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Janis Joplin, forever young and forever tragic

There's no telling what kind of music Janis Joplin would have gravitated toward in her old age. The life she lived precluded any thought of old age, anyway. She might have gone on to be one of the greatest blues singers ever, like her early heroes. Realistically, though, her voice was already shot by the time she reached stardom.

By Mike Greenblatt

To understand Janis Joplin, you must first understand Port Arthur, Texas, — a small industrial town, a violent town, a town where the heat gets overpowering and the mosquitoes are more than an inch long. There are no shades of color in Port Arthur, only oppressive conservatism, where anything out of the ordinary is viewed with disdain. It’s good vs. bad, right vs. wrong. Townsfolk are proud to perpetuate tradition, “their daughters proper ladies, their sons Southern Gentlemen” (according to “Buried Alive,” the 1977 Joplin biography by Myra Friedman).

If you’re male, you graduate Port Arthur High School, you go to nearby Lamar State College, you prepare for a career in the oil industry. If you’re female, you get married and have babies. At least, that’s the way it was in the late 1940s and most of the 1950s.
Janis Lyn Joplin was born in 1943 to a mom who worked at the college and a Texaco engineer dad. The family (which included younger siblings Michael and Laura) regularly attended services at the local Church Of Christ. As Janis grew up, she found the town a hellhole — a stifling, uncreative, living nightmare. She was a loner and a misfit, ridiculed on a daily basis at school for her acne, her weight, her perceived ugliness. She took to writing poetry and just staying the hell away from everybody.

“As a blight on an adolescence that was already rocky enough, Janis lost what prettiness she had in those ways so judged by children. Her chubbiness bloated to a hefty bigness; she developed a terrible skin condition, far beyond anything that could be termed a teenager’s siege of acne ... Janis herself withdrew, self-conscious and shamed,” Friedman wrote.

Janis Joplin Jim Marshall photo

Photographer Jim Marshall captures the real Janis in this unguarded moment backstage. The Marshall-signed photo sold for $1,493.75 via Heritage Auction on Dec. 13, 2011. Photo courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries.

Janis found kindred spirits in the town’s outcasts, five boys who would do things considered outlandish like climbing the water towers, smoking cigarettes and listening to records by Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Leadbelly, Odetta, Big Mama Thornton and Billie Holiday. She began to vocally excoriate her teachers and community to the point she was ridiculed in the halls. School became a deeper hell, and her response was to flaunt her differences. Her hair and clothing got wilder. Her attitude became aggressive and confrontational. Yet she cried herself to sleep every night.

After enrolling in Lamar State, Janis transferred to the University of Texas at Austin, where she first learned how to make her uniqueness work. Playing an autoharp and patterning herself after the long-ago, far-away, red-hot blues mamas she so loved, her first attempt at recording was her own “What Good Can Drinkin’ Do” in 1962. A voracious reader, she plowed through all of the beat poets and took off for San Francisco in 1963, where her heroin habit and use of speed increased. San Francisco in the 1960s was exploding with youthful talent and revolutionary bands. Janis fit right in.

After one more attempt to return home and “do the right thing,” she was lured back to the West Coast by Chet Helms, a fellow Texan and successful Frisco promoter who was managing the up and coming Big Brother & The Holding Company. With Big Brother, Janis found everything she ever wanted. Within the band context, she flourished, and the stage became her sanctuary. She took to stardom like a thirsty lost soul in the desert finding an oasis of water. She even accepted an invitation to go back to Port Arthur for her 10-year high school reunion just so she could show those bastards who laughed her out of town that she was a big rock star.

Sam Andrew Big Brother and The Holding Company

Sam Andrew was a guitarist for Big Brother and The Holding Company when Janis Joplin came aboard as the group's singer. He also was among the musicians with whom Joplin had a relationship. Photo courtesy Sam Andrew.

In California, Janis had it all, and she had it all so fast. She dove in headfirst. Sex, drugs, folk-blues, men, women — anybody, anything, any time. She wanted to get it while she could, do anything if it felt good. But no matter what Janis did, she wasn’t satisfied. The shadow of Port Arthur hovered over her like a buzzard over a rotted corpse. In her effort to find love, which would be the main plot of her life, she fell for lowlife creeps. In fact, she couldn’t be herself with men. She’d get giggly and nervous.
Janis would go into bars, pick up her “pretty young things” and show up at rehearsals the next day with them. Her celebrity conquests were endless: Joe Namath, Dick Cavett, Jim Morrison (whom she slugged over the head with an empty bottle of Southern Comfort when he pulled her hair), Country Joe McDonald (who truly loved her), Kris Kristofferson, Leonard Cohen, Big Brother guitarist Sam Andrew.

