Episode 169 of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Piece of My Heart” and the short, tragic life of Janis Joplin. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.
Patreon backers also have a half-hour bonus episode available, on “Spinning Wheel” by Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/
There are two Mixcloud mixes this time. As there are so many songs by Big Brother and the Holding Company and Janis Joplin excerpted, and Mixcloud won’t allow more than four songs by the same artist in any mix, I’ve had to post the songs not in quite the same order in which they appear in the podcast. But the mixes are here — one, two .
I also referred to the chapter ‘“Being Good Isn’t Always Easy”: Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Dusty Springfield, and the Color of Soul’ in Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination by Jack Hamilton.
Some information on Bessie Smith came from Bessie Smith by Jackie Kay, a book I can’t really recommend given the lack of fact-checking, and Bessie by Chris Albertson. I also referred to Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday by Angela Y. Davis
And the best place to start with Joplin’s music is this five-CD box, which contains both Big Brother and the Holding Company albums she was involved in, plus her two studio albums and bonus tracks.
This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?
Before I start, this episode contains discussion of drug addiction and overdose, alcoholism, mental illness, domestic abuse, child abandonment, and racism. If those subjects are likely to cause you upset, you may want to check the transcript or skip this one rather than listen.
Also, a subject I should probably say a little more about in this intro because I know I have inadvertently caused upset to at least one listener with this in the past. When it comes to Janis Joplin, it is *impossible* to talk about her without discussing her issues with her weight and self-image.
The way I write often involves me paraphrasing the opinions of the people I’m writing about, in a mode known as close third person, and sometimes that means it can look like I am stating those opinions as my own, and sometimes things I say in that mode which *I* think are obviously meant in context to be critiques of those attitudes can appear to others to be replicating them. At least once, I have seriously upset a fat listener when talking about issues related to weight in this manner.
I’m going to try to be more careful here, but just in case, I’m going to say before I begin that I think fatphobia is a pernicious form of bigotry, as bad as any other form of bigotry. I’m fat myself and well aware of how systemic discrimination affects fat people. I also think more generally that the pressure put on women to look a particular way is pernicious and disgusting in ways I can’t even begin to verbalise, and causes untold harm. If *ANYTHING* I say in this episode comes across as sounding otherwise, that’s because I haven’t expressed myself clearly enough. Like all people, Janis Joplin had negative characteristics, and at times I’m going to say things that are critical of those. But when it comes to anything to do with her weight or her appearance, if *anything* I say sounds critical of her, rather than of a society that makes women feel awful for their appearance, it isn’t meant to.
Anyway, on with the show.
On January the nineteenth, 1943, Seth Joplin typed up a letter to his wife Dorothy, which read “I wish to tender my congratulations on the anniversary of your successful completion of your production quota for the nine months ending January 19, 1943. I realize that you passed through a period of inflation such as you had never before known—yet, in spite of this, you met your goal by your supreme effort during the early hours of January 19, a good three weeks ahead of schedule.”
As you can probably tell from that message, the Joplin family were a strange mixture of ultraconformism and eccentricity, and those two opposing forces would dominate the personality of their firstborn daughter for the whole of her life. Seth Joplin was a respected engineer at Texaco, where he worked for forty years, but he had actually dropped out of engineering school before completing his degree. His favourite pastime when he wasn’t at work was to read — he was a voracious reader — and to listen to classical music, which would often move him to tears, but he had also taught himself to make bathtub gin during prohibition, and smoked cannabis. Dorothy, meanwhile, had had the possibility of a singing career before deciding to settle down and become a housewife, and was known for having a particularly beautiful soprano voice. Both were, by all accounts, fiercely intelligent people, but they were also as committed as anyone to the ideals of the middle-class family even as they chafed against its restrictions.
Like her mother, young Janis had a beautiful soprano voice, and she became a soloist in her church choir, but after the age of six, she was not encouraged to sing much. Dorothy had had a thyroid operation which destroyed her singing voice, and the family got rid of their piano soon after (different sources say that this was either because Dorothy found her daughter’s singing painful now that she couldn’t sing herself, or because Seth was upset that his wife could no longer sing. Either seems plausible.)
Janis was pushed to be a high-achiever — she was given a library card as soon as she could write her name, and encouraged to use it, and she was soon advanced in school, skipping a couple of grades. She was also by all accounts a fiercely talented painter, and her parents paid for art lessons. From everything one reads about her pre-teen years, she was a child prodigy who was loved by everyone and who was clearly going to be a success of some kind.
Things started to change when she reached her teenage years. Partly, this was just her getting into rock and roll music, which her father thought a fad — though even there, she differed from her peers. She loved Elvis, but when she heard “Hound Dog”, she loved it so much that she tracked down a copy of Big Mama Thornton’s original, and told her friends she preferred that:
[Excerpt: Big Mama Thornton, “Hound Dog”]
Despite this, she was still also an exemplary student and overachiever.
But by the time she turned fourteen, things started to go very wrong for her. Partly this was just down to her relationship with her father changing — she adored him, but he became more distant from his daughters as they grew into women. But also, puberty had an almost wholly negative effect on her, at least by the standards of that time and place. She put on weight (which, again, I do not think is a negative thing, but she did, and so did everyone around her), she got a bad case of acne which didn’t ever really go away, and she also didn’t develop breasts particularly quickly — which, given that she was a couple of years younger than the other people in the same classes at school, meant she stood out even more.
In the mid-sixties, a doctor apparently diagnosed her as having a “hormone imbalance” — something that got to her as a possible explanation for why she was, to quote from a letter she wrote then, “not really a woman or enough of one or something.” She wondered if “maybe something as simple as a pill could have helped out or even changed that part of me I call ME and has been so messed up.”
I’m not a doctor and even if I were, diagnosing historical figures is an unethical thing to do, but certainly the acne, weight gain, and mental health problems she had are all consistent with PCOS, the most common endocrine disorder among women, and it seems likely given what the doctor told her that this was the cause. But at the time all she knew was that she was different, and that in the eyes of her fellow students she had gone from being pretty to being ugly.
She seems to have been a very trusting, naive, person who was often the brunt of jokes but who desperately needed to be accepted, and it became clear that her appearance wasn’t going to let her fit into the conformist society she was being brought up in, while her high intelligence, low impulse control, and curiosity meant she couldn’t even fade into the background. This left her one other option, and she decided that she would deliberately try to look and act as different from everyone else as possible. That way, it would be a conscious choice on her part to reject the standards of her fellow pupils, rather than her being rejected by them.
She started to admire rebels. She became a big fan of Jerry Lee Lewis, whose music combined the country music she’d grown up hearing in Texas, the R&B she liked now, and the rebellious nature she was trying to cultivate:
[Excerpt: Jerry Lee Lewis, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”]
When Lewis’ career was derailed by his marriage to his teenage cousin, Joplin wrote an angry letter to Time magazine complaining that they had mistreated him in their coverage.
But as with so many people of her generation, her love of rock and roll music led her first to the blues and then to folk, and she soon found herself listening to Odetta:
[Excerpt: Odetta, “Muleskinner Blues”]
One of her first experiences of realising she could gain acceptance from her peers by singing was when she was hanging out with the small group of Bohemian teenagers she was friendly with, and sang an Odetta song, mimicking her voice exactly.
But young Janis Joplin was listening to an eclectic range of folk music, and could mimic more than just Odetta. For all that her later vocal style was hugely influenced by Odetta and by other Black singers like Big Mama Thornton and Etta James, her friends in her late teens and early twenties remember her as a vocal chameleon with an achingly pure soprano, who would more often than Odetta be imitating the great Appalachian traditional folk singer Jean Ritchie:
[Excerpt: Jean Ritchie, “Lord Randall”]
She was, in short, trying her best to become a Beatnik, despite not having any experience of that subculture other than what she read in books — though she *did* read about them in books, devouring things like Kerouac’s On The Road. She came into conflict with her mother, who didn’t understand what was happening to her daughter, and who tried to get family counselling to understand what was going on. Her father, who seemed to relate more to Janis, but who was more quietly eccentric, put an end to that, but Janis would still for the rest of her life talk about how her mother had taken her to doctors who thought she was going to end up “either in jail or an insane asylum” to use her words.
From this point on, and for the rest of her life, she was torn between a need for approval from her family and her peers, and a knowledge that no matter what she did she couldn’t fit in with normal societal expectations. In high school she was a member of the Future Nurses of America, the Future Teachers of America, the Art Club, and Slide Rule Club, but she also had a reputation as a wild girl, and as sexually active (even though by all accounts at this point she was far less so than most of the so-called “good girls” – but her later activity was in part because she felt that if she was going to have that reputation anyway she might as well earn it).
She also was known to express radical opinions, like that segregation was wrong, an opinion that the other students in her segregated Texan school didn’t even think was wrong, but possibly some sort of sign of mental illness. Her final High School yearbook didn’t contain a single other student’s signature.
And her initial choice of university, Lamar State College of Technology, was not much better. In the next town over, and attended by many of the same students, it had much the same attitudes as the school she’d left. Almost the only long-term effect her initial attendance at university had on her was a negative one — she found there was another student at the college who was better at painting. Deciding that if she wasn’t going to be the best at something she didn’t want to do it at all, she more or less gave up on painting at that point.
