Monday, September 19, 2011
FULL TILT BOOGIE: KOZMIC BLUES OF JANIS JOPLIN
"All caught up in a landslide,
bad luck pressing in from all sides
Got bucked off of my easy ride
buried alive in the blues."
-‘Buried Alive’ from the posthumous Janis Joplin Album ‘Pearl’- She could not complete the vocals
As compared to cocky insouciance of Jim Morrison and voodoo haze of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin’s insecurities about her background, talent and looks were there for all to see. Ironically she was the most rugged stage performer of them all. Jimi and Jim were stage athletes but none of them went after the audience the way Janis did. Her larynx wrenching vocal antics, violent stomping and ubiquitous bottle of Southern Comfort created a tough Blues-mama shell around her. However, her need for appreciation and acceptance was transparent to all. Footage of the Monterey Pop Festival (which also marked introduction Sitar Maestro Ravi Shankar to the West and triumphant home coming of Jimi Hendrix) bears testimony to this naked need. At the end of epoch-making performance we see her milking the applause with all too visible hunger. One can sense her radiance grow by the moment. Everyone loves appreciation but for her it was affirmation of something deeper. "When I go on stage to sing, it's like the 'rush' that people experience when they take heavy dope. I talk to the audience, look into their eyes. I need them and they need me. Sex is the closest I can come to explaining it, but it's more than sex. I get stoned from happiness. I want to do it until it isn't there anymore" She said in 1968. Very soon there wasn’t any more of it. She died alone in a cheap Hollywood Motel of heroin overdose on October 4, 1970 and was discovered hours after her death. She died within three weeks of Jimi Hendrix’s death, like him and Morrison later she too was 27.
Rolling Stone Magazine calls her “perhaps the premier blues-influenced rock singer of the late Sixties, and certainly one of the biggest female rock stars of her time.” She remains a towering presence through her lasting legacy. Her redefinition of Blues and her unique rendition of average songs in her booze and dope ravaged voice are pioneering influences on musical firmament that was developing during her time. Fact of her being prima donna of rock cannot be taken lightly. She was the most visible female singer to front a major band. She endures not just as singer but as an archetype of longing and ambition. Her exalted iconography was sealed in that cheap motel room. Well-timed Photographs by Jim Marshall and strategic video footage added to her aura. She is frozen in public memory as those photographs of free spirit with hovering vulnerability. She looked like that very rarely but these photographs continue to portray the core of the phenomenon that Janis Joplin was – energy, ambition, longing and above all nihilistic lust for death. “People seem to have a high sense of drama about me. Maybe they can enjoy my music more if they think I'm destroying myself” She was quoted in her obituary in Time magazine.
Many of her self doubts may have their origin in her growing up years in the sleepy town of Port Arthur in Texas. It is a refinery town where her father worked. A loner and misfit by the time she entered teens, Janis developed a taste for poetry and painting. She was attracted to blues and folk music. She was to become ‘first hippie’ of the town which was a result of bewilderment on her being rejected as outcast and a rebel. The town and the peers found it difficult to come to terms with her bizarre world view. She often described herself as a ‘weirdo among fools’. She escaped to West Coast when she was 17. Thus began a period of drifting with pot, booze and music. San Francisco was perfect place for her gypsy soul. She was at pains to explain that she was a beatnik not a hippie. Hippies believe the world could be a better place. "Beatniks believe things aren’t going to get better and say the hell with it, stay stoned and have a good time", she propounded. Her links with home were never broken. Her letters to her parents and younger brother and sister reflect a caring person who wanted to remain a part of a nurturing whole. Her pleas to her parents regarding not giving up on her and her intention of continuing her education and advice to her sister portray a surprisingly ‘normal’ Janis yearning for simple order and care of a household- a far cry from a stomping yelling rock diva.
