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Janis: A Reminiscence

A personal glimpse of Janis by one who knew her

February 17, 1972 12:00 AM ET

Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 102 from February 17, 1972. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via All Access, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story . Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus .

Janis is reading, swimming off into a firmament of her own, burrowing into the leaves of Zelda, its jacket a nest of flamelike peacock feathers that glow with greenish patina in her ringed hands, more like a chunky bouquet than a book.

Janis reads a lot, and these books (Tender Is the Night, Look Homeward, Angel, The Crack-Up) that she lugged about with her on her journeys had a curious effect, that almost approached possession, on her subterranean personal life, their words and images, like spores falling on fertile inner tracts, pollinating her daydreams.

Strangely enough, and perhaps fortunately for Janis, all this reading, absorption and general intellectual turn of mind did not intrude on her singing and songwriting, which always remained very basic, gutsy, immediate and devoid of reflection. Her considerable intelligence, in fact, did not prevent her from producing the delicious, brassy and super-corny imagery of some of her songs ("Love Is Like a Carrot" from "Move Over"). She somehow managed to separate the desperately reflective side of her character from her music and her presence on stage. In the quiet hours, however, before going on stage, on planes, in airports and all the vacant moments of life on the road, the tiny roots of sympathy slipped out of the pages and buried themselves in her mind's eye, infusing her waking dreams with the traces of fine summery afternoons or sultry evenings of more than sixty years ago.

Janis opens Zelda to the center where there are photographs of her and Scott, old snapshots and drawings, the comings and goings of a life. Zelda in a ballet costume — ruffles of tulle and ribbon encircle her like a precocious flower. In a little picture entitled "Folly" she is sitting in a field of flowers as if she'd just sprung up. Janis is as familiar with all these hieroglyphs of Zelda's life as she might be of her own. She seems to bounce on and off the pages as if they were little gray mirrors as our eyes walk about the pages. Here's a drawing by Ring Lardner of Zelda that's been glued onto an old newspaper clipping. She is dressed in a winky Petty-girl jazzy coat as she steps onto this unexplained ledge of question marks. On a following page there is a more gloomy image entitled ominously "Recovered." The intense, staring, oscillating eyes, barely able to contain the madness behind them, glare out of a tensely drawn face framed by a short institutional haircut.

What happened before and after these moments, an afternoon in the middle of a field in 1916? They are enigmatic as photos we now have of Janis. Janis is fascinated by and envious of Zelda at the same time, this wild Southern girl named after a gypsy queen in a sentimental novel by her romantic mother, growing up with the century — the automobile, the airplane, all the supercharged cathexis of the American dream, which, similar to Janis's Zelda are magical chimeras bought with the currency of wishes, half fantasy, half object. Janis glumly points out the last photograph of Zelda in the book. Appropriately she is standing rather stiffly in the bucket of a huge crane as if about to be lifted off the earth. "How our love shone through any old trite phrase in a telegram," Scott wrote in one of his jottings collected in The Crack-Up. This sentence is realized in a photograph of Zelda's scrap-book where cables from Scott are pasted like little white clouds with devotional care.

Growing up in the Deep South had a lot to do with the concreteness of Janis's vision of herself — the gin-soaked barroom queen from Memphis — because the South with its ruminant, brittle gentility — like Tennessee Williams' vulnerable romantic women whom Janis also resembled — seems to hoard up time, relatively sheltered as it is from the changes of a more fluid society.

Janis also shared with Zelda the almost literary tenets of Southern womanhood, the spirited veneer of the legendary Southern belle with its attendant charades of etiquette that are still a fact of life in the Deep South. They both grew up in this claustrophobic atmosphere with its elaborate anachronistic modes of proper behavior which unconsciously support a delicious irony: that well-brought-up Southern girls grow up under similar halters of tradition and confining social restrictions as the Southern black. It was, perhaps, this perverse affinity that gave such credence to Janis's blues.

Both willful, headstrong girls, at the same time sensitive enough to appreciate the lush romantic tradition that they grew up with, Janis and Zelda were torn between wanting to tear down all the silly pretenses of this feudal society with its faint echoes of Sir Walter Scott tiptoeing about Tara and living gracefully within its many privileges. Such a conflict had one day driven Zelda to write: "... it's very difficult to be two simple people at once, one who wants to have a law to itself and another who wants to keep all the nice old things and be loved and safe and protected."

How did you come to get into this strong identification thing with Zelda?

I always did have a very heavy attachment for the whole Fitzgerald thing, that all out, Full Tilt, Hell Bent Way of Living, and she and F. Scott Fitzgerald were the epitome of that whole trip, right? When I was young I read all of his books; I've reread them all: autobiographies, The Crack-Up, all the little scribblings ... and she was always a mythic person in his life, you also have the feeling that he destroyed her. You always get the feeling that she was willing to go with him through anything and that he ruined her. But in the book you find out that she was just as ambitious as he was, and that they sort of destroyed each other. He wrote her a letter one time in which he says, "People say we destroy each other, but I never felt we destroyed each other, I felt we destroyed ourselves."

Yeah, I've noticed a lot of things you are into are in that 20's and 30's type of thing.

I'm an anachronism, that's what it is.

How did you get that way?

I don't know, man. I mean I'm not a 1930's anything, I'm just a 50's chick, but I suppose my thoughts and fantasies go to that ... more expansive, more abandoned time, you know? Not those coy games people like to play, not like the little flirt games, you know. More like, "Well, boys?" Doesn't seem to be doing me too much good either, but you know, they'll all come around.

Janis was one of these naive people. Being naive has nothing to do with how much you know or read, it is expecting things to happen against all the obvious indications, impossible hopes, expecting things will turn out all right in the end.

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