But there was one positive. One of the lecturers at Lamar was Francis Edward “Ab” Abernethy, who would in the early seventies go on to become the Secretary and Editor of the Texas Folklore Society, and was also a passionate folk musician, playing double bass in string bands. Abernethy had a great collection of blues 78s. and it was through this collection that Janis first discovered classic blues, and in particular Bessie Smith:
[Excerpt: Bessie Smith, “Black Mountain Blues”]
A couple of episodes ago, we had a long look at the history of the music that now gets called “the blues” — the music that’s based around guitars, and generally involves a solo male vocalist, usually Black during its classic period. At the time that music was being made though it wouldn’t have been thought of as “the blues” with no modifiers by most people who were aware of it. At the start, even the songs they were playing weren’t thought of as blues by the male vocalist/guitarists who played them — they called the songs they played “reels”.
The music released by people like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, Robert Johnson, Kokomo Arnold and so on was thought of as blues music, and people would understand and agree with a phrase like “Lonnie Johnson is a blues singer”, but it wasn’t the first thing people thought of when they talked about “the blues”. Until relatively late — probably some time in the 1960s — if you wanted to talk about blues music made by Black men with guitars and only that music, you talked about “country blues”.
If you thought about “the blues”, with no qualifiers, you thought about a rather different style of music, one that white record collectors started later to refer to as “classic blues” to differentiate it from what they were now calling “the blues”. Nowadays of course if you say “classic blues”, most people will think you mean Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker, people who were contemporary at the time those white record collectors were coming up with their labels, and so that style of music gets referred to as “vaudeville blues”, or as “classic female blues”:
[Excerpt: Mamie Smith, “Crazy Blues”]
What we just heard was the first big blues hit performed by a Black person, from 1920, and as we discussed in the episode on “Crossroads” that revolutionised the whole record industry when it came out. The song was performed by Mamie Smith, a vaudeville performer, and was originally titled “Harlem Blues” by its writer, Perry Bradford, before he changed the title to “Crazy Blues” to get it to a wider audience.
Bradford was an important figure in the vaudeville scene, though other than being the credited writer of “Keep A-Knockin'” he’s little known these days. He was a Black musician and grew up playing in minstrel shows (the history of minstrelsy is a topic for another day, but it’s more complicated than the simple image of blackface that we are aware of today — though as with many “more complicated than that” things it is, also the simple image of blackface we’re aware of). He was the person who persuaded OKeh records that there would be a market for music made by Black people that sounded Black (though as we’re going to see in this episode, what “sounding Black” means is a rather loaded question). “Crazy Blues” was the result, and it was a massive hit, even though it was marketed specifically towards Black listeners:
[Excerpt: Mamie Smith, “Crazy Blues”]
The big stars of the early years of recorded blues were all making records in the shadow of “Crazy Blues”, and in the case of its very biggest stars, they were working very much in the same mould. The two most important blues stars of the twenties both got their start in vaudeville, and were both women.
Ma Rainey, like Mamie Smith, first performed in minstrel shows, but where Mamie Smith’s early records had her largely backed by white musicians, Rainey was largely backed by Black musicians, including on several tracks Louis Armstrong:
[Excerpt: Ma Rainey, “See See Rider”]
Rainey’s band was initially led by Thomas Dorsey, one of the most important men in American music, who we’ve talked about before in several episodes, including the last one. He was possibly the single most important figure in two different genres — hokum music, when he, under the name “Georgia Tom” recorded “It’s Tight Like That” with Tampa Red:
[Excerpt: Tampa Red and Georgia Tom, “It’s Tight Like That”]
And of course gospel music, which to all intents and purposes he invented, and much of whose repertoire he wrote:
[Excerpt: Mahalia Jackson, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”]
When Dorsey left Rainey’s band, as we discussed right back in episode five, he was replaced by a female pianist, Lil Henderson. The blues was a woman’s genre. And Ma Rainey was, by preference, a woman’s woman, though she was married to a man:
[Excerpt: Ma Rainey, “Prove it on Me”]
So was the biggest star of the classic blues era, who was originally mentored by Rainey. Bessie Smith, like Rainey, was a queer woman who had relationships with men but was far more interested in other women. There were stories that Bessie Smith actually got her start in the business by being kidnapped by Ma Rainey, and forced into performing on the same bills as her in the vaudeville show she was touring in, and that Rainey taught Smith to sing blues in the process. In truth, Rainey mentored Smith more in stagecraft and the ways of the road than in singing, and neither woman was only a blues singer, though both had huge success with their blues records. Indeed, since Rainey was already in the show, Smith was initially hired as a dancer rather than a singer, and she also worked as a male impersonator.
But Smith soon branched out on her own — from the beginning she was obviously a star. The great jazz clarinettist Sidney Bechet later said of her “She had this trouble in her, this thing that would not let her rest sometimes, a meanness that came and took her over. But what she had was alive … Bessie, she just wouldn’t let herself be; it seemed she couldn’t let herself be.”
Bessie Smith was signed by Columbia Records in 1923, as part of the rush to find and record as many Black women blues singers as possible. Her first recording session produced “Downhearted Blues”, which became, depending on which sources you read, either the biggest-selling blues record since “Crazy Blues” or the biggest-selling blues record ever, full stop, selling three quarters of a million copies in the six months after its release:
[Excerpt: Bessie Smith, “Downhearted Blues”]
Smith didn’t make royalties off record sales, only making a flat fee, but she became the most popular Black performer of the 1920s. Columbia signed her to an exclusive contract, and she became so rich that she would literally travel between gigs on her own private train.
She lived an extravagant life in every way, giving lavishly to her friends and family, but also drinking extraordinary amounts of liquor, having regular affairs, and also often physically or verbally attacking those around her. By all accounts she was not a comfortable person to be around, and she seemed to be trying to fit an entire lifetime into every moment.
From 1923 through 1929 she had a string of massive hits. She recorded material in a variety of styles, including the dirty blues:
[Excerpt: Bessie Smith, “Empty Bed Blues]
And with accompanists like Louis Armstrong:
[Excerpt: Bessie Smith with Louis Armstrong, “Cold in Hand Blues”]
But the music for which she became best known, and which sold the best, was when she sang about being mistreated by men, as on one of her biggest hits, “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-Ness if I Do” — and a warning here, I’m going to play a clip of the song, which treats domestic violence in a way that may be upsetting:
[Excerpt: Bessie Smith, “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-Ness if I Do”]
That kind of material can often seem horrifying to today’s listeners — and quite correctly so, as domestic violence is a horrifying thing — and it sounds entirely too excusing of the man beating her up for anyone to find it comfortable listening. But the Black feminist scholar Angela Davis has made a convincing case that while these records, and others by Smith’s contemporaries, can’t reasonably be considered to be feminist, they *are* at the very least more progressive than they now seem, in that they were, even if excusing it, pointing to a real problem which was otherwise left unspoken.
And that kind of domestic violence and abuse *was* a real problem, including in Smith’s own life. By all accounts she was terrified of her husband, Jack Gee, who would frequently attack her because of her affairs with other people, mostly women.
But she was still devastated when he left her for a younger woman, not only because he had left her, but also because he kidnapped their adopted son and had him put into a care home, falsely claiming she had abused him. Not only that, but before Jack left her closest friend had been Jack’s niece Ruby and after the split she never saw Ruby again — though after her death Ruby tried to have a blues career as “Ruby Smith”, taking her aunt’s surname and recording a few tracks with Sammy Price, the piano player who worked with Sister Rosetta Tharpe:
[Excerpt: Ruby Smith with Sammy Price, “Make Me Love You”]
The same month, May 1929, that Gee left her, Smith recorded what was to become her last big hit, and most well-known song, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”:
[Excerpt: Bessie Smith, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”]
And that could have been the theme for the rest of her life. A few months after that record came out, the Depression hit, pretty much killing the market for blues records. She carried on recording until 1931, but the records weren’t selling any more. And at the same time, the talkies came in in the film industry, which along with the Depression ended up devastating the vaudeville audience. Her earnings were still higher than most, but only a quarter of what they had been a year or two earlier. She had one last recording session in 1933, produced by John Hammond for OKeh Records, where she showed that her style had developed over the years — it was now incorporating the newer swing style, and featured future swing stars Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden in the backing band:
[Excerpt: Bessie Smith, “Gimme a Pigfoot”]
Hammond was not hugely impressed with the recordings, preferring her earlier records, and they would be the last she would ever make. She continued as a successful, though no longer record-breaking, live act until 1937, when she and her common-law husband, Lionel Hampton’s uncle Richard Morgan, were in a car crash. Morgan escaped, but Smith died of her injuries and was buried on October the fourth 1937. Ten thousand people came to her funeral, but she was buried in an unmarked grave — she was still legally married to Gee, even though they’d been separated for eight years, and while he supposedly later became rich from songwriting royalties from some of her songs (most of her songs were written by other people, but she wrote a few herself) he refused to pay for a headstone for her. Indeed on more than one occasion he embezzled money that had been raised by other people to provide a headstone.
Bessie Smith soon became Joplin’s favourite singer of all time, and she started trying to copy her vocals.
But other than discovering Smith’s music, Joplin seems to have had as terrible a time at university as at school, and soon dropped out and moved back in with her parents. She went to business school for a short while, where she learned some secretarial skills, and then she moved west, going to LA where two of her aunts lived, to see if she could thrive better in a big West Coast city than she did in small-town Texas.
Soon she moved from LA to Venice Beach, and from there had a brief sojourn in San Francisco, where she tried to live out her beatnik fantasies at a time when the beatnik culture was starting to fall apart. She did, while she was there, start smoking cannabis, though she never got a taste for that drug, and took Benzedrine and started drinking much more heavily than she had before. She soon lost her job, moved back to Texas, and re-enrolled at the same college she’d been at before.
