Documentary: “Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue” (2015)
Janis Joplin: “Who you are is what you settle for, you know?”
Janis Joplin was my generation. Born in 1943, she was found dead at the Landmark Motor Hotel in Hollywood at twenty-seven years old from a heroin overdose. She was a kind of landmark herself, another piece in the crazy quilt carnival of American life in the 60s. She was an American original in the sense that she was influenced by her times but the psychedelic country rock blues and soul singer she became was her own creation. There was no pop artist quite like Janis — just as there was nobody quite like a lot of people in those years.
Joplin was an existentialist although she probably never read Jean-Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir. ‘What you do is who you are,’ goes the proverb. Sartre wrote that “existence precedes essence,” meaning that a person is a kind of blank slate until his or her identity emergences out of choices, in which not choosing is itself a choice. Janis Joplin took charge of her life. A high school misfit from Port Arthur, in East Texas on the Gulf coast, she had a native psychological intelligence. The way she put in an interview in a moment of inspiration: “Who you are is what you settle for, you know?” I’d never thought of it that way. It was as if Joplin had discovered her own secret.
Existentialism is all about human freedom, the situation of the human being condemned to try to figure out what freedom means. Joplin’s best-known song, “Me and Bobby McGee,” is not really very interesting except for its 60s anthem: “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.”
Joplin pushed the envelope, she didn’t settle down comfortably once she was famous. The goal in her singing and stage presence was “complete emotional honesty.” The documentary does a good job of focusing the point. Why complete emotional honesty? In a way, that’s all Joplin knew how to do. She wouldn’t gotten very far trying to be an artistic vocalist, a stylist of song. Her decision, her intuition, was that the best she could offer to an audience (which is the point of performance) was her feelings, how she felt about life in general, about her own, about what she wanted and could or didn’t get. Artists are cultural creators who (as the director Stanley Kubrick once put it) achieve an effect and then try to hide it. Joplin did the opposite of creating effects and trying to hide it. She let it all hang out. That was her thing. But it’s a lot of wear and tear to sing out your insides performance after performance, if only because you only have one inside. But again, that’s what she could do. Towards the end, she seems to have gotten bored or frustrated with it. She was becoming a caricature of what she had been. She began to act the part, “Janis Joplin,” and probably got disappointed with her career. So, more and heavier drugs, the drugs having first been a thrill before they became a poison.
Why was Janis Joplin so popular (for lack of a better word)? Why did young people respond to her the way they responded to Chuck Berry and Elvis, Bob Dylan and later the Beatles? As opposed to all of these, for whom singing was stylized, Joplin didn’t care about consciously creating an image. She didn’t aim to be charming. She was an original who pushed it to the max. Her singing was not much refined. She says at one point that she wants, like every artist, to grow but she knows “all I have now is strength.”
Amy Berg’s “Janis: little girl blue” is replete with performances so those born too late can get a direct view of what she and her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company were and did. How we admired that name, in the same class as the Grateful Dead. Janis and Big Brother: this wasn’t The Mamas and the Poppas. Among her most popular songs are “A piece of my heart,” “Cry baby” and a wailing version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. Her most electrifying moment was an iconic version of “Ball and Chain” at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. (It’s on Youtube, as is the rest of her discography). She was also on the bill at Woodstock in 1969 and then gone a year later.
A couple of other artists come to mind worth writing about in connection with Janis Joplin. Johnny Winter (1944-2014) was another East Texas phenomenon, from Beaumont, nor far from Port Arthur. He was another rip-it-up rock and roller of our generation, an albino whom many who knew only his records thought was Black. Johnny came north and sat in a few nights with our local Chicago rock and roll band sometime around 1962, on the way to a decades-long international career. Unlike Joplin, who longed to grow as an artist, Johnny Winter did the same thing for fifty years, channeling Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” He did it even to the end. A Youtube video shows one of his last concerts, in Japan. Mortally ill, he had to be walked on stage and settled into a chair, cowboy boots and hat as ever. But when he launched into the famous Johnny B. Goode riff at the top it was the same also electrifying moment it had been in Chicago fifty years earlier. The ultra-reserved Japanese audience went wild, some dancing in the aisles and in front of the stage. East Texas had its place in the culture, and the 60s were a time when place still mattered a lot. Kansas City and Red Bank, New Jersey, for example. Chuck Berry was from St. Louis.
Janis Joplin’s career and untimely death make one think of British pop singer Amy Winehouse. (See Asif Kapadia’s documentary, “Amy,” 2015). Both lived fast and died young (Winehouse also at twenty-seven in 2011), wasted from drugs and alcohol. Unlike Joplin, who was an original trapped in her only mode, Winehouse was an outrageous pop starlet with an extraordinary voice who was developing into something else—an authentic jazz singer of classic possibility. But she wasn’t an original.
For Janis Joplin authentic rock and roll country blues was a great ride while it lasted. She loved being famous (sweet revenge on her high school tormentors). She knew she’d seized the moment even if it ended unexpectedly soon and in pain. But the 60s were like that.