Janis Joplin is gone, by now just one more we’ve seen succumb in the public arena of the pop marketplace. It’s not just that this kind of early death has become a fact of life that is disturbing, but that it’s been accepted as a given so quickly. We’re getting to the point where we merely anticipate between exits, idly wondering which will be the next among our “heroes” to go. And caring less all the time.
I don’t know which is worse, the cannibalistic impulse of the public and the pop music industry which mutually encourage artists in disintegration because that’s the flash and we really do think that someone else can live our lives and deaths for us, or the sickly, not to say sickening, spate of “Eulogies” and “Memorials” and “Remembrances” which sweep the pop press as soon as another star done gone. But perhaps they are the same thing.
Because as soon as another Name’s dead, the slick magazines and tabloids alike get out their plumes and their crying towels and indulge in all sorts of disgusting bathetic paeans to the deceased. But unfortunately, they almost invariably pay tribute not to the actual person but to the self-consuming myth, the larger-than-life persona which had no more than a marginal existence in the first place and ballooned so that eventually it dwarfed the person carrying it around: The composers of the Memorials make sure that we will keep on worshiping exactly that lie which contributed so heavily in almost every case to the desperate, self-consumption which killed the Name. They almost never write, on the other hand, and the public almost never comes to understand, anything about the real, different, scared individual behind the flash and its bluff. Maybe it just doesn’t make good copy.
Janis Joplin was the most tragic example of this; even if you didn’t much care about her music, her death came as a shock. Following so close upon the heels of Hendrix’s undoubtedly had something to do with it. But there is something more, namely the fact that Janis Joplin was almost totally helpless, a true waif adrift in the world, and after a certain point anyone with enough interest in the pop scene to read this paper could have sensed it. Many did, I suppose. Others just remarked on how her singing got worse, more raspy and out of control all the time, and wished that damn yammering bitch would just go away. After all, we were the ones who had her hype splashed in our faces, Janis The Spirit Of The Blues, Janis The Spirit Of Bessie Smith, Janis on the cover of Newsweek magazine and represented inside as what We (“we”?) were all about. Janis Suffering, Drinking, Going Through Changes And Searching For The Right Band and The Right Man, her every swig and sigh duly recorded and preserved for the Fans who like to saturate themselves in it.
Those of us who didn’t and might also have been rather hypersensitive about having our noses rubbed in hype for months on end, well, it was only natural that we should resent her to some degree. Except that she had nothing to do with it. She was as helpless as we were, no, far more so, and as the nebulous machine manipulated us both for the sake of a little mythic diversion and a lot of money, something eventually had to give. We finally tossed our papers aside, not having to live anything except our own obscure (and thus free) lives any way but vicariously, and Janis went on for as long as the private life and body behind the giant manikin could hold out.
When she died, it suddenly became obvious not only that we had collaborated greedily with the media in the cannibalization of the living star, but that that happened quite naturally, and would happen again, because that is the way the business works. There are people who live public lives and use themselves up with the full knowledge of what they are doing and why. They understand the dynamics of self-destruction and the roles they are expected to play, and acquiesce in the process to whatever degree they find comfortable. They know they are going to lose themselves, but don’t care, because they’ve shed enough of their humanity to be totally objective about it. But Janis never knew when she was losing herself because she was never sure that she had herself in the first place.
Janis had a capacity to feel which would ensure that she was never quite as numb, hence never riding as easy, as so many of the others–those stars who have handled themselves with the kind of terrible coldness summed up in remarks made by Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead to this magazine on the night she died. Garcia opined that it wasn’t as bad as it looked, because death was just another phase, like life, and everybody knew she was going to die and besides everybody dies sooner or later anyway. Pigpen, on the other hand, declared that he was going to have a one-man wake in her memory at some indeterminate point in the future, and just get some Southern Comfort and get righteously fucked-up, because that’s how Janis would have wanted it.
From talking with people who were around her at various times, one gets an impression far different from that conveyed by the press before and after her death. Far from being a romantically doomed figure, she is described as a nervous, insecure young girl, dazed, giddy, unable to sit still for more than a few seconds at a time or, often, maintain a conversation with anyone. One gathers she was constantly vacillating between noisy attempts to make sure that she would remain the center of attention wherever she was, and recoiling in defensive fright when she was that center. She often responded to whomever happened to be around her, whether they wanted anything from her or not, with random insults and jerky bursts of nervous emotion and random hostility whose expression was never quite completed, and hardly needed to be rationalized. Certainly she was not like this all the time, but it was a part of her makeup, and was just as much Janis Joplin as the flamboyance, drinking and total submergence-in-blues myth.
The latter was simply easier to meld–more marketable–while the former person, well, fuck, the public doesn’t wanna know from that. They can see it at home, and even if they can’t it would only be a bringdown, and the point of the whole lifestyle and the business interests around it is to prevent bringdowns at all costs. Charlie Perry’s ROLLING STONE account of Winterland on the night she died is one of the most telling documents on the counterculture, recording not only the Dead’s priceless reactions but the picture of a room full of hip cultural leaders and Janis’ friends as well, where the only person crying was a reporter from a straight daily, and he was asked to leave because he was “bringing everybody down.”
It seems certain that whatever else she might have been, Janis was unquestionably a victim. And not even in the sexual-politics sense of “Women Is Losers,” though that too. She was a victim of her own confusion, the inhumanity of money and the inhumanity of the hip culture which is every bit as cold as that which it’s self-righteously rejected.
Joplin in Concert is probably going to be the last Janis Joplin album, and I for one am glad. Because for the most part it is not pleasant to listen to, not because the music is bad (although much of it is rather second-rate), but because listening to it you can remember and see a person disintegrating before your very eyes. Her erosion is graphically represented on these two discs. When side four is finished, you look again at the pictures of Janis on the jacket, distinctly non-tragic pictures which capture perfectly her image as one of the People With Style who held sway at a certain time and seemed to be everything we believed in and wanted to be: exciting, colorful, high, moving easily through various strata of society, living with true flair. And not only is it saddening to remember believing in that, but it’s impossible now to believe even in the single person you see here, to believe that this was Janis. A face of Janis, a poster of Janis, a part of Janis, but so disturbingly counterbalanced by the picture of the complete individual which has begun to emerge since her death, as to be at best irrelevant, at worst to give you the creeps.
On the record, we hear her as she gradually passes from the tailend of the initial exuberant phase with Big Brother, through the jarring difference between that on-stage persona and what emerges immediately in the Full-Tilt Boogie Band tapes, on which we hear a disoriented and thoroughly pathetic individual and a music whose raggedness is made even less palatable by the breakdown and sense of strain behind it. The most unsettling part of all is the between-song raps, nervous but exhilarated and riding the crest with Big Brother, disjunct and disparate with the Boogie Band, working unhappily at playing a role that was obviously eating her alive but was, after all, the only one she had.
* * *
Big Brother opens the album with a bang, a rush of metal thunder in “Down On Me,” recorded at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit. Everyone is having a ball no matter how sloppy the music gets; in fact its sense of errant energy with no place to go but up is part of its power. Janis, the band, the audience, all feeding off of each other and giving back as much as they can of what they get. James Gurley’s guitar solo is one of his best on record, as searing a storm of noise as that in “Ball and Chain” on Cheap Thrills, but speeded up, directed with a kind of joyous fury at an audience who couldn’t get enough of it.
“Piece of My Heart,” also from the Grande tapes, is just as good: ragged but right. In some ways Janis’ delivery of this song here lacks the concentrated fire and pain of the earlier tak