But now she’d had a taste of real Bohemian life — she’d been singing at coffee houses, and having affairs with both men and women — and soon she decided to transfer to the University of Texas at Austin. At this point, Austin was very far from the cultural centre it has become in recent decades, and it was still a straitlaced Texan town, but it was far less so than Port Arthur, and she soon found herself in a folk group, the Waller Creek Boys. Janis would play autoharp and sing, sometimes Bessie Smith covers, but also the more commercial country and folk music that was popular at the time, like “Silver Threads and Golden Needles”, a song that had originally been recorded by Wanda Jackson but at that time was a big hit for Dusty Springfield’s group The Springfields:
[Excerpt: The Waller Creek Boys, “Silver Threads and Golden Needles”]
But even there, Joplin didn’t fit in comfortably. The venue where the folk jams were taking place was a segregated venue, as everywhere around Austin was. And she was enough of a misfit that the campus newspaper did an article on her headlined “She Dares to Be Different!”, which read in part “She goes barefooted when she feels like it, wears Levi’s to class because they’re more comfortable, and carries her Autoharp with her everywhere she goes so that in case she gets the urge to break out into song it will be handy.”
There was a small group of wannabe-Beatniks, including Chet Helms, who we’ve mentioned previously in the Grateful Dead episode, Gilbert Shelton, who went on to be a pioneer of alternative comics and create the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, and Shelton’s partner in Rip-Off Press, Dave Moriarty, but for the most part the atmosphere in Austin was only slightly better for Janis than it had been in Port Arthur.
The final straw for her came when in an annual charity fundraiser joke competition to find the ugliest man on campus, someone nominated her for the “award”. She’d had enough of Texas. She wanted to go back to California. She and Chet Helms, who had dropped out of the university earlier and who, like her, had already spent some time on the West Coast, decided to hitch-hike together to San Francisco.
Before leaving, she made a recording for her ex-girlfriend Julie Paul, a country and western musician, of a song she’d written herself. It’s recorded in what many say was Janis’ natural voice — a voice she deliberately altered in performance in later years because, she would tell people, she didn’t think there was room for her singing like that in an industry that already had Joan Baez and Judy Collins. In her early years she would alternate between singing like this and doing her imitations of Black women, but the character of Janis Joplin who would become famous never sang like this. It may well be the most honest thing that she ever recorded, and the most revealing of who she really was:
[Excerpt: Janis Joplin, “So Sad to Be Alone”]
Joplin and Helms made it to San Francisco, and she started performing at open-mic nights and folk clubs around the Bay Area, singing in her Bessie Smith and Odetta imitation voice, and sometimes making a great deal of money by sounding different from the wispier-voiced women who were the norm at those venues. The two friends parted ways, and she started performing with two other folk musicians, Larry Hanks and Roger Perkins, and she insisted that they would play at least one Bessie Smith song at every performance:
[Excerpt: Janis Joplin, Larry Hanks, and Roger Perkins, “Black Mountain Blues (live in San Francisco)”]
Often the trio would be joined by Billy Roberts, who at that time had just started performing the song that would make his name, “Hey Joe”, and Joplin was soon part of the folk scene in the Bay Area, and admired by Dino Valenti, David Crosby, and Jerry Garcia among others. She also sang a lot with Jorma Kaukonnen, and recordings of the two of them together have circulated for years:
[Excerpt: Janis Joplin and Jorma Kaukonnen, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”]
Through 1963, 1964, and early 1965 Joplin ping-ponged from coast to coast, spending time in the Bay Area, then Greenwich Village, dropping in on her parents then back to the Bay Area, and she started taking vast quantities of methamphetamine.
Even before moving to San Francisco she had been an occasional user of amphetamines – at the time they were regularly prescribed to students as study aids during exam periods, and she had also been taking them to try to lose some of the weight she always hated. But while she was living in San Francisco she became dependent on the drug.
At one point her father was worried enough about her health to visit her in San Francisco, where she managed to fool him that she was more or less OK. But she looked to him for reassurance that things would get better for her, and he couldn’t give it to her. He told her about a concept that he called the “Saturday night swindle”, the idea that you work all week so you can go out and have fun on Saturday in the hope that that will make up for everything else, but that it never does.
She had occasional misses with what would have been lucky breaks — at one point she was in a motorcycle accident just as record labels were interested in signing her, and by the time she got out of the hospital the chance had gone.
She became engaged to another speed freak, one who claimed to be an engineer and from a well-off background, but she was becoming severely ill from what was by now a dangerous amphetamine habit, and in May 1965 she decided to move back in with her parents, get clean, and have a normal life. Her new fiance was going to do the same, and they were going to have the conformist life her parents had always wanted, and which she had always wanted to want. Surely with a husband who loved her she could find a way to fit in and just be normal.
She kicked the addiction, and wrote her fiance long letters describing everything about her family and the new normal life they were going to have together, and they show her painfully trying to be optimistic about the future, like one where she described her family to him:
“My mother—Dorothy—worries so and loves her children dearly. Republican and Methodist, very sincere, speaks in clichés which she really means and is very good to people. (She thinks you have a lovely voice and is terribly prepared to like you.)
My father—richer than when I knew him and kind of embarrassed about it—very well read—history his passion—quiet and very excited to have me home because I’m bright and we can talk (about antimatter yet—that impressed him)! I keep telling him how smart you are and how proud I am of you.…”
She went back to Lamar, her mother started sewing her a wedding dress, and for much of the year she believed her fiance was going to be her knight in shining armour. But as it happened, the fiance in question was described by everyone else who knew him as a compulsive liar and con man, who persuaded her father to give him money for supposed medical tests before the wedding, but in reality was apparently married to someone else and having a baby with a third woman.
After the engagement was broken off, she started performing again around the coffeehouses in Austin and Houston, and she started to realise the possibilities of rock music for her kind of performance. The missing clue came from a group from Austin who she became very friendly with, the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, and the way their lead singer Roky Erickson would wail and yell:
[Excerpt: The 13th Floor Elevators, “You’re Gonna Miss Me (live)”]
If, as now seemed inevitable, Janis was going to make a living as a performer, maybe she should start singing rock music, because it seemed like there was money in it. There was even some talk of her singing with the Elevators.
But then an old friend came to Austin from San Francisco with word from Chet Helms. A blues band had formed, and were looking for a singer, and they remembered her from the coffee houses. Would she like to go back to San Francisco and sing with them?
In the time she’d been away, Helms had become hugely prominent in the San Francisco music scene, which had changed radically. A band from the area called the Charlatans had been playing a fake-Victorian saloon called the Red Dog in nearby Nevada, and had become massive with the people who a few years earlier had been beatniks:
[Excerpt: The Charlatans, “32-20”]
When their residency at the Red Dog had finished, several of the crowd who had been regulars there had become a collective of sorts called the Family Dog, and Helms had become their unofficial leader. And there’s actually a lot packed into that choice of name. As we’ll see in a few future episodes, a lot of West Coast hippies eventually started calling their collectives and communes families. This started as a way to get round bureaucracy — if a helpful welfare officer put down that the unrelated people living in a house together were a family, suddenly they could get food stamps.
As with many things, of course, the label then affected how people thought about themselves, and one thing that’s very notable about the San Francisco scene hippies in particular is that they are some of the first people to make a big deal about what we now call “found family” or “family of choice”. But it’s also notable how often the hippie found families took their model from the only families these largely middle-class dropouts had ever known, and structured themselves around men going out and doing the work — selling dope or panhandling or being rock musicians or shoplifting — with the women staying at home doing the housework.
The Family Dog started promoting shows, with the intention of turning San Francisco into “the American Liverpool”, and soon Helms was rivalled only by Bill Graham as the major promoter of rock shows in the Bay Area.
And now he wanted Janis to come back and join this new band.
But Janis was worried. She was clean now. She drank far too much, but she wasn’t doing any other drugs. She couldn’t go back to San Francisco and risk getting back on methamphetamine. She needn’t worry about that, she was told, nobody in San Francisco did speed any more, they were all on LSD — a drug she hated and so wasn’t in any danger from.
Reassured, she made the trip back to San Francisco, to join Big Brother and the Holding Company.
Big Brother and the Holding Company were the epitome of San Francisco acid rock at the time. They were the house band at the Avalon Ballroom, which Helms ran, and their first ever gig had been at the Trips Festival, which we talked about briefly in the Grateful Dead episode. They were known for being more imaginative than competent — lead guitarist James Gurley was often described as playing parts that were influenced by John Cage, but was equally often, and equally accurately, described as not actually being able to keep his guitar in tune because he was too stoned. But they were drawing massive crowds with their instrumental freak-out rock music.
Helms thought they needed a singer, and he had remembered Joplin, who a few of the group had seen playing the coffee houses. He decided she would be perfect for them, though Joplin wasn’t so sure. She thought it was worth a shot, but as she wrote to her parents before meeting the group “Supposed to rehearse w/ the band this afternoon, after that I guess I’ll know whether I want to stay & do that for awhile. Right now my position is ambivalent—I’m glad I came, nice to see the city, a few friends, but I’m not at all sold on the idea of becoming the poor man’s Cher.”
In that letter she also wrote “I’m awfully sorry to be such a disappointment to you. I understand your fears at my coming here & must admit I share them, but I really do think there’s an awfully good chance I won’t blow it this time.”