By the middle of 1966, Janis was called by old San Francisco friends who had cobbled together a promising rock band called Big Brother and the Holding Company. They adjusted well to each other. After initial tuning in, Monterey Pop festival happened. She, the quintessential vagabond hooked the appreciative crowd with her ‘formless blues’ belted out in shrieking, rasping and energetic style. The motley group of experimenting youngsters got Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman. Grossman proved an important enabler for the charged expansion of Janis Joplin myth. Their first record ‘Cheap Thrills’ went Gold in 1968. The Album had ‘Piece of My Heart’ which made the critics say that Janis does not use blues conventions to transcend the pain but to ‘scream it out of existence’. ‘ Ball and Chain’ and ‘Turtle Blues’ from the album further cemented her reputation as a singer to reckon with. Uniqueness of her voice and hysterical grandiosity of her performance is captured best in a piece about her in Vogue magazine in May 1968 “Janis assaults a song with her eyes, her hips; and her hair. She defies key. shrieking over one line, sputtering over the next, and clutching the knees of a final stanza, begging it not to leave. When it does leave anyway, she stands like an assertive young tree, smiling breathlessly at the audience, which has just exploded. Janis Joplin can sing the chic off any listener.”
Janis Joplin overgrew her band within a year. Big Brother and the Holding Company came unglued and Grossman who could visualise glorious future for Joplin allowed the process of disintegration go unhindered. Joplin came out taking only guitarist Sam Andrew with her to form the Kozmic Blues Band. The new band enjoyed commercial success but it could not recreate the creative garage band type of ambience of Big Brother. Joplin, one of the highest paid stars of her time, was without a band. Her last and most realized (though unfinished) Album ‘Pearl’ was with her new band Full Tilt Boogie Band.
She became fairly regular on TV shows of that time. Her appearances on shows anchored by Dick Cavett, Tom Jones, and Ed Sullivan still remain the fodder for enumerable biographies and documentaries. TV appearances are another part of her fascinating iconography. Her views on her child hood, music and stage antics come most clearly in these shows and many of the insecurities were also addressed squarely in these shows. She appeared on the cover page of almost all major magazines like Time, Newsweek and Rolling stone. Newsweek’s cover story was on ‘Return of Blues’ and they found Janis to represent the trend in May 1969. In 1988 Time magazine came out with an issue on ‘1968- Year That Shaped a Generation’ and Janis was there alongside Vietnam and Robert Kennedy. This was an indication that she was a representative figure of phenomenon of Rock. She told Time “"We’re not dispassionate professionals. We’re passionate and sloppy. I’m untutored native folk talent- I like that phrase, it’s so pretentious." Generations have responded to this earthy charm of a mercurial talent in sync with the desperation and anarchy of her time.
Ironically, this desperation and loneliness was on wane when her turbulent life was cut short by the heroin overdose. Recording of Pearl was going very successfully. Producer Paul A. Rothchild was a dependable name and he ensured that some serious discipline and hard work went into the project. Janis was involved and enjoying the experience. She claimed to have kicked the drug habit. On personal front she found love and was going steady with Seth Morgan. . Paul Rothchild said later "During the sessions, I had never seen her happier. She was at the top of her form, having a great time. She said over and over again that this was the most fun she had ever had in a recording studio. Before, recording had always meant a lot of tension and fighting." This seeming revival makes the sense of lose even greater.
Unfulfilled potential remains a lingering pain in such untimely demises. However, appeal of such lives is, in fact, rooted in the abruptness of their end. Myth building is a complex process and it certainly appears that sense of loss and aura of death take a place of pride in this dynamics. Who knows how Jimi Hendrix would have looked and felt like at 60. Morrison might have turned out a cranky megalomaniac and Janis a nutty old hag. But when we look at the contemporaries like Ravi Shanker, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Rolling Stones and Carlos Santana we can’t but think about the lost promises. However, that is very calculative view of some extraordinary lives. They lived fast and died hard, therein rests the key to our nostalgia for them.