In August 1968, I was an insecure 15-year-old waiting for my junior year to begin at my suburban prep school. As a teen, I never was in the groove, as the cool kids of the day were wont to say (unaware the slang was 50 years old even then). Nonetheless, while I assumed I forever would remain outside the In Crowd’s innermost circle, I tried to keep at least aware of current music, movies, and pop culture trends so as not to be a hopeless square; the term “geek” had not been appropriated from carnie vocabulary yet. So, on the music side, I bought and played the vinyl of Cream’s Wheels of Fire with its signature hit “White Room,” Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow (“White Rabbit) and Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends (“Mrs. Robinson”), among other albums. To my surprise, I liked most of them (certainly all three named), though I retained affection for Eric Burden’s already fading star. (Actually, I still like Eric, who continues to record.) I didn’t splurge on Jimi Hendrix until the next year, and then kicked myself for waiting.
In August ’68, however, I slipped a new vinyl album out of its jacket, which was covered with the artwork of Robert Crumb. The album had been getting some buzz. It was Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and the Holding Company. The lead singer was Janis Joplin, whose California notoriety had been given a national boost by articles in Time the previous April. I fitted the record onto the stereo turntable and watched the diamond needle drop. I wasn’t sure I liked what I was hearing in the first number, “Combination of the Two” – a peculiar psychedelic rocking-blues sound with mindless lyrics – but the second track, “I Need a Man to Love,” intrigued me, as did Janis’ rendition of “Summertime.” The fourth number, “Piece of My Heart,” which became her first big hit, blew me away. I flipped over the vinyl disc (literally and figuratively) and listened until the end of "Ball and Chain" when the Fillmore West staff can be heard dismissing the audience. It was rare then, as it is now, for me to sit through an album – I don’t mean as background music but as the center of attention – from start to finish without a break. I did with Cheap Thrills, and not for the last time.
Popular music in 2010 tends to be technically polished and very visual, typically with jaw-droppingly attractive singers and dancers; the elaborately choreographed imagery often is far more memorable than the sound or lyrics, which range from airy to cynical to downright brutal. This is so unlike the 1960s. It is certainly unlike the un-pretty yet appealing Janis, who, in frowzy attire, simply walked on stage and sang her heart out. She was rough, ragged, unpolished, and very effective. Most of her songs are about giving 100% to love and facing the pain when that goes wrong, as it almost always does. There is something about this romantic excess which appeals especially to adolescents – and to those who retain an adolescent spirit into later life. (In this context, I for once don’t use the term “adolescent” as an insult.) It appealed to me in 1968, and four of her cds are on my shelf today.
Janis belonged so much to her time that it is hard to see many teens today being able to relate to her. But could a similar rough-cut give-it-your-all blues singer of this generation find an audience alongside the highly produced likes of Katy Perry or Lady Gaga? I don’t know. Hey, I was playing catch-up in 1968, never mind 2010, but maybe the idea isn’t so outlandish.
The dark side to Janis – also very 1960s but not unique to them – was substance abuse, to which, regrettably, she also gave her all. She died, at the age of 27, in October 1970 from a lethal mix of Southern Comfort and heroin.
All this was brought to mind by a recent showing of Janis (1974) on the Ovation Channel, no doubt commemorating the 40th anniversary of her death. For fans of Janis Joplin, this is a wonderful film. It is just Janis in concert interspersed with some interviews. If you’re not yet a fan, this movie probably is too much for too long. Become a fan first. Start with Cheap Thrills, Pearl, or one of the collections such as The Essential Janis Joplin. Then, maybe, you’ll be ready for the movie.
So, tonight I’m toasting Janis (Southern Comfort without the mixer), to Kozmic Blues.
Janis singing "Get It While You Can" on the Dick Cavett Show in June 1970, four months before her death.