The band she met up with consisted of lead guitarist James Gurley, bass player Peter Albin, rhythm player Sam Andrew, and drummer David Getz. To start with, Peter Albin sang lead on most songs, with Joplin adding yelps and screams modelled on those of Roky Erickson, but in her first gig with the band she bowled everyone over with her lead vocal on the traditional spiritual “Down on Me”, which would remain a staple of their live act, as in this live recording from 1968:
[Excerpt: Big Brother and the Holding Company, “Down on Me (Live 1968)”]
After that first gig in June 1966, it was obvious that Joplin was going to be a star, and was going to be the group’s main lead vocalist. She had developed a whole new stage persona a million miles away from her folk performances. As Chet Helms said “Suddenly this person who would stand upright with her fists clenched was all over the stage. Roky Erickson had modeled himself after the screaming style of Little Richard, and Janis’s initial stage presence came from Roky, and ultimately Little Richard. It was a very different Janis.”
Joplin would always claim to journalists that her stage persona was just her being herself and natural, but she worked hard on every aspect of her performance, and far from the untrained emotional outpouring she always suggested, her vocal performances were carefully calculated pastiches of her influences — mostly Bessie Smith, but also Big Mama Thornton, Odetta, Etta James, Tina Turner, and Otis Redding. That’s not to say that those performances weren’t an authentic expression of part of herself — they absolutely were. But the ethos that dominated San Francisco in the mid-sixties prized self-expression over technical craft, and so Joplin had to portray herself as a freak of nature who just had to let all her emotions out, a wild woman, rather than someone who carefully worked out every nuance of her performances.
Joplin actually got the chance to meet one of her idols when she discovered that Willie Mae Thornton was now living and regularly performing in the Bay Area. She and some of her bandmates saw Big Mama play a small jazz club, where she performed a song she wouldn’t release on a record for another two years:
[Excerpt: Big Mama Thornton, “Ball ‘n’ Chain”]
Janis loved the song and scribbled down the lyrics, then went backstage to ask Big Mama if Big Brother could cover the song. She gave them her blessing, but told them “don’t” — and here she used a word I can’t use with a clean rating — “it up”.
The group all moved in together, communally, with their partners — those who had them. Janis was currently single, having dumped her most recent boyfriend after discovering him shooting speed, as she was still determined to stay clean. But she was rapidly discovering that the claim that San Franciscans no longer used much speed had perhaps not been entirely true, as for example Sam Andrew’s girlfriend went by the nickname Speedfreak Rita.
For now, Janis was still largely clean, but she did start drinking more. Partly this was because of a brief fling with Pigpen from the Grateful Dead, who lived nearby. Janis liked Pigpen as someone else on the scene who didn’t much like psychedelics or cannabis — she didn’t like drugs that made her think more, but only drugs that made her able to *stop* thinking (her love of amphetamines doesn’t seem to fit this pattern, but a small percentage of people have a different reaction to amphetamine-type stimulants, perhaps she was one of those). Pigpen was a big drinker of Southern Comfort — so much so that it would kill him within a few years — and Janis started joining him.
Her relationship with Pigpen didn’t last long, but the two would remain close, and she would often join the Grateful Dead on stage over the years to duet with him on “Turn On Your Lovelight”:
[Excerpt: Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead, “Turn on Your Lovelight”]
But within two months of joining the band, Janis nearly left. Paul Rothchild of Elektra Records came to see the group live, and was impressed by their singer, but not by the rest of the band. This was something that would happen again and again over the group’s career. The group were all imaginative and creative — they worked together on their arrangements and their long instrumental jams and often brought in very good ideas — but they were not the most disciplined or technically skilled of musicians, even when you factored in their heavy drug use, and often lacked the skill to pull off their better ideas.
They were hugely popular among the crowds at the Avalon Ballroom, who were on the group’s chemical wavelength, but Rothchild was not impressed — as he was, in general, unimpressed with psychedelic freakouts. He was already of the belief in summer 1966 that the fashion for extended experimental freak-outs would soon come to an end and that there would be a pendulum swing back towards more structured and melodic music. As we saw in the episode on The Band, he would be proved right in a little over a year, but being ahead of the curve he wanted to put together a supergroup that would be able to ride that coming wave, a group that would play old-fashioned blues.
He’d got together Stefan Grossman, Steve Mann, and Taj Mahal, and he wanted Joplin to be the female vocalist for the group, dueting with Mahal. She attended one rehearsal, and the new group sounded great. Elektra Records offered to sign them, pay their rent while they rehearsed, and have a major promotional campaign for their first release.
Joplin was very, very, tempted, and brought the subject up to her bandmates in Big Brother. They were devastated. They were a family! You don’t leave your family! She was meant to be with them forever!
They eventually got her to agree to put off the decision at least until after a residency they’d been booked for in Chicago, and she decided to give them the chance, writing to her parents “I decided to stay w/the group but still like to think about the other thing. Trying to figure out which is musically more marketable because my being good isn’t enough, I’ve got to be in a good vehicle.”
The trip to Chicago was a disaster. They found that the people of Chicago weren’t hugely interested in seeing a bunch of white Californians play the blues, and that the Midwest didn’t have the same Bohemian crowds that the coastal cities they were used to had, and so their freak-outs didn’t go down well either.
After two weeks of their four-week residency, the club owner stopped paying them because they were so unpopular, and they had no money to get home. And then they were approached by Bob Shad.
(For those who know the film Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, the Bob Shad in that film is named after this one — Judd Apatow, the film’s director, is Shad’s grandson)
This Shad was a record producer, who had worked with people like Big Bill Broonzy, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, and Billy Eckstine over an eighteen-year career, and had recently set up a new label, Mainstream Records. He wanted to sign Big Brother and the Holding Company. They needed money and… well, it was a record contract! It was a contract that took half their publishing, paid them a five percent royalty on sales, and gave them no advance, but it was still a contract, and they’d get union scale for the first session.
In that first session in Chicago, they recorded four songs, and strangely only one, “Down on Me”, had a solo Janis vocal. Of the other three songs, Sam Andrew and Janis dueted on Sam’s song “Call on Me”, Albin sang lead on the group composition “Blindman”, and Gurley and Janis sang a cover of “All Is Loneliness”, a song originally by the avant-garde street musician Moondog:
[Excerpt: Big Brother and the Holding Company, “All is Loneliness”]
The group weren’t happy with the four songs they recorded — they had to keep the songs to the length of a single, and the engineers made sure that the needles never went into the red, so their guitars sounded far more polite and less distorted than they were used to. Janis was fascinated by the overdubbing process, though, especially double-tracking, which she’d never tried before but which she turned out to be remarkably good at. And they were now signed to a contract, which meant that Janis wouldn’t be leaving the group to go solo any time soon. The family were going to stay together.
But on the group’s return to San Francisco, Janis started doing speed again, encouraged by the people around the group, particularly Gurley’s wife. By the time the group’s first single, “Blindman” backed with “All is Loneliness”, came out, she was an addict again.
That initial single did nothing, but the group were fast becoming one of the most popular in the Bay Area, and almost entirely down to Janis’ vocals and on-stage persona. Bob Shad had already decided in the initial session that while various band members had taken lead, Janis was the one who should be focused on as the star, and when they drove to LA for their second recording session it was songs with Janis leads that they focused on.
At that second session, in which they recorded ten tracks in two days, the group recorded a mix of material including one of Janis’ own songs, the blues track “Women is Losers”, and a version of the old folk song “the Cuckoo Bird” rearranged by Albin. Again they had to keep the arrangements to two and a half minutes a track, with no extended soloing and a pop arrangement style, and the results sound a lot more like the other San Francisco bands, notably Jefferson Airplane, than like the version of the band that shows itself in their live performances:
[Excerpt: Big Brother and the Holding Company, “Coo Coo”]
After returning to San Francisco after the sessions, Janis went to see Otis Redding at the Fillmore, turning up several hours before the show started on all three nights to make sure she could be right at the front. One of the other audience members later recalled “It was more fascinating for me, almost, to watch Janis watching Otis, because you could tell that she wasn’t just listening to him, she was studying something. There was some kind of educational thing going on there. I was jumping around like the little hippie girl I was, thinking This is so great! and it just stopped me in my tracks—because all of a sudden Janis drew you very deeply into what the performance was all about. Watching her watch Otis Redding was an education in itself.”
Joplin would, for the rest of her life, always say that Otis Redding was her all-time favourite singer, and would say “I started singing rhythmically, and now I’m learning from Otis Redding to push a song instead of just sliding over it.”
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “I Can’t Turn You Loose (live)”]
At the start of 1967, the group moved out of the rural house they’d been sharing and into separate apartments around Haight-Ashbury, and they brought the new year in by playing a free show organised by the Hell’s Angels, the violent motorcycle gang who at the time were very close with the proto-hippies in the Bay Area. Janis in particular always got on well with the Angels, whose drugs of choice, like hers, were speed and alcohol more than cannabis and psychedelics.
Janis also started what would be the longest on-again off-again relationship she would ever have, with a woman named Peggy Caserta. Caserta had a primary partner, but that if anything added to her appeal for Joplin — Caserta’s partner Kimmie had previously been in a relationship with Joan Baez, and Joplin, who had an intense insecurity that made her jealous of any other female singer who had any success, saw this as in some way a validation both of her sexuality and, transitively, of her talent. If she was dating Baez’s ex’s lover, that in some way put her on a par with Baez, and when she told friends about Peggy, Janis would always slip that fact in.
