And so, every few months, I'll go to Nice Price Books or to the book fair over at the State Fairgrounds or the PTA Thrift Store and load up when they have a huge book sale. It's always the same thing: one art book, one crafts book (there is always some craft project going on in the living room), one history book, and one biography. If I'm supremely lucky, I will find a treasure of a book on old movie stars and/or filmmaking...especially silent films...and I will guard that find like my life depended on it until checkout. I take my books...and the inspiration they give me, like music did long ago...seriously. In case you haven't noticed, I'm really very fond of words.
Sometime this past summer, I was able to find a 'double nugget' of gold: a biography of one of my favourite singers, Janis Joplin. Called "Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin", by Alice Echols, it's probably one of the best biographies I've not only read about her, but one of the best I've read period. In sometimes a painful fashion, Echols takes the woman so many of her fans (such as myself) have put on a tragic, windswept pedestal and makes her human. Whereas Janis prided herself in her later years (if you can say that about someone who died at age 27) in appearing larger than life, Echols explains why that boozy facade existed in the first place, and it's a fascinating, yet painful journey. She also better explains the whole San Fransisco music scene to those of us too young to remember it. (I was born in 1970 to conservative-thinking parents...the type of people Janis ran away from in Texas...so what I've learned about it, I've learned on my own.) Remember, folks, this was the time before Bill Graham and others developed (and arguably ruined mainstream music) the machinery of rock n' roll as we know it now, with the huge arenas, overpriced tickets and merchandise, and outrageous contractual riders. This is a time when not only love and drugs were being experimented with on a wide scale, but also the whole meaning of what it was to be a successful musician or musical group. The love and drugs may have went away, but the Train of Rock only caught steam and never looked back. Whether that's good or bad, we can all debate later.
What so many people don't choose to acknowledge is that Janis led the way for other, far more successful, female singers of today to be who they are, to be successful in what is still a male-dominated arena. Specifically, in expressing sexuality -- on- and offstage. While the 'rawness' of Janis's sex has been manufactured into the plastic 'doll-like' sex of any number of 20-something lip synchers, women expressing those sexual needs and wants was a new phenomenon (especially white women) to a mainstream audience. When Janis did it in the 1960s, though, there was no 'marketing blueprint' for female rock singers to follow. Mistakes perhaps were made, and certainly addictions were developed. The addictions, the insecurities, the lack of an emotional and supportive anchor was not introduced with Janis...but because she was in the public eye to such an extreme, she did become the poster child. The fact that Janis was also quite well-read, intelligent, and with a quick wit never makes it into the discussion about her these days and that's a horrible legacy. In many ways, she was a desperately lonely woman who was succeeding professionally only to fail miserably personally...a plight that has dominated women, regardless of profession, then and ever since. The double, sometimes triple, standard for women still exists...it's a rare woman who can be successful personally, professionally, and still be seen as a sexual yet intelligent person. Somewhere in that mix there is intense pressure for the woman to 'give up' one of these facets. Janis didn't succeed without enormous guilt for what she had 'lost', and personally I have yet to find an ambitious woman who hasn't felt the same.
Janis is a polarizing figure even now because of her 'ballsiness'...because she chose her profession over a family and the 'traditional' route of husband and family...but also she was a woman in a man's occupation at a time when the music scene was massively changing with each coming year. It's a shame, really, that even now it's rare to hear one of her songs on the radio. So many other staples of the time...and many that sound so much more dated than any blues-laced ballad Janis ever did...get constant airplay on the classics channels. Much to the detriment of Janis' influence and style, she's only known now to younger generations for a song, ("Me and Bobby McGee") which became a enduring success for her only after her life had ended. That, and her brief ditty "Mercedes Benz", because it accompanied a TV car commercial for the same a few years back. Everything else...and she did a wide catalog of songs with her bands and also solo...seems to have been forgotten, overlooked, or both. Her and Big Brother's version of "Summertime" is, without doubt, one of my top four favourite songs of all time. To those that love that voice, to those that understand truly what her interpretation of what Gershwin's lyrics meant...there is no greater rendition of that song on record.
There's more to Janis' memory than just a boozy broad who slept around, drank and drugged too much, and who could wail like no other. But good luck in convincing the media these days of that...
Unless you happened across a blog entry today from Danny Miller on The Huffington Post. In a wonderful piece...part public eulogy never printed, part history lesson never told...Miller talks about the loss of Janis and what she has meant to those that did 'get' her. He writes with the great love of a fan who saw the funny, sharp, tortured, and intelligent Janis on TV as a teen and was intrigued. Oh, what I would give to trade places with his memories. Who knows if Miller is right about Janis remaining a 'dynamic voice' in the music industry, but had she finally got clean and lived, it would be very interesting to see what kind of influence she would have had on all these wanna-be female singers who claim to be 'authentic'. I can only hope she would have been happy, as she so painfully was not so much of her life. Sadly, we'll never know.
I really miss Janis, too. There is no one...has been no one...to fill the void she left 37 years ago and we've all lost because of it. But here's to a happy birthday for her --- and happy memories for us --- for she deserves the public display of love at long last.