Forty-five years ago, I was seven and my hippy uncle came for a visit and brought his albums with him. I was drawn to the artwork of Cheap Thrills. It was the first album by Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company. It remains one of my favorite albums of all time. She appeared on the rock scene singing blues with a raw power. She claimed she never wrote a song down on paper. Her gift was improvisation on stage as she effortlessly hit the right note and kept up with the rhythm of her band. Her extensive range and ability to roar with soulful belting or whispering moan impressed anyone who heard her.
Her songs are about lost-love, desperation, and loneliness from men who made promises they could not keep. Although these are melancholy topics, Janis did not hold a grudge. She expressed hope and optimism on the stage. She made love to her audience with great passion and tenderness. That kind of intimacy and transcendence made her, in my opinion, a very brave woman. Her personal credence was to be real; success did not change her. She played no games with the media or tried to portray a refined version of herself. As a rock star, she rarely wore makeup or succumbed to materialism. Janis understood your pain, and her geniality added to her potent energy. She was genuine and that made her a sister of mine. What a role model. What a powerful legacy.
If you are curious about her brief career and want to see live footage including her stand-out performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival (I love Mama Cass’s wowed expression during “Ball and Chain”), I recommend the 1974 Canadian documentary by Howard Alk called Janis: The Way She Was.
Behind the voice on the edge of the spotlight, Big Brother and the Holding Company kept up with her in style. I love guitarists Sam Andrews and Peter Albin, and drummer David Getz.
While “Piece of My Heart” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” are probably her best known songs, I never tire listening to the guitar or the voice of Joplin in “Summertime” from Cole Porter’s Porgy and Bess. It’s a perfect example showing the wide range of sounds you get from listening to her songs.
On October 4, 1970, at the age of 27, Janis Joplin overdosed on heroin. She would have been 72 this October. For me, she never died.