Joplin and Caserta would see each other off and on for the rest of Joplin’s life, but they were never in a monogamous relationship, and Joplin had many other lovers over the years. The next of these was Country Joe McDonald of Country Joe and the Fish, who were just in the process of recording their first album Electric Music for the Mind and Body, when McDonald and Joplin first got together:
[Excerpt: Country Joe and the Fish, “Grace”]
McDonald would later reminisce about lying with Joplin, listening to one of the first underground FM radio stations, KMPX, and them playing a Fish track and a Big Brother track back to back. Big Brother’s second single, the other two songs recorded in the Chicago session, had been released in early 1967, and the B-side, “Down on Me”, was getting a bit of airplay in San Francisco and made the local charts, though it did nothing outside the Bay Area:
[Excerpt: Big Brother and the Holding Company, “Down on Me”]
Janis was unhappy with the record, though, writing to her parents and saying, “Our new record is out. We seem to be pretty dissatisfied w/it. I think we’re going to try & get out of the record contract if we can. We don’t feel that they know how to promote or engineer a record & every time we recorded for them, they get all our songs, which means we can’t do them for another record company. But then if our new record does something, we’d change our mind. But somehow, I don’t think it’s going to.”
The band apparently saw a lawyer to see if they could get out of the contract with Mainstream, but they were told it was airtight. They were tied to Bob Shad no matter what for the next five years.
Janis and McDonald didn’t stay together for long — they clashed about his politics and her greater fame — but after they split, she asked him to write a song for her before they became too distant, and he obliged and recorded it on the Fish’s next album:
[Excerpt: Country Joe and the Fish, “Janis”]
The group were becoming so popular by late spring 1967 that when Richard Lester, the director of the Beatles’ films among many other classics, came to San Francisco to film Petulia, his follow-up to How I Won The War, he chose them, along with the Grateful Dead, to appear in performance segments in the film.
But it would be another filmmaker that would change the course of the group’s career irrevocably:
[Excerpt: Scott McKenzie, “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)”]
When Big Brother and the Holding Company played the Monterey Pop Festival, nobody had any great expectations. They were second on the bill on the Saturday, the day that had been put aside for the San Francisco acts, and they were playing in the early afternoon, after a largely unimpressive night before. They had a reputation among the San Francisco crowd, of course, but they weren’t even as big as the Grateful Dead, Moby Grape or Country Joe and the Fish, let alone Jefferson Airplane.
Monterey launched four careers to new heights, but three of the superstars it made — Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, and the Who — already had successful careers. Hendrix and the Who had had hits in the UK but not yet broken the US market, while Redding was massively popular with Black people but hadn’t yet crossed over to a white audience. Big Brother and the Holding Company, on the other hand, were so unimportant that D.A. Pennebaker didn’t even film their set — their manager at the time had not wanted to sign over the rights to film their performance, something that several of the other acts had also refused — and nobody had been bothered enough to make an issue of it. Pennebaker just took some crowd shots and didn’t bother filming the band.
The main thing he caught was Cass Elliot’s open-mouthed astonishment at Big Brother’s performance — or rather at Janis Joplin’s performance. The members of the group would later complain, not entirely inaccurately, that in the reviews of their performance at Monterey, Joplin’s left nipple (the outline of which was apparently visible through her shirt, at least to the male reviewers who took an inordinate interest in such things) got more attention than her four bandmates combined.
As Pennebaker later said “She came out and sang, and my hair stood on end. We were told we weren’t allowed to shoot it, but I knew if we didn’t have Janis in the film, the film would be a wash. Afterward, I said to Albert Grossman, ‘Talk to her manager or break his leg or whatever you have to do, because we’ve got to have her in this film. I can’t imagine this film without this woman who I just saw perform.”
Grossman had a talk with the organisers of the festival, Lou Adler and John Phillips, and they offered Big Brother a second spot, the next day, if they would allow their performance to be used in the film. The group agreed, after much discussion between Janis and Grossman, and against the wishes of their manager:
[Excerpt: Big Brother and the Holding Company, “Ball and Chain (live at Monterey)”]
They were now on Albert Grossman’s radar. Or at least, Janis Joplin was.
Joplin had always been more of a careerist than the other members of the group. They were in music to have a good time and to avoid working a straight job, and while some of them were more accomplished musicians than their later reputations would suggest — Sam Andrew, in particular, was a skilled player and serious student of music — they were fundamentally content with playing the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore and making five hundred dollars or so a week between them. Very good money for 1967, but nothing else.
Joplin, on the other hand, was someone who absolutely craved success. She wanted to prove to her family that she wasn’t a failure and that her eccentricity shouldn’t stop them being proud of her; she was always, even at the depths of her addictions, fiscally prudent and concerned about her finances; and she had a deep craving for love. Everyone who talks about her talks about how she had an aching need at all times for approval, connection, and validation, which she got on stage more than she got anywhere else. The bigger the audience, the more they must love her.
She’d made all her decisions thus far based on how to balance making music that she loved with commercial success, and this would continue to be the pattern for her in future. And so when journalists started to want to talk to her, even though up to that point Albin, who did most of the on-stage announcements, and Gurley, the lead guitarist, had considered themselves joint leaders of the band, she was eager.
And she was also eager to get rid of their manager, who continued the awkward streak that had prevented their first performance at the Monterey Pop Festival from being filmed. The group had the chance to play the Hollywood Bowl — Bill Graham was putting on a “San Francisco Sound” showcase there, featuring Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, and got their verbal agreement to play, but after Graham had the posters printed up, their manager refused to sign the contracts unless they were given more time on stage.
The next day after that, they played Monterey again — this time the Monterey Jazz Festival. A very different crowd to the Pop Festival still fell for Janis’ performance — and once again, the film being made of the event didn’t include Big Brother’s set because of their manager.
While all this was going on, the group’s recordings from the previous year were rushed out by Mainstream Records as an album, to poor reviews which complained it was nothing like the group’s set at Monterey:
[Excerpt: Big Brother and the Holding Company, “Bye Bye Baby”]
They were going to need to get out of that contract and sign with somewhere better — Clive Davis at Columbia Records was already encouraging them to sign with him — but to do that, they needed a better manager. They needed Albert Grossman.
Grossman was one of the best negotiators in the business at that point, but he was also someone who had a genuine love for the music his clients made. And he had good taste — he managed Odetta, who Janis idolised as a singer, and Bob Dylan, who she’d been a fan of since his first album came out. He was going to be the perfect manager for the group.
But he had one condition though. His first wife had been a heroin addict, and he’d just been dealing with Mike Bloomfield’s heroin habit. He had one absolutely ironclad rule, a dealbreaker that would stop him signing them — they didn’t use heroin, did they?
Both Gurley and Joplin had used heroin on occasion — Joplin had only just started, introduced to the drug by Gurley — but they were only dabblers. They could give it up any time they wanted, right? Of course they could. They told him, in perfect sincerity, that the band didn’t use heroin and it wouldn’t be a problem.
But other than that, Grossman was extremely flexible. He explained to the group at their first meeting that he took a higher percentage than other managers, but that he would also make them more money than other managers — if money was what they wanted. He told them that they needed to figure out where they wanted their career to be, and what they were willing to do to get there — would they be happy just playing the same kind of venues they were now, maybe for a little more money, or did they want to be as big as Dylan or Peter, Paul, and Mary? He could get them to whatever level they wanted, and he was happy with working with clients at every level, what did they actually want?
The group were agreed — they wanted to be rich. They decided to test him. They were making twenty-five thousand dollars a year between them at that time, so they got ridiculously ambitious. They told him they wanted to make a *lot* of money. Indeed, they wanted a clause in their contract saying the contract would be void if in the first year they didn’t make… thinking of a ridiculous amount, they came up with seventy-five thousand dollars.
Grossman’s response was to shrug and say “Make it a hundred thousand.”
The group were now famous and mixing with superstars — Peter Tork of the Monkees had become a close friend of Janis’, and when they played a residency in LA they were invited to John and Michelle Phillips’ house to see a rough cut of Monterey Pop. But the group, other than Janis, were horrified — the film barely showed the other band members at all, just Janis. Dave Getz said later “We assumed we’d appear in the movie as a band, but seeing it was a shock. It was all Janis. They saw her as a superstar in the making. I realized that though we were finally going to be making money and go to another level, it also meant our little family was being separated—there was Janis, and there was the band.”
[Excerpt: Big Brother and the Holding Company, “Bye Bye Baby”]
If the group were going to make that hundred thousand dollars a year, they couldn’t remain on Mainstream Records, but Bob Shad was not about to give up his rights to what could potentially be the biggest group in America without a fight. But luckily for the group, Clive Davis at Columbia had seen their Monterey performance, and he was also trying to pivot the label towards the new rock music. He was basically willing to do anything to get them.
Eventually Columbia agreed to pay Shad two hundred thousand dollars for the group’s contract — Davis and Grossman negotiated so half that was an advance on the group’s future earnings, but the other half was just an expense for the label. On top of that the group got an advance payment of fifty thousand dollars for their first album for Columbia, making a total investment by Columbia of a quarter of a million dollars — in return for which they got to sign the band, and got the rights to the material they’d recorded for Mainstream, though Shad would get a two percent royalty on their first two albums for Columbia.
