The unapologetic life of Janis Joplin through her music.
Unless you enjoy pulling out your own eyelashes or own a great life insurance deal, then being a part of the 27 club isn’t one of your goals. Members of the club don’t enter willingly. Requirements include being 27 years old and dropping dead.
Although some necrophiliac wordsmith probably made this up after the suicide of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, the ‘club’ really began during the late ’60s when many musicians were dying as a result of drugs being more available than TVs. A small but feisty, feather-bowed cheetah of a woman by the name of Janis Joplin was among them.Don't compromise yourself, you are all you've got - Janis Joplin Click To Tweet
Janis was born under the Texan sun in 1943. Her South American school life consisted of relentless bullying with ‘ugliest man’ and ‘pig’ being the visionary insults of choice. Janis was driven into the shadow of some local outcasts. From them, she discovered the blues, ignited a love of Bessie Smith and began singing.
‘What Good Can Drinking Do?’ 1962
“I’ll drink all night but the next night I still feel blue”
Inspired by her blues heroes and beat poetry, she began to write and perform songs. Her first ever recorded song is the ironically titled ‘What Good Can Drinking Do?”. Though the song is quite basic, her voice has more impact than a Donald Trump tweet and more emotion than he’s ever shown in his entire public life.
‘Hesitation Blues’ The Typewriter Tape 1964
“Well, if the river was whiskey, said, I was a duck
You know I’d swim to the bottom”
Janis eventually ran away to San Francisco in search of her dreams. With beatniks on every corner, sighting poetry and listening to modern music, it wasn’t long before she met someone who would compliment her vocals with a flair for the guitar. Jorma Kaukonen (who would later become the guitarist for Jefferson Airplane) invited Janis over to his house to record some music while his wife endlessly wrote a letter in the background. If that were today, and it was my wife incessantly texting whilst trying record a song, I would be compelled to run out into the woods and fill my ears with soil so I wouldn’t have to hear that dreadful noise again. But on ‘Hesitation Blues’ the typewriter is quite charming.
‘Turtle Blues’ 1965
“If you just want to go out drinkin’, honey, won’t you invite me along, please.”
Whilst more and more teenagers were flocking to San Francisco like it contained the cure for acne, Janis indulged in speed, heroin & Southern Comfort; a modest diet that slimmed her down to just 88 pounds. But, her increasingly reckless lifestyle and ever-shrinking waistline earned her a bus fare home. Under the concerned gaze of her parents, she managed to kick her habit and major in anthropology.
If her singing career ended here, perhaps Janis would have gone on to work as a typist, fall in love and over-pour her man’s coffee during a rock n roll daydream. Maybe she would have lived a long life and songs like ‘Me And Bobby McGee’ would have just been another Roger Miller song. But in this dimension, Janis was not keen to give up on her love of music and in 1965, she recorded herself singing a couple of songs whilst strumming her guitar. She wrote ‘Turtle Blues’ and recorded it in one of her favourite places- a bar.
‘All Is Loneliness’ 1966
“Loneliness come botherin’ round my house”
By 1966, blues band Big Brother & The Holding Company heard about the little Texan with the big voice. Unaware of her previous problems with narcotics, they encouraged Janis to join them in San Francisco. Like a moth to a flame Janis returned. Once there, Big Brother maintained a “no needles” policy which is much like saying, you can have a shit but don’t use the toilet. Nevertheless, a drug-free Janis blossomed as their lead singer and fitted in with the boys like jam to a doughnut. They released a record in the form the psychedelic ‘Blindman’ and ‘All Is Loneliness’. Although the record didn’t sell well at the time, it was a huge step up in quality and sound for Janis.
‘Down On Me’ Big Brother & The Holding Company, 1967
“Looks like everybody in this whole round world down on me.”
The band promoted themselves to the next music industry level with a debut. After a powerful performance at Monterey Pop Festival, Big Brother & The Holding Company was released in 1967. Janis showed off her arrangement style by adding her own to the 1920s classic song ‘Down On Me’. It was released separately as a single along with ‘Bye Bye Baby’, ‘Coo Coo’ and ‘Call On Me’.
The album was pure psychedelic gold, but Big Brother became more well known for their energetic performances. In Haight Ashbury, they were hailed as hippie royalty. The press began to take notice too, but mainly of the band’s leading lady…
‘I Need A Man To Love’ Cheap Thrills 1968
“I want to just put my arms around you, like the circles going around the sun”
Big Brother’s hype was as much as chocolate at Easter, so they began to work on their first major studio recording, Cheap Thrills. Janis proved her dedication by being the last to leave the studio and the first to arrive. She worked relentlessly on the arrangement and included her old song ‘Turtle Blues’ and something new ‘I Need A Man To Love’, written with BB guitarist Sam Andrew. Cheap Thrills’ ‘Piece Of My Heart’ and ‘Summertime’ were songs that forcibly tattoo themselves onto your brain. Although, I can’t often shake the image of Marge Simpson singing whilst listening to ‘Summertime’. Sorry if I ruined that song for you too.
‘One Good Man’ I Got Dem Old Kozmic Blues Again Mama! 1969
“Some girls they want to collect their men, they wear ’em like notches on a gun.
Oh honey, but I know better than that, I know that a woman only needs one.”
Of course, when one of the band is singled out for all the glory, you can bet your ass the rest of the band won’t like it. Following the increasing tensions in Big Brother, Janis announced she would be leaving and taking Sam Andrew with her. Together they formed the Kozmic Blues Band and set out to write a whole new album.
At the time, drugs were more available than croissants and Janis couldn’t resist picking up a few with her morning coffee. Making music was getting in the way of getting high. But despite not being as focused, she managed to burp out the ‘I Got Dem Old Kozmic Blues Again Mama!’; a bluesy nod to her roots. She wrote ‘One Good Man’ about her favourite subject- searching for her perfect man. Although the album featured the guts and gravel of her talent, her live performances were beginning to suffer. What should have been a knock-out performance at Woodstock, became a half-hearted fart. Noticing that Janis wasn’t getting clean, Sam Andrew left to rejoin Big Brother and the Kozmic Blues band split up.
‘Move Over’ Pearl 1970
“Either take this love I offer or honey let me be.”
Knowing that she now had a problem, she quit her habit and went to Brazil. She fell in love but quickly lost him after a relapse in New York. Attempting to get clean once more she poured her efforts into making a new album, this time with the Full Tilt Boogie Band. She wrote the snappy ‘Move Over’ about a breakup. Janis’ fiery personality is wrapped up in this song like a feather boa.
‘Mercedez Benz’ Pearl 1970
“Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town?”
In a New York bar, Janis found herself inspired by the beat poet Michael McClure. There, she wrote the a capella ‘Mercedez Benz’, scribbling on a bunch of napkins. A few days later, heroin called her name like an old friend, familiar and sweet. She had forgotten why she had left it in the first place. Alone and unhappy, she took the needle and overdosed, making ‘Mercedez Benz’ the last song she ever recorded.
She left behind only fragments for her album Pearl. The record company, band and producers worked with what they had and released it a few months after her death. Pearl was the final works of a girl, who despite being adored by so many, felt so alone.I go on stage to make love to thousands of people, and then I go home alone - Janis Joplin Click To Tweet