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‘If I Fail, I’ll Fail in Front of the Whole World.’ How Janis Joplin Became The Singer Who Wouldn’t Settle

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On September 30, 1970, a reporter asked Janis Joplin to explain her fearless sexuality. “It seems to bother a lot of women’s lib people that you’re kind of so upfront sexually,” Village Voice writer Howard Smith told her. Joplin, by then accustomed to such criticism, responded: “I’m representing everything they said they want.… It’s sort of like: you are what you settle for.… You’re only as much as you settle for. If you don’t settle for that and you keep fighting it, you know, you’ll end up anything you want to be… I’m just doing what I wanted to and what feels right and not settling for bullshit and it worked. How can they be mad at that?”

Janis made it sound as if fighting the urge to settle was the most natural thing to her. But deep down inside there had always been the yearning for doing exactly that: getting the house, the white picket fence and the husband. They had been the middle-class hopes of her mother, Dorothy, who herself had fought hard for a life of stability in 1950s Port Arthur, Texas. Janis, her mother’s daughter, was often tormented about leaving that white picket fence behind. “I keep pushing so hard the dream/I keep tryin’ to make it right/Through another lonely day,” she sang in “Kozmic Blues.”

She was born a misfit—a tomboy, a painter, a girl who didn’t accept arbitrary boundaries, a girl with a big voice—but she never stopped wanting to belong. That’s why, years later at the age of 25, it had been so daring of her to leave behind the band that had launched her, Big Brother and the Holding Company. She had joined the group in San Francisco in June 1966 and two months later they were bunking communally in Marin County. Despite technical shortcomings as musicians, they were a dynamic live band with a solid following, and they correctly saw in Janis the element that would elevate them to status similar to their Haight-Ashbury scene-mates Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. Sure enough, Big Brother and the Holding Company broke big in June 1967 at the Monterey Pop Festival, signing with Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman, who secured a lucrative deal for them with Columbia Records.

But Joplin was beginning to feel again that part of her that would not settle. Her ambition ratcheted up. She looked more to her heroes Nina Simone and Etta James. Rather than shriek over Big Brother’s blaring psychedelic “freak rock,” Joplin longed to work her voice with more nuance, and explore soul and other musical genres; she envisioned keyboards, a horn section, more sophisticated tunes. In remarkable letters she wrote her parents, she explained, “I have to find the best musicians in the world & get together & work. There’ll be a whole lot of pressure because of the ‘vibes’ created by my leaving Big Brother & also by just how big I am now. So we’ve got to be just super when we start playing—but we will be.” To New York Times reporter Michael Lydon, she admitted: “I’m scared. I think, ‘It’s so close. Can I make it?’ If I fail, I’ll fail in front of the whole world. If I miss, I’ll never have a second chance on nothing. But I gotta risk it. I never hold back…” Anyone who really knew her would not have been surprised by her leap of faith. As a roughhousing tomboy in Port Arthur, she’d exhibited a fierce will not unlike that of her father, Seth, who led a double life as a Texaco engineer by day, and a cerebral bookworm and atheist by night. He and Dorothy adored their daughter, but their showdowns were legend—Janis refusing to do what she was told, damn the consequences. With adolescence came compulsive risk-taking; she was the female “mascot” among a group of outlier intellectual boys, a role that helped set a bold Joplin in motion.

Unlike her father, Joplin would not hide her defiance. She vocally opposed segregation in her high school, which made her a target of bullies and racists. She sought out the hard-to-find music of Lead Belly and Bessie Smith, sneaking out to juke joints with boys, and was accused of sleeping with her male companions. At 17, after a midnight ramble in New Orleans, she crashed her father’s car. She would soothe the shame with alcohol, the first drug on which she became dependent. And then she’d do it all again.

Joplin found temporary solace in traveling, which she’d been introduced to by Kerouac’s On the Road, a game-changer for her. Her first taste of freedom came at 19, when she briefly lived like a beatnik in Venice Beach, California, then hitchhiked alone to San Francisco, before hightailing it back to Texas. She soon cultivated an ardent following of fellow college students in Austin, who clamored to hear her sing blues, country, and folk with her first group, the Waller Creek Boys.

Forever restless, Joplin hitchhiked for the second time to San Francisco the day after her 20th birthday in 1963. Already writing songs and accompanying herself on an autoharp, she floored audiences in the Bay Area, gaining confidence and vocal skill, gig by gig. But after spending the summer of ’64 in New York’s Lower East Side, where she learned to play 12-string guitar, Joplin became addicted to methamphetamines. She returned to Port Arthur yet again, sobered up at the Joplin homestead, and attempted to renounce her life as an artist. But she could not resist opportunities to perform in Houston and Austin clubs, where her voice manifested ever more powerfully, an uncorked siren calling her away from the life of dutiful commuter student and sociology major at Beaumont’s Lamar Tech. At age 23, after sharing a bill in Austin with the 13th Floor Elevators, she split town for Haight-Ashbury yet again. When she wrote her parents to give them her whereabouts, she promised to stay clean.