Janis was intimidated by signing for Columbia, because that had been Aretha Franklin’s label before she signed to Atlantic, and she regarded Franklin as the greatest performer in music at that time. Which may have had something to do with the choice of a new song the group added to their setlist in early 1968 — one which was a current hit for Aretha’s sister Erma:
[Excerpt: Erma Franklin, “Piece of My Heart”]
We talked a little in the last episode about the song “Piece of My Heart” itself, though mostly from the perspective of its performer, Erma Franklin. But the song was, as we mentioned, co-written by Bert Berns. He’s someone we’ve talked about a little bit in previous episodes, notably the ones on “Here Comes the Night” and “Twist and Shout”, but those were a couple of years ago, and he’s about to become a major figure in the next episode, so we might as well take a moment here to remind listeners (or tell those who haven’t heard those episodes) of the basics and explain where “Piece of My Heart” comes in Berns’ work as a whole.
Bert Berns was a latecomer to the music industry, not getting properly started until he was thirty-one, after trying a variety of other occupations. But when he did get started, he wasted no time making his mark — he knew he had no time to waste. He had a weak heart and knew the likelihood was he was going to die young. He started an association with Wand records as a songwriter and performer, writing songs for some of Phil Spector’s pre-fame recordings, and he also started producing records for Atlantic, where for a long while he was almost the equal of Jerry Wexler or Leiber and Stoller in terms of number of massive hits created. His records with Solomon Burke were the records that first got the R&B genre renamed soul (previously the word “soul” mostly referred to a kind of R&Bish jazz, rather than a kind of gospel-ish R&B).
He’d also been one of the few American music industry professionals to work with British bands before the Beatles made it big in the USA, after he became alerted to the Beatles’ success with his song “Twist and Shout”, which he’d co-written with Phil Medley, and which had been a hit in a version Berns produced for the Isley Brothers:
[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, “Twist and Shout”]
That song shows the two elements that existed in nearly every single Bert Berns song or production. The first is the Afro-Caribbean rhythm, a feel he picked up during a stint in Cuba in his twenties. Other people in the Atlantic records team were also partial to those rhythms — Leiber and Stoller loved what they called the baion rhythm — but Berns more than anyone else made it his signature.
He also very specifically loved the song “La Bamba”, especially Ritchie Valens’ version of it:
[Excerpt: Ritchie Valens, “La Bamba”]
He basically seemed to think that was the greatest record ever made, and he certainly loved that three-chord trick I-IV-V-IV chord sequence — almost but not quite the same as the “Louie Louie” one. He used it in nearly every song he wrote from that point on — usually using a bassline that went something like this:
[plays I-IV-V-IV bassline]
He used it in “Twist and Shout” of course:
[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, “Twist and Shout”]
He used it in “Hang on Sloopy”:
[Excerpt: The McCoys, “Hang on Sloopy”]
He *could* get more harmonically sophisticated on occasion, but the vast majority of Berns’ songs show the power of simplicity. They’re usually based around three chords, and often they’re actually only two chords, like “I Want Candy”:
[Excerpt: The Strangeloves, “I Want Candy”]
Or the chorus to “Here Comes the Night” by Them, which is two chords for most of it and only introduces a third right at the end:
[Excerpt: Them, “Here Comes the Night”]
And even in that song you can hear the “Twist and Shout”/”La Bamba” feel, even if it’s not exactly the same chords. Berns’ whole career was essentially a way of wringing *every last possible drop* out of all the implications of Ritchie Valens’ record.
And so even when he did a more harmonically complex song, like “Piece of My Heart”, which actually has some minor chords in the bridge, the “La Bamba” chord sequence is used in both the verse:
[Excerpt: Erma Franklin, “Piece of My Heart”]
And the chorus:
[Excerpt: Erma Franklin, “Piece of My Heart”]
Berns co-wrote “Piece of My Heart” with Jerry Ragavoy. Berns and Ragavoy had also written “Cry Baby” for Garnet Mimms, which was another Joplin favourite:
[Excerpt: Garnet Mimms, “Cry Baby”]
And Ragavoy, with other collaborators like Chip Taylor and Mort Shuman, would write several other songs that Joplin would sing. As soon as Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane first played the record for Big Brother, “Piece of My Heart” entered their set and became one of the highlights.
To record the new album, which would have Big Brother’s version of “Piece of My Heart” as its lead-off single, Albert Grossman brought in John Simon to be the producer. Simon was at the time working with a lot of people in Grossman’s orbit. As we heard in the episode on “The Weight”, he had worked with Peter, Paul, and Mary and when he met with Big Brother he was just finishing up work on the Band’s Music From Big Pink. He’d also recently produced Gordon Lightfoot, another client of Grossman’s, the first album by Leonard Cohen, who wasn’t managed by Grossman but whose manager worked out of Grossman’s office, and Child is Father to the Man by Blood, Sweat & Tears, featuring Grossman’s associate Al Kooper:
[Excerpt: Blood, Sweat & Tears, “So Much Love”]
So it’s unsurprising that Grossman wanted a steady, proven, producer for this untried band, especially as they were having their own problems. Gurley, in particular, had had a reaction to Jimi Hendrix’s performance at Monterey that must have resonated with Joplin. He’d always thought of himself as an interesting, good, player, but he quickly realised that there was nothing he could ever do to become as good as Hendrix, and he essentially stopped trying, becoming a heavier and heavier user of heroin and other drugs. At one point Albert Grossman had even suggested firing Gurley, but had been rebuffed by the rest of the band — they were a family. Families stuck together. But Sam Andrew started playing more and more of the leads to cover up for Gurley’s increasing incapacity.
The group’s first attempt to record an album for Columbia didn’t go well. The plan was to record a live album, and recordings were made of their shows at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit. Sadly for the group, the support act for those shows, local heroes MC5, blew the audience away and made Big Brother seem unimpressive by comparison. The audience reacted unenthusiastically, the band played badly, and the tapes were deemed completely unusable, though when a couple of tracks from the shows were released on a compilation a few years later, they got some praise from Lester Bangs for their at times proto-metal sound:
[Excerpt: Big Brother and the Holding Company, “Down on Me (live at the Grande, Detroit)”]
On hearing the tapes, Grossman tried to persuade Joplin that she’d do better with more competent musicians, an opinion that was shared by John Simon, though Simon was also not hugely impressed with Joplin herself. Early on, he played them the tapes of Music From Big Pink and told them that that was what he thought good music was. The Band’s careful songcraft couldn’t have been more different from Big Brother’s jamming.
He said later “I always thought they were a great performance band, but I didn’t think they made it as a recording band. I liked seeing them; I liked the excitement in the audience, but there was a time when what was music and what the public thought was music were very far apart to my way of thinking. The drugs! That’s how Janis Joplin could happen in the first place. Everyone’s mind was fried! Look, they made a lot of people happy. That’s important and it counts and it shouldn’t be held against them that they couldn’t make music! They had a cult and a following and as a San Francisco phenomenon, they were in their element and then … well … for some probably sociological reason, Clive Davis forced them to make a record! I’m serious! You know, there’s studied music and there’s tribal music and their stuff leaned more toward tribal music. What they should have had was an Alan Lomax field recording from San Francisco!”
The album did have one live track on it, a version of “Ball and Chain” that was indeed recorded in San Francisco, but even there Simon edited the track. As his assistant Elliot Mazer said “John Simon could hear a mistake in an eight-minute song, and know that it was measure 134. He could call up another take of the same song, find measure 134, and know if it was the right tempo and whether the splice would work. He’s a mathematician. He’s brilliant.”
The rest of the album though was recorded in the studio but had looped crowd noise added so it would sound live, because as Simon said “If the listeners assumed these were live tracks, then bad or out-of-tune playing would be sort of more permitted than if it had been called a studio album.”
Simon also had perfect pitch, and found working with Big Brother, who often played out of tune, almost physically painful, even when they were doing something like Sam Andrew’s rearrangement of Gershwin’s “Summertime”, which contained one part with some added chords that Simon called “exquisitely beautiful”. As well as changing some of the chords, Andrew also came up with a new intro for the song, which involved him taking a melody inspired by the Prelude in C Minor from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier:
[Excerpt: Glenn Gould, “Bach: Prelude in C Minor”]
And slowing it down to half speed. But unfortunately, as Simon said, the band “seemed to think you could simulate Bach when each musician played a stream of steady eighth notes. They hadn’t paid much attention to the fact that the eighth notes always had to create harmony between them. As a result, the ‘Bach’ they made was much more dissonant than I suspect even they had hoped”
But Simon put in the work, getting the band to record the parts time and again, and editing tracks together, sometimes with dozens of splices, to come up with performances that sounded seamless:
[Excerpt: Big Brother and the Holding Company, “Summertime”]
Simon, though, made no secret of the fact that he hated working with the band, who he regarded as complete incompetents with the exception of Joplin, about whom he had the opposite problem. None of the musicians, to Simon’s mind, could stay in tune or give a competent performance — they were more concerned about feeling good in the moment than about such trivialities as playing the right notes. Joplin, on the other hand, he thought was soulless because she was giving calculated performances. To him, a great blues or jazz singer sang a song differently every time, putting feeling into it. Janis *sounded* like she was putting feeling into the performances, but in truth she had worked out every nuance of her performance, every scream or moan or gasp, pulling in bits of phrasing from Tina Turner or Etta James or Otis Redding, and would perform it exactly the same way every time.
As Mazer later said “Janis would sing a song basically the same way every damn time. The guys working on the 1993 boxed set at Columbia would call me up and say, ‘It’s amazing! Seventeen takes and she sounds the same on every one!’… She was really smart, about the smartest artist I ever worked with. She had a vanity about her singing and she sang the words, the meaning, and orchestrated a way of doing it that was very moving. It was this incredibly powerful combination of intellect and spontaneous feeling. There’s a magic to it that few people can get.”
