Like most women singers, Joplin did not write many songs; she mostly interpreted other people's. But she made them her own in a way few singers dare to do. She did not sing them so much as struggle with them, assault them. Some critics complained, not always unfairly, that she strangled them to death, but at her best she whipped them to new life. She had an analogous adversary relationship with the musical form that dominated her imagination – the blues. Blues represented another external structure, one with its own contradictory tradition of sexual affirmation and sexist conservatism. But Janis used blues conventions to reject blues sensibility. To sing the blues is a way of transcending pain by confronting it with dignity, but Janis wanted nothing less than to scream it out of existence. Big Mama Thornton's classic rendition of "Ball and Chain" carefully balances defiance and resignation, toughness and vulnerability. She almost pities her oppressor: "I know you're gonna miss me, baby . . . You'll find that your whole life will be like mine, all wrapped up in a ball and chain." Her singing conveys, above all, her determination to survive abuse. Janis makes the song into one long frenzied, despairing protest. Why, why, why, she asks over and over, like a child unable to comprehend injustice. "It ain't fair . . . this can't be . . . I just wanted to hold you . . . All I ever wanted to do was to love you." The pain is overwhelming her, "draggin' me down . . . maybe, maybe you can help me – c'mon help me." There are similar differences between her recording of "Piece of My Heart" and Erma Franklin's. When Franklin sings it, it is a challenge: no matter what you do to me, I will not let you destroy my ability to be human, to love. Joplin seems rather to be saying, surely if I keep taking this, if I keep setting an example of love and forgiveness, surely he has to understand, change, give me back what I have given.
Her pursuit of pleasure had the same driven quality; what it amounted to was refusal to admit of any limits that would not finally yield to the virtue of persistence – try just a little bit harder – and the magic of extremes. This war against limits was largely responsible for the electrifying power of Joplin's early performances; it was what made Cheap Thrills a classic, in spite of unevenness and the impossibility of duplicating on a record the excitement of her concerts. After the split with Big Brother, Janis retrenched considerably, perhaps because she simply couldn't maintain that level of intensity, perhaps for other reasons that would have become clear if she had lived. My uncertainty on this point makes me hesitate to be too dogmatic about my conviction that leaving Big Brother was a mistake.
I was a Big Brother fan. I thought they were better musicians than their detractors claimed, but more to the point, technical accomplishment, in itself, was not something I cared about. I thought it was an ominous sign that so many people did care – including Janis. It was, in fact, a sign that the tenuous alliance between mass culture and bohemianism – or, in my original formulation, the fantasy of stardom and the fantasy of cultural revolution – was breaking down. But the breakdown was not as neat as it might appear. For the elitist concept of "good musicianship" was as alien to the holistic, egalitarian spirit of rock and roll as the act of leaving one's group the better to pursue one's individual ambition was alien to the holistic, egalitarian pretensions of the cultural revolutionaries. If Joplin's decision to go it alone was influenced by all the obvious professional/commercial pressures, it also reflected a conflict of values within the counterculture itself – a conflict that foreshadowed its imminent disintegration. And again, Janis's femaleness complicated the issues, raised the stakes. She had less room to maneuver than a man in her position, fewer alternatives to fall back on if she blew it. If she had to choose between fantasies, it made sense for her to go with stardom as far as it would take her.
Janis Joplin, I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! (Columbia 9913; *5, 1969). Pearl (Columbia 30322; *1, 1971).
Joplin in Concert (Columbia 33160; *4, 1972). Janis Joplin's Greatest Hits (Columbia 32168; *37, 1973). Janis (Soundtrack) (Columbia 33345; *54, 1975).
Big Brother and the Holding Company, Big Brother and the Holding Company (Mainstream 56099; *60, 1967). Big Brother and the Holding Company,Cheap Thrills (Columbia 9700; *1, 1968).
(Chart positions taken from Joel Whitburn's Record Research, compiled from Billboard Pop and LPs charts.)
But I wonder if she really had to choose, if her choice was not in some sense a failure of nerve and therefore of greatness. Janis was afraid Big Brother would hold her back, but if she had thought it was important enough, she might have been able to carry them along, make them transcend their limitations. There is more than a semantic difference between a group and a backup band. Janis had to relate to the members of Big Brother as spiritual (not to mention financial) equals even though she had more talent than they, and I can't help suspecting that that was good for her not only emotionally and socially but aesthetically. Committed to the hippie ethic of music-for-the-hell-of-it--if only because there was no possibility of their becoming stars on their own – Big Brother helped Janis sustain the amateur quality that was an integral part of her effect. Their zaniness was a salutary reminder that good times meant silly fun--remember "Caterpillar"? – as well as Dionysiac abandon; it was a relief from Janis's extremism and at the same time a foil for it. At their best moments Big Brother made me think of the Beatles, who weren't (at least in the beginning) such terrific musicians either. Though I'm not quite softheaded enough to imagine that by keeping her group intact Janis Joplin could somehow have prevented or delayed the end of an era, or even saved her own life, it would have been an impressive act of faith. And acts of faith by public figures always have reverberations, one way or another.
Such speculation is of course complicated by the fact that Janis died before she really had a chance to define her post-San Francisco, post-Big Brother self. Her last two albums, like her performances with the ill-fated Kozmic Blues band, had a tentative, transitional feel. She was obviously going through important changes; the best evidence of that was "Me and Bobby McGee," which could be considered her "Dear Landlord." Both formally – as a low-keyed, soft, folkie tune – and substantively – as a lyric that spoke of choices made, regretted and survived, with the distinct implication that compromise could be a positive act – what it expressed would have been heresy to the Janis Joplin of Cheap Thrills. "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose" is as good an epitaph for the counterculture as any; we'll never know how – or if – Janis meant to go on from there.
Janis Joplin's death, like that of a fighter in the ring, was not exactly an accident. Yet it's too easy to label it either suicide or murder, though it involved elements of both. Call it rather an inherent risk of the game she was playing, a game whose often frivolous rules both hid and revealed a deadly serious struggle. The form that struggle took was incomplete, shortsighted, egotistical, self-destructive. But survivors who give in to the temptation to feel superior to all that are in the end no better than those who romanticize it. Janis was not so much a victim as a casualty. The difference matters.
This story is from the November 18th, 1976 issue of Rolling Stone.
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