In just over a year, she achieved much of what she thought she wanted, but chafed at the constraints of Big Brother. As she turned to heroin to soften anxiety and fears of rejection, her urge to rebel—even within the parameters of the counterculture—could not be reined in. “I’ve been doing it for 26 years,” she told the New York Times in 1969, conflating her age and her lifelong iconoclasm, “and all the people who were trying to compromise me are now coming to me, man. You better not compromise yourself, it’s all you got.… I’m a goddamn living example of that…. People aren’t supposed to be like me, sing like me, make out like me, drink like me, live like me, but now they’re paying me $50,000 a year for me to be like me. That’s what I hope I mean to those kids out there… that they can be themselves and win. You just have to start thinking that way, being that righteous with yourself, and you’ve won already.”

Joplin’s great champion Ellen Willis, a rare female rock critic of the era, worried for post-Big Brother Janis in the pages of The New Yorker. “Did Big Brother perhaps give her more than we realized?” she wrote. As often happens with performers, Joplin had to learn in public, so the initial answer to this question was a resounding maybe. Only three months after assembling her back-up players, Joplin was still finding her way, which showed in her two-night stand at New York’s Fillmore East. Joplin didn’t fall back on her usual over-the-top performance techniques, but modulated herself, doing the “kind of things that milk you rather than hammer you,” she said. Willis was one of the few critics who seemed to get it.

Rolling Stone’s Paul Nelson resolutely panned the shows, describing Joplin as “The Judy Garland of Rock” who “strangled the songs to death.” Six weeks later, when she performed back in San Francisco at Bill Graham’s Winterland, her “people” did not call for an encore—a first on her own turf. Afterwards in the dressing room, journalist John Bowers noted, “She is pale, as if in shock, saying, ‘San Francisco’s changed, man. Where are my people? They used to be so wild. I know I sang well! I know I did!’” One of her earliest fans, esteemed jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason, advised her in his San Francisco Chronicle column to “scrap this band and go right back to being a member of Big Brother if they’ll have her.”

Hurt but undaunted, Joplin continued to pursue her musical vision. She recorded her debut solo album, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, its title alluding to a persistent existential dread her father had called “the Saturday night swindle.” She’d written new songs including “One Good Man,” a Bessie Smith blues update. Other material ranged from her adaptation of the Chantels’ “Maybe,” a favorite from her teen years, and Rodgers and Hart’s “Little Girl Blue,” inspired by the 1959 Nina Simone recording of the song. (Simone would later applaud Joplin’s version.)

The album debuted on Billboard on October 11, 1969, remained there for 28 weeks and gradually moved up to #5. Joplin’s aching original “Kozmic Blues” just missed the Top 40, hitting #41. Reviews were lukewarm, with Joplin, again, being taken to task—by male critics—for being “bent on becoming Aretha Franklin” and dumping Big Brother. An exception was an insightful Village Voice piece by Johanna Schier (later Johanna Hall, coauthor of the Pearl track, “Half Moon”), who wrote that Joplin “was singing stronger and better… The top of her range is more solid and her vocal control is maturing… She breaks through into greatness by anyone’s standards.” Backed by her Kozmic Blues Band, she would play the biggest venues of her career to date, including a sold-out concert on December 19 at Madison Square Garden.

Janis Joplin Performing in Concert
Janis Joplin and her final group, the Full Tilt Boogie Band, perform at the Festival for Peace at Shea Stadium in August 1970.Bettmann Archive

The first year of her brief solo flight, Joplin headlined Woodstock, performing an hour-long set in the middle of the night, singing until her voice gave out. She made her debut on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Dick Cavett Show, appeared on the cover of Newsweek (the cover line: “The Rebirth of the Blues”), and toured Europe for the first time, a series of concerts garnering rapturous responses. At London’s Royal Albert Hall, she’d even managed to roust a sold-out, normally staid audience from their seats.

Joplin remained peripatetic, musically speaking, and driven. She’d learned to play and sing Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” and the song opened new doors. Joplin sought a smaller, rootsier-sounding unit to bring it, and other material, to life. She would christen this group Full Tilt Boogie. With them, she would mature as a bandleader and co-producer of her recorded output, all gloriously evident on her final album, Pearl, and in footage of Joplin and Full Tilt Boogie’s live performances. Following her death during the Pearl sessions, on October 4, 1970, “Me and Bobby McGee” topped the charts for two weeks, and Pearl became the most commercially successful album of her career. Despite her kozmic blues and the critics’ initial discouragement, Joplin, of course, had refused to settle for anything less than traveling the road her music took her.

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