Simon did the initial rough mix of the album, but quit before the final mix, which was done in a thirty-six hour session by Mazer, engineer Fred Catero, and Joplin herself, who had an intense interest in the recording process by now. Simon asked not to have a production credit on the album, which he intensely disliked, but didn’t refuse the money he got from it — luckily for him, as the group were told that the album had sold enough in pre-orders to go gold while they were still working on sequencing and mixing the album. Simon told Rolling Stone magazine the album “is as good as the band and that’s about it”
The album, originally titled Sex, Dope, and Cheap Thrills, but later renamed just Cheap Thrills, was released in August along with a single, Sam Andrew’s rearrangement of “Piece of My Heart”:
[Excerpt: Big Brother and the Holding Company, “Piece of My Heart”]
The track was much longer than Erma Franklin’s original version, and so radically reworked that when Franklin first heard it on the radio she didn’t recognise it as the same song. It didn’t have the backing vocals that Franklin’s original did, instead having Joplin sing the relevant parts as part of her lead vocal, and it included two solos from Andrew:
[Excerpt: Big Brother and the Holding Company, “Piece of My Heart”]
It also started out with the bridge rather than going directly into the first verse as Franklin’s original did. The track as recorded shows clear signs of editing, with dynamic changes that sound more like splices than deliberate performance choices, and the performances are still sloppy, but Joplin’s vocal, which transforms Franklin’s reproachful original into a howl of pain, is what makes the record:
[Excerpt: Big Brother and the Holding Company, “Piece of My Heart”]
56) The single made the top twenty. The album made number one.
The album cover was originally going to be a photo of the group, which was vetoed by the label in part because Joplin’s breasts were exposed on it, so instead Joplin got her friend the underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, who she knew through her old college acquaintance Gilbert Shelton, to draw a cover, with caricatures of the band members (with Joplin’s nipples overemphasised, because Crumb’s style is to put those thoughts that most people would repress on the page, and to oversexualise women, especially fat women), the logo of the San Francisco chapter of the Hell’s Angels, and with small illustrations for each song, including (because Crumb’s unrepressed thoughts contain a great deal of racism) a grotesquely racist “Mammy” caricature for “Summertime”.
No doubt that illustration in particular did little to defuse the arguments that the group were being caught up in about the appropriation of Black music. Ever since the group had come to prominence, people had been comparing Joplin to Aretha Franklin to try to make points about whether or not white people could perform music associated with Black people — a very live question at this time as the temporary desegregation of the American music industry that had been happening up to about 1965 was making a sharp reversal, with “rock” music starting to be the province of white people while soul was for Black musicians and audiences.
In the New York Times, for example, William Kloman described the group as “the embodiment of the hippie fantasy: middle-class kids with long blond hair pretending to be black/ The whole thing comes off as bad parody, a kind of plastic soul that lacks the humor and relative integrity of, say, the old ‘Amos n Andy’ shows.”, and called the album “a stereophonic minstrel show, and probably the most insulting album of the year”. Miles Davis said of the record industry “They sell nothing but white skin, blond hair and blue eyes. They sell that rock by Janis Joplin … sounds like a Xerox copy of Otis Redding”, and Jerry Wexler said of Joplin “When a person truly sings the blues, there’s no strain, no trying to make it sound right. I can always hear Janis straining. I don’t know. There are people who think she’s almost an unwitting parodist. But I’d give anything to produce her.”
These controversies would follow Joplin for the rest of her career. But they wouldn’t follow Big Brother and the Holding Company. Before the album was even released, Joplin called a band meeting. She was leaving the group at the end of November, once they’d done a tour to promote the album. And she was taking Sam Andrew with her. The family was going to be breaking up.
The last months the group were together were tense. At one show, Joplin’s heavy breathing was picked up by the microphone and Albin joked to the audience that she was doing a Lassie impersonation. Joplin screamed abuse at him on stage, and Albin squared off prepared to punch her. Unwittingly, he’d trod on a nerve — Joplin’s terrible insecurity about her appearance meant that being compared to a dog set off some of her worst traumas — but it was the kind of thing that would have been settled much more easily before she announced she was leaving the group.
joplin’s new group was put together by Skip Prokop, who had previously been the drummer for a band managed by Grossman, the Paupers:
[Excerpt: The Paupers, “If I Call You By Some Name”]
But Prokop soon bowed out, because even though Andrew was by far the most competent musician from Big Brother, he was still not up to the job in Prokop’s opinion, but Joplin insisted he was going to remain in the band. The new larger band, which would be retroactively named the Kozmic Blues Band, was meant to be a combination of the new horn-driven rock sounds of Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears, and the funkier sound of Stax records. Joplin was going to make soul music like her idols, not psychedelic rock music.
Indeed her very first solo gig with the new band was at a Christmas party at Stax Records in Memphis, only three days after their first ever rehearsal. What Joplin hadn’t realised was that the assassination of Martin Luther King a few months before had irrevocably changed the attitudes of the Memphis musicians. Where before Black and white musicians had mixed freely and collaborated, now there was a growing distrust between the races.
We’ll discuss that more in a future episode on Stax, but this didn’t just apply to Stax, though they were the most immediately and intensely affected. Where in 1966 and 67 the general feeling had been that the counterculture was moving towards some post-racial utopia where Black and white people alike could play psychedelic soul-infused blues music, now a Black man like Jimi Hendrix playing music for white audiences was derided by other Black people in terms I won’t repeat, while white singers like Joplin who were influenced by Black musicians were thought of as not far from minstrelsy.
Joplin hadn’t noticed this change, having been distracted by her own incredible rise to fame. The way she was thinking can be summed up in one of her choices of songs to cover at the Stax show, “To Love Somebody” by the Bee Gees:
[Excerpt: The Bee Gees, “To Love Somebody”]
That song summed up 1967 — it was a white band, from Britain via Australia, but the song had been written at the request of Otis Redding, and in Redding’s style, for him to perform, though he’d died before he could cut his version.
But December 1968 wasn’t 1967, and the Memphis audience, who had just seen a bunch of the best acts Stax had to offer perform their thrilling, tight, funky sets, were determinedly unimpressed by the white woman from Texas and her Canadian and Californian backing musicians playing a sloppy, unrehearsed, version of a Bee Gees song. And they weren’t much more impressed with her cover of their own Eddie Floyd either. She played three songs of her planned five-song set then left the stage, not yet having played “Piece of My Heart” or “Ball and Chain”. The expectation was that she’d do those as the encore. But there was no encore.
A week later, the keyboard player and trumpeter had quit the band before their second gig — the trumpeter because his heroin habit was making him unreliable, and the keyboard player because he was arrested for draft evasion and fled to Mexico. This would be a sign of things to come — the Kozmic Blues Band never had a stable lineup. Indeed for their second gig they had to disguise their bass player, Brad Campbell, by using an eyebrow pencil to make his blonde moustache look darker, and had him wear a hat and sunglasses, because his visa had expired and they were afraid he’d be arrested on stage and deported to Canada.
And after Prokop had left, the group also didn’t have a musical director. Joplin had very clear ideas of what she wanted from her band — she wanted something like Booker T and the MGs with the Memphis horns, or like the Ike and Tina Turner Revue — but she was used to working as part of a group democracy where arrangements would evolve out of jamming. She had no experience of communicating her arrangement ideas to anyone else.
The new group didn’t get anything like the love that Big Brother had. Their first gig in San Francisco was another gig where the audience didn’t call for an encore, even though this was the crowd that had brought Joplin to fame in the first place. In Ralph Gleason’s review of the show he said she should “scrap this band and go right back to being a member of Big Brother, if they’ll have her.”
Partly because of this negative reaction, Joplin’s heroin use increased, and around this time she had what would be the first of several overdoses, though she was saved by the friends she was with.
But on a subsequent European tour, the band managed to gel and start sounding competent, and got a good reaction from audiences who hadn’t seen her with Big Brother:
[Excerpt: Janis Joplin and the Kozmic Blues Band, “Maybe (live in Germany)”]
Though the last show of the tour, at the Albert Hall in London, was rather spoiled when Sam Andrew, also a heroin user, overdosed in the afterparty, and Joplin and a friend had to dunk him in a bath of ice water to try to revive him, while their guest Eric Clapton was hustled out of the suite in case he was arrested for his own heroin use.
After the tour ended, Janis recorded her first solo album, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, produced by Gabriel Mekler, who had produced “Born to be Wild” for Steppenwolf and would go on to produce a string of hits from Three Dog Night. The sessions didn’t go very well — Mekler was not impressed with her backing band, and insisted on replacing a couple of them with studio musicians, much to the annoyance of those members who were not replaced, such as horn player Snookie Flowers, who said “We were musicians and we knew how to play. We weren’t just a bunch of hippies running around playing three chords. Luis Gasca had left the Count Basie Band to play with Janis Joplin.”
The sessions were tense, with one engineer quitting after rows with Joplin, and according to Flowers they never actually finished the album, going on tour instead of doing the final sessions. It’s generally considered something of a disappointment after Cheap Thrills, whose reputation has only grown in the decades since, but the album does have some high points, like Joplin’s version of the Rodgers and Hart song “Little Girl Blue”, modelled on Nina Simone’s version, which was good enough that Simone herself would praise Joplin’s performance:
[Excerpt: Janis Joplin, “Little Girl Blue”]
And the title track, “Kozmic Blues”, co-written by Joplin and Mekler, about the depression that sometimes overwhelmed her, and which she thought was summed up by her father’s idea of the “Saturday night swindle”:
[Excerpt: Janis Joplin, “Kozmic Blues”]
The album was dedicated “to Nancy G” — Nancy Gurley, James Gurley’s wife, who had been the one to reintroduce Joplin to amphetamines when she’d returned to San Francisco three years earlier, had died of an overdose after her husband injected her with purer heroin than she was used to. James Gurley was arrested for second-degree murder and Joplin contributed $20,000 for his defence — despite their differences, they were still family.
