• U.S.

Music: Blues for Janis

6 minute read

People seem to have a high sense of drama about me. Maybe they can enjoy my music more if they think I’m destroying myself.

Janis Joplin knew that the aura of self-destruction was part of her appeal. She also knew that to her contemporaries she was much more than a rock singer. She was a tragic heroine whose character summed up all the contradictions, frustrations and despairs of life under 30. It was her special gift that nightly she seemed to triumph over her burdens in concerts that were a kind of cathartic theater of the young. Her exuberances, her frenzies, her “highs” set off chain explosions in the audiences. The quart bottle of Southern Comfort that she held aloft onstage was at once a symbol of her load and a way of lightening it. As she emptied the bottle, she grew happier, more radiant, and more freaked out. The spread of the feet grew wider, the stomp more frantic. The flopping mop of hair did its best, but could not completely hide the tightening grimace of the face. As the mouth opened wide, the macadam voice, scarred by booze and cigarettes, grew louder and bolder:

Time keeps movin’ on,

Friends they turn away.

I keep movin’ on,

But I never found out why.

I keep pushin’ so hard, an’ babe,

I keep try’n to make it right

to another lonely day.

Last week, on a day that superficially at least seemed to be less lonely than most, Janis Joplin died on the lowest and saddest of notes. Returning to her Hollywood motel room after a late-night recording session and some hard drinking with friends at a nearby bar, she apparently filled a hypodermic needle with heroin and shot it into her left arm. The injection killed her.

Purists insist that no white man or woman can really sing the blues, because they cannot have known the pain of body and soul from which true blues rise. In her music, Janis certainly came as close to authentic blues as any white singer ever has. Her life, too, contained generous portions of disorder and early sorrow. In her native Port Arthur, Texas (pop. 56,000), a staid Gulf Coast city dominated by the oil refineries that employed her father, she was an awkward child, part tomboy, part appassionata manqué. Save for a brief stint as a cherubic church soprano, she was an outcast, a rebel against conventions both adult and preadolescent. “They put me down, man, those square people in Port Arthur,” she later told an interviewer. “And I wanted them so much to love me.”

In reaction she developed into the city’s first hippie. Rejected (“They threw rocks at me in class,” she recalled with typical Joplin hyperbole), she ran away to the West Coast at age 17.

For several years she floated around San Francisco from coffee houses to small folk festivals, puffing a little pot and belting out Bessie Smith blues ballads (her other idol was Leadbelly) in a competent but slightly affected style. She was into drugs as well as alcohol, but troubled by the fact. By early 1965, she had pulled out and gone home to her father, mother (a registrar at a local business college), and her younger brother and sister. For two years she dabbled at college, and one way or another got enough learning to read Freud and describe herself as a “Scott Fitzgerald freak.”

By the middle of 1966, several old San Francisco friends had got together a promising rock band called Big Brother and the Holding Company. Since the Jefferson Airplane had Signe Anderson (later replaced by Grace Slick), the boys sent for Janis to be their lead singer. She began to learn about rock ‘n’ roll, and to please her, they began to learn about the blues. By the time of the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, after months of hard practicing in Haight-Ashbury, they were ready. The documentary film Monterey Pop is the celluloid affidavit of their triumph.

A year and a half later, Janis, reaching for superstardom, quit the group and moved out on her own. With a little help from Albert Grossman, who also manages Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary and The Band, she soon developed into the world’s top female rock singer, commanding as much as $50,000 a night. Like her idol Bessie Smith, Janis had a singing style as earthy as a streetwalker. There were myriad subtle ways in which her voice could range from a deep throaty groan to a high tender croon. When she licked into a phrase like “Oh, I’d be so good to ya, babe, yeah!” (Turtle Blues), there was no mistaking the kind of ecstasy she had in mind.

Tragic Gamble. Too young at 27, too important to the lives of millions of her generational kin, Janis died unaccountably at a time when life seemed ready, for a change, to offer some answers. She was as aware as anyone of the deaths of major talents who tragically thought drugs were something they could gamble with and win; most recently there was the death of the king of rock erotica, Jimi Hendrix. In the fall of 1969, she was taking a six-month vacation “to clear my head.” By last February