I don’t think I’m a very special kind of person. But I don’t think you’ll find another person to try so hard.
For someone who saw herself as ordinary, Janis Joplin was staggeringly influential. Her musical output was prolific; she recorded an album for each year of her short career. The world was rocked by the news of her death at the age of 27, only two weeks after fellow 27 Club member Jimi Hendrix. Joplin’s life and work would later elicit musical tributes from The Mamas & the Papas (‘Pearl’) and Leonard Cohen (‘Chelsea Hotel #2’), as well as winning her a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She has been counted as an influence by artists from Stevie Nicks and Donna Summer to Pink and Florence Welch.
And Joplin’s renown extended beyond the musical sphere: she was a true icon of her time. Robert Rauschenberg (who liked to quip that he and Janis Joplin were the only two people to get out of Port Arthur, their Texas hometown) depicted her in a 1970 silkscreen print alongside Buzz Aldrin, Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy – key players in the politics and culture of 1960s America. She helped to define the counterculture of the decade: known for her dynamic live performances, her breakthrough came at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, and she went on to headline at Woodstock and on the Festival Express.
Joplin had been, by her own admission, an outsider throughout her adolescence: lacking prom-queen good looks, and with a propensity for critical thought encouraged by her parents, she never quite fitted into the social life of Port Arthur. College life at the University of Texas suited her better, although she was shattered when a fraternity voted her ‘ugliest man’ on campus. It was only when she moved to San Francisco that Joplin really hit her stride. Here, in 1966, she met the psychedelic rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company, with whom she went on to record two albums.
[Janis Joplin] perfectly expressed the feelings and yearnings of the girls of the electric generation – to be all woman, yet equal with men; to be free, yet a slave to real love; to [reject] every outdated convention, and yet get back to the basics of life. – from Lillian Roxon’s ‘Rock Encyclopedia’
She was deeply aware of the challenges associated with her gender: the 1967 song ‘Women is Losers’ lamented that ‘men always seem to end up on top’. In both her style of artistry and her behaviour offstage, Joplin threw off the shackles of gender norms and transcended conventional boundaries. She was influenced by the music of black blues artists such as Bessie Smith, Erma Franklin and Big Mama Thornton. Her voice was raw, soulful, and not conventionally pretty; her performances saw her sweat and hang herself out to dry. She carried a bottle of Southern Comfort around with her wherever she went and got into street fights, yet was propelled by a need for affection which saw her embark on intense sexual relationships with both men and women. Her first two years in California were characterised by living to excess: ‘I’d take it, suck it, lick it, smoke it, shoot it, drop it, fall in love with it.’
This reckless abandon was a double-edged sword. Her friends in San Francisco, concerned by her heroin-induced weight loss, staged an intervention in the spring of 1965 and threw a ‘bus fare party’ to send her back to Texas. The initial reformation in her behaviour was short-lived, and she soon found her way back to San Francisco. After a successful stint with Big Brother and the Holding Company, she parted ways from the group in late 1968. Outside the comfortable bounds of band life, Joplin’s drug use again became a cause for concern; by 1969 she was reportedly taking $200 of heroin per day. Her addiction fed into her personal relationships, fuelling her destructive relationship with Peggy Caserta and driving away another lover, teacher-turned-backpacker David Niehaus.
freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose – from ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, Janis’ only number one
Janis Joplin was found dead in a Hollywood hotel room on 4 October, 1970. Her road manager believed she had been given unusually potent heroin that had caused her to overdose. The posthumously-released album Pearl – which took Janis’ nickname as its title – topped the Billboard 200 for nine weeks.
A self-confessed troubled soul and an emblem of 1960s counterculture, Janis Joplin continues to capture the popular imagination. As of late 2016, two rival biopics were in the works: Janis starring Michelle Williams, and the long-slated Get It While You Can with Amy Adams at the helm. Amy Berg’s 2015 documentary, Little Girl Blue, was hailed as insightful and moving. Joplin’s songs seem so perfectly titled to tell the story of her life that it is tempting to credit her with writing her own mythology, but I think she would like to be remembered above all for her complete immersion in her craft, as being ‘Buried Alive in the Blues’.