What If Janis Joplin Were Alive Today?
Janis Joplin hits the road in documentary form, and it’s about damn time. For outside of a handful of interviews on YouTube, plenty iconic photos and a body of music in which she laid herself bare, she has remained a mystery.
She once said it herself: “On stage, I make love to 25,000 different people, then I go home alone.”
Still, her grimy, mellifluous wail echoes through the halls of time, and hell, in December of 2015, CNN reported that her 1964 Porsche sold for $1.76 million, the highest price ever paid for any car of its kind, at an auction. And trust that it was not because of the car’s particular model or the psychedelic mural Janis made of it, but because it was hers, and she drove it everywhere—that is, when she wasn’t on a tour bus, or hitchhiking.
Oscar-nominated documentarian Amy Berg has spent the last 7 years making “Janis: Little Girl Blue,” which examines the woman behind the voice, and the life behind the lyrics. Janis rejected being called a star, preferring the label singer, and she sat in the front seats of limos, rather than popping champagne in the back. So perhaps she would’ve approved of this 103-minute reveal of her inner life. To do so, Berg culled up never before seen archival footage and interviews, as well as unpublished letters Janis wrote to her family, friends and lovers during her lonely years on the road.
Janis was a wild-hearted, unconventionally beautiful woman with a wide smile. She grew up in the conservative Texan town of Port Arthur. Her straight-laced parents wanted her to be a schoolteacher, she said. According to Berg, in the Joplin household, “they were taught not to feel and to be better.” An oil and water upbringing it sounds like, because Janis’s success, and demise, came from her ability to feel more deeply than most of us.
Painting was her first artform. She was chagrined for speaking up for integration in the most racist of states. She heard her first blues record at 14, Leadbelly. She was kicked out of the school choir for “not taking direction.” She began drinking as a teen. She started singing at 17, to everyone’s surprise. She was a musical child of Lady Day, Otis, and Odetta.
At school, she battled her outcast status with elaborate hippie threads, donning the persona of a fearless, boisterous bad girl. However, deep inside her skin, Janis was propelled by fear of failure and yearned for approval. But, since she insisted on being herself, and ahead of her time, she was forever affected by the derision she relentlessly received in her early days.
“They laughed me out of class, out of town, and out of the state,” she revealed in an interview on the Dick Cavett show, when asked her if she grew up with a lot of friends. When she went to the University of Texas in Austin to study art, and achieved local fame in folk joints, a fraternity elected her “the ugliest man on campus.” This crushed her enough to quit school, and follow the music to San Francisco.
Berg tells Paste magazine: “I think she really struggled to find balance in her life. She was a people pleaser and was trying to make everyone happy all the time, and she couldn’t make herself happy. That’s still where we are today as women unfortunately. The more we take on, the harder it is to balance life.”
While Janis actively sought approval, she didn’t dig being used. Berg was amazed to find out that she kept a meticulous log of people that didn’t offer to pay for dinner, and after three times she would stop taking them out.
Because she wasn’t acting like a “lady,” Joplin was a constant embarrassment to her parents, which pained her. She wanted to make them proud, but she couldn’t seem to halt that bluesy scream (that a reviewer once dubbed “a desperate mating call”) or her thirst for sex—with men and women. She didn’t inhale feminism and pass it around like a joint; she instead embodied the feminist question: If men can do it, why can’t I?
When asked why there weren’t more women in rock music, Janis answered, seemingly bewildered, “I don’t know why, it seems natural to me. Maybe it isn’t ladylike to get on the bottom side of music, instead of skirting it, looking at it.”
She tried to fill her eternal void with men younger than her, and perhaps prettier, then couldn’t fathom why they didn’t understand her. As bad as she wanted it, she never achieved stability in her relationships. She was needy, and perpetually wounded by love’s whip.
Once in an interview, she compared men to mule carts. “There’s a dumb mule on there right, and a long stick with a string and a carrot, and it hangs over the mule’s nose, and it runs after it all day long,” Janis says. In this unfortunate metaphor, the woman is the mule, and men, she quotes, “Always hold something more than they’re prepared to give.” Ouch.
When I hear people speak of Janis, who joined the 27 Club when she died at that age of a heroin overdose, they mostly lament what amazing music she would’ve made had her world-altering career not been so ridiculously short. She did, after all, achieve a next level of nakedness and nuance in her posthumously released album, “Pearl.” So, yes, maybe her best music was yet to come.
However, as someone who is moved by her cosmic blues, so much so that the avid fan that got clobbered by police at a concert for trying to kiss her could have very well been me, had I been white and born the same year as my parents, when I imagine her lengthened life, I don’t ponder the evolution of Janis’ music as much as the evolution of the woman herself.
The Janice of my imaginings who sidestepped death would’ve been 71 by now. Somewhere along the way, meditation became her drug instead of heroin, and rather than nodding off, she’s been known to fall into a meditative state, mid conversation. However, she still loves her drink, but doesn’t fill voids with it. She’s learned to love herself with the yearning and ferocity with which she sings of it, accepting both the lioness and lost girl jostling within. Not everything she says comes out the right way, but she doesn’t seek approval from those who lack the imagination to decipher her intentions.
On the low, she’s been painting for decades, and keeps her works in a locked room, for she has learned not to give everything away, to keep something for herself. She raised children in a long-standing, perhaps lesbian, partnership, and is now an active, randy grandmother. She still likes her men young and pretty though, except now, that’s all she expects from them. She bakes organic bread, wears tutu’s, and drives her 1964 Porsche on weekends. She has nothing black in her closet. She gets herself into trouble with the law, sometimes. She pops off in interviews and on Facebook about police violence against blacks, and the prison system. She angers feminists by not claiming to be one. She backs Bernie over Hillary. She pulls her hair back from her face to let her seasoned beauty shine.