Janis Joplin Would Have been 75 on January 19

| January 15, 2018

Photo: An unbridled force: Janis Joplin in full flow. Photograph: Crawley/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

Worth reading: Janis Joplin: the singer who screamed a very American pain
by Nick Coleman, the Guardian

“With her raw, anguished voice, Joplin – who would have been 75 this month – was a hippy icon. But on Piece of My Heart she became something darker still.”

My first encounter with extreme feeling in pop music came a couple of years before I was capable of registering any kind of extreme feeling myself. In 1971, Janis Joplin was the sound of approaching anguish for my generation of 11-year-olds. Her sandpaper howls were for us, I suppose, what we thought of when we thought of the existential scream of nature, as we often did: an auditory update of Edvard Munch for the post-hippy generation. When she let rip, the world formed its mouth into an O and put its hands up to the sides of its face.

But what did we know of her really? Very little. I remember registering at the time (probably from advertising copy, poster art and LP sleeves) her vivid personal iconography: round, tinted specs, feather boas in her hair and a hungry grin that opened her face to the sky. I also think I acquired the knowledge that she was Texan, that she was a roustabout and that she had expired only recently, as part of the same hippy decimation that had disposed of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, all of them victims of excess of one kind or another. Had she lived, she would have been 75 this month.

These events had qualified as real news at the time and had been reported in newspapers and on broadcast media, up to a point. But the reports were not followed up, as far as I was aware, with extended media inquests or compassionate reflection in wider society. It was just news. It was what had happened. I certainly did not tut moralistically over it, but at the same time I was not entirely sure, at the age of 11, about how to think about such things. I felt nervous about them. I didn’t know what heroin was, and I hoped I never had to take it.

I thought of her as an unbridled force and one whose output was fuelled by unhappiness. You couldn’t sound like that and be happy – and nor could you sound like that if you felt at ease within the architecture of the world you had been given: in her case, presumably, the world of strictured white social conformity in the postwar era. A person who sounded like this represented a challenge to your own sense of ease in the world.

The Joplin song you heard emanating most often from the bedroom doors of your friends’ elder siblings, and very occasionally from the radio, was her version of Erma Franklin’s defiant minor soul hit Piece of My Heart, a not wholly unsubtle genre piece penned by jobbing writer/producer Jerry Ragovoy. Franklin’s original 1967 Piece of My Heart is a hymn to strong-willed, if slightly irritable, stoic self-possession in love – it’s a little glum, but it is also resilient.

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Photo:  An unbridled force: Janis Joplin in full flow. Photograph: Crawley/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

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