“Sure, I loved her,” Andrew told Goldmine. “I mean, hell, we got along so well. We were tight, man. Tighter with each other than with anyone else in the band. We got along right from the start. I understood her. She reminded me of my mother in a lot of ways. My mom’s also from Texas. I understood the true Janis, and, to this day, I’m kind of at odds with some of the other guys in Big Brother about her. I could anticipate her every motivation.”

Janis sang with Andrew and the rest of Big Brother & The Holding Company from 1966 to 1968. The group’s self-titled debut landed in 1967’s Summer of Love. Its follow up, ���Cheap Thrills,” came out a year later and made Janis a star.

Janis Joplin with Big Brother and The Holding Company

Publicity photo courtesy Columbia.

When Janis left Big Brother, Sam followed, and they reunited in the Kozmic Blues Band. But their sexual relationship didn’t occur until much later.

“It was only after she fired me from Kozmic Blues Band,” he recalls. “We had a brief little fling. Boy, it was intense, though. Up to that point, I had always stayed away from having relationships with singers, because it’s hard enough to be in a band with one. She fired me. She asked me back. Then I quit. Something like that.”

In answering the question of why he was fired, Andrew pauses. When he speaks again, his voice is softer, lower and the words come out slowly.

“We set out to write more songs together and create this great soul band, and it just didn’t happen the way we envisioned it,” he says. “We didn’t write any songs. There was a real deadly phase at that time of way too much drug use and distractions. Neither one of us was writing. That was the main problem. It wasn’t a good period for either of us. It was like a divorce. Have you ever been divorced?”

When I answer in the affirmative, he continues.

“She was extremely insecure. I think a lot of performers are that way, but she was that way more than most. I don’t even think she knew where that line was,” he says. “She was, actually, an intellectual. It’s complicated. The image of the tough blues mama and the reserved intellectual doesn’t have to be diametrically opposed. She was both. She was incredibly complex. She was whichever one she needed at the moment. That’s who would come forth.”

Janis Joplin David Gahr

By the time she was recording "Pearl," Janis Joplin had built up her armor — jewelry, sunglasses, feathers and a devil-may-care attitude. David Gahr/Sony Music.

When Janis left to form The Kozmic Blues Band, she was doing hundreds of dollars worth of heroin per day. The 1969 album, “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!” was uneven, but it still showed flashes of brilliance.

With “Pearl,” Janis finally put it all together to create a masterpiece.

“She was recording,” Andrew recalls. “The sessions were going great. She had a great band. She was going to make a family out of that band. Like Big Brother. It never really happened with Kozmic Blues. All systems were go.”

And then, it was all over.

On Oct. 4, 1970, tour manager John Byrne Cooke spotted Janis’ psychedelically-painted Porsche in the parking lot of The Landmark Hotel. She had been late to a recording session after having laid down her vocals for “Mercedes Benz” just days prior. Cooke found her on the floor of her room, dead from a heroin overdose.
She was 27.

“I was shocked. Terrified,” he recalls. “Yet, I knew it was inevitable with her. I used to go over to her house even though I wasn’t playing with her anymore; we’d hang out, talk. I knew all her friends. It was hard.”

Janis’ friends and family, as per her wishes, had a hell of a party celebrating her life with the $1,500 Janis left for just such an occasion.

After receiving word of Janis’ death, Andrew and other members of Janis’ social circle gathered at Big Brother drummer Dave Getz’ house to talk about what she meant to each of them.

Janis Joplin Associated Press

Janis Joplin loved to party in life, and she wanted to make sure her friends and family sent her out right. She left $1,500 to be used specifically for a party following her death Oct. 4, 1970. Associated Press photo.

“It’s a very common thing for people who do drugs to think, ‘Well, I’m clean now. I’m not using. I’ve successfully kicked the habit. I’ll do this one last time.’ That’s what happened to her. And she died. It’s simple really. I think that’s what happened to Jerry Garcia, too. Happens a lot,” he said.

It happened to Jimi Hendrix and Canned Heat singer Alan “Blind Owl” just a few weeks before. And it likely contributed to the death of The Doors’ Jim Morrison less than a year later.

Cooke acknowledges that it wasn’t always easy being Janis’ manager — and by extension, accountant, nurse, baby sitter, policeman and therapist.

“You’re on call 24 hours a day,” he said. “I wouldn’t say Janis abused my availability … I did have some time that was my own — mostly when I was asleep.”
But he has plenty of good memories, too.

“My favorite memories of working with Janis are the summer of 1970, when we were touring with her new back-up band, Full Tilt Boogie,” Cooke said. “Janis was happy with the band, happy with the new songs in her repertoire, and she seemed to be on the way to conquering her bad habits. That fall, recording in Los Angeles with Full Tilt Boogie, Janis was happy in the studio for the first time. She formed a creative relationship with her new producer, Paul Rothchild, and what she was learning from their work together gave her new optimism about her future.”