of memories and who can tell what other achievements - is that like all the icons born in the first half of the forties who burned brightly in the sixties, she was in the process of re-negotiating her own life. They were all doing it, that whole generation who suddenly found themselves nearer to thirty than twenty…
Some reinvented themselves as corporations in their own right, some found a niche in the rather quieter, less dangerous world of jazz or country rock (Janis was heading in that direction). But every change, as in the case of the Beatles, had a price of breaking something. Perhaps it was easier if you in a group, that you had to break up the gang…or turn it into a brand… in order to survive into adulthood.
And maybe somewhere in there is where we find the real link between members of the 27 club. Not so much in their numerology as in their singularity, their isolation. Janis changed bands three times in three studio albums, but it is in her unaccompanied “Mercedes Benz” song that she most wistfully yet definitively sang to us of her plight. Unable to fit in with what she had been, and with her very existence defined by her being estranged from herself, she called herself and her last Album by the name of a black prostitute, , “Pearl.”
That her she destroyed herself just at a time when she had put the worst of her self-destructiveness behind her, and that her lonely death on a hotel room floor is so synonymous with her very real achievements as a musician is every bit as much our tragedy as much as it is hers. It would have been better for all of us if that remarkable person still lived on, rather than what we do have left of her…the comparatively cheap currency of a legend.