And the same went for Sam Andrew, who she fired soon after, but who agreed to stay in the band long enough to train up his replacement, John Till, who Grossman had found playing for Ronnie Hawkins in Hawkins’ latest lineup of Hawks. Till’s first gig as sole guitarist with Joplin was at a three-day festival in upstate New York:
[Excerpt: Janis Joplin and the Kozmic Blues Band, “To Love Somebody (Live at Woodstock)”]
But Woodstock is a story for another time.
By the middle of 1969, the Kozmic Blues Band were actually tight and sounding as funky as Joplin had hoped from the start, as can be heard on one of the few TV appearances they ever made, on Tom Jones’ show, where Joplin and Jones dueted in a genuinely astonishing performance:
[Excerpt: Janis Joplin and Tom Jones, “Raise Your Hand”]
But I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, was less successful than Cheap Thrills — it made number five on the charts, but number five is underwhelming when your last album was number one, and it had no hit singles. That and the constant churn in personnel persuaded Joplin that she should disband the Kozmic Blues Band and stop trying to be a soul singer. Instead she was going to go in a different direction.
Janis had always loved country music, and had sung that as much as blues in her early folk club days, and by 1969 there was a revival of interest in country among people who a few years earlier had been folk-rockers. Joplin had become a fan of the Flying Burrito Brothers, who played country-rock music influenced by Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, and she had recently ordered herself a suit from Nudie Cohen, the tailor who made rhinestone-encrusted clothes for country performers.
And she’d started playing around with a song written by a songwriter who like her was from Texas but was now based in Nashville, and with whom she’d soon strike up an affair, Kris Kristofferson:
[Excerpt: Kris Kristofferson, “Me and Bobby McGee”]
The disbanding of the Kozmic Blues Band coincided with Joplin’s attempts to clean up her life. She bought a small house in a quiet area, and wrote to a friend “Y’ know how we discussed the two ways of facing the Kozmic Blues… ? One to get stoned & try and have as good a time as possible & two, to try & adjust to it? Well I’m going to try #2. No dope, walks in the woods, learn yoga, maybe (don’t laugh) horseback riding, try to learn to play piano—I think all this & the excitement of having a house & the incredible peace you feel there ought to be wonderful.”
She went to a doctor to get help getting off heroin, and succeeded, using methadone to help her break the habit, though she had occasional relapses. And in March she went back into the studio to cut some tracks with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, produced by a young client of Albert Grossman’s, Todd Rundgren, who had just started releasing tracks with his band The Nazz:
[Excerpt: The Nazz, “Hello, It’s Me”]
Those sessions didn’t go anywhere much. She also did a one-off reunion show with Big Brother, with the group also backing her on a couple of her solo songs in the show.
But her main aim was putting together a new band. She kept Till and bass player Brad Campbell from the Kozmic Blues Band, and they persuaded her that the best thing to do was to add the other members of their former group the Full-Tilt Boogie Band – Richard Bell, who had been the organ player in the Hawks with Till, plus Canadian piano player Ken Pearson and Minnesotan drummer Clark Pierson.
It’s notable that this lineup — four Canadians plus an American drummer, ex-members of the Hawks, with a pianist and an organ player — is a suspiciously close match to that of The Band. It’s hard to tell at this point whether this was Grossman trying to recreate a winning formula, Joplin belatedly deciding John Simon had been right when he’d told Big Brother what real music was, or just a coincidence, but it’s worth noting.
She was now close with Kris Kristofferson, and she started planning a new album and a new way forward for her career. She was going to make a country-soul album. It would have songs by Ragavoy and Berns, who had written her biggest hit, and by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, who had written for Aretha Franklin but whose songs had also been covered by the Flying Burrito Brothers. It would also have Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee”, and a few originals like her song “Mercedes Benz”:
[Excerpt: Janis Joplin, “Mercedes Benz”]
She also came up with an alter ego, to try to create some distance between herself and her onstage persona. She would be known as Pearl — though sources differ as to whether that would be her name for her onstage persona, or her secret name for herself offstage that only her friends could use. One clue might lie in the fact that Joplin’s next album was to be titled Pearl and the cover saw her wearing ostentatious clothes not a million miles away from those that her idol Bessie Smith would wear — and that her on-again, off-again lover Peggy started calling herself Ruby, just like Smith’s closest friend and niece. Though Joplin saw little of Peggy at this point — she was trying to keep herself clean and largely did so by avoiding people who might drag her back into her old ways.
Bessie Smith was definitely on Joplin’s mind. When Paul Rothchild, the producer who’d tried to sign her four years earlier, came on board to produce her new album, he asked her what she wanted to be in thirty years, and she replied “like the world’s greatest blues singer, Bessie Smith”. And in August that year, Smith finally got her headstone, thirty-three years after her death. Half of it was paid for by Juanita Green, a woman who had done housework for Smith when she was young and who had since become successful, and the other half was paid for by Joplin.
But things started to unravel again around the time Joplin paid for that headstone. She got into a relationship with a man who, from all the descriptions of him, sounds very much the same type as the fiancee who had jilted her years earlier, and who treated her appallingly. But she got engaged to him, despite having barely known him any length of time. She was going to have the happy nuclear family she’d always talked about wanting to want. Though of course they were going to have an open relationship.
She went back to Port Arthur for her high school class’s tenth anniversary reunion, intending to show up and show all the people who’d tormented her how well she was doing. But her old classmates mocked her or ignored her, just as they had when she was a teenager, and she was not helped by some ill-advised remarks about the town she made to local TV. Her mother, upset by the same remarks, got into a row with her and ended up screaming “I wish you’d never been born!”, the only time she ever said anything like that to her daughter. And just to top everything off, while she was there she went with her sister to see her childhood idol Jerry Lee Lewis performing live. Lewis insulted Joplin’s appearance (or that of her sister, the anecdote gets confused in the telling), Joplin slapped him, and he punched her in return.
And then in September, at the start of the sessions for the album, she discovered that Peggy was staying in the same hotel as her. More specifically she discovered that when she saw one of her regular heroin dealers in the lobby, making a delivery to Peggy. Soon she was back on the heroin again.
She was also horribly upset, roughly a week after she started using again, at the death of her friend Jimi Hendrix. When she was asked for a comment on his death for the press, she just said “There but for the grace of God…I wonder what they’ll say about me after I die?”
But the music she was making was the best she ever made. For the first time she was in the studio with a producer who really respected her, and a band who could really play. She was making her first truly great album. “Me and Bobby McGee”, in particular, was obviously going to be a hit:
[Excerpt: Janis Joplin, “Me and Bobby McGee”]
On Saturday October the third she had exciting plans for after the day’s session — she was going to have a threesome with Peggy and her fiance, in part to celebrate their wedding plans. She’d just had her hair done with blonde streaks to impress her lovers, and the day before she’d gone to get a prenuptial agreement drawn up.
But when she was in the studio, she got a call from her fiance — he was now not going to come until the next day. She got into a row with him and got upset, and decided to leave cutting her vocals to the next day. The instrumental track they’d been working on was called “Buried Alive in the Blues”:
[Excerpt: The Full Tilt Boogie Band, “Buried Alive in the Blues”]
Later that night she was stood up by Peggy as well. At one o’clock in the morning on October the fourth, alone in her hotel room, she shot up her normal dose of heroin. Unusually for her she skin-popped, injecting it subcutaneously so it would be a slow release, rather than intravenously like she normally did.
She then went down to the lobby to get change for the cigarette machine, and had a friendly chat with the desk clerk. She bought her cigarettes, went back up to her room, and sat on the bed. And then the heroin hit her system. She collapsed to the floor, still clutching her change. The heroin she had bought was four or five times purer than the normal street stuff, and she had a low tolerance after being clean for so long. She died, alone, thirty-three years to the day after Bessie Smith’s funeral.
The album, Pearl, was completed after her death, Rothchild splicing together performances from what had already been recorded and getting the band to finish off the backing tracks. “Buried Alive in the Blues” was left as an instrumental, a marker of what might have been. “Me and Bobby McGee” went to number one when it came out.
And the San Francisco scene of which she’d been the queen carried on without her. The night she was found dead the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Quicksilver Messenger Service were all playing the Winterland in San Francisco. When they were told she was dead, they continued performing as if nothing had happened. One reporter backstage started crying, and was told to get out as “he was laying his bad trip on everybody.”
Meanwhile LA’s heroin dealers had a new sales pitch. “It’s so strong it OD’d Janis.”
Jerry Garcia told Rolling Stone “nobody’s really uptight about death,” and that “It was the best possible time for her death,” because it meant she would never “passed that point into decline, you know, getting messed up, old, senile, done in.”
In the end, Janis, the misfit who had wanted more than anything to be loved, who had spent all her life desperately craving a fulfillment she could never get, and who had been the Queen of Haight-Ashbury, the “first hippie pinup chick” as she called herself, died just as she was becoming the artist she had always wanted to be, and what Garcia referred to as the “sensitive, far-out, weird people” decided the best thing to do was to just not think about it.
Some people just needed more love than the Love Generation had to offer.
[Excerpt: Janis Joplin, “It’s Sad to Be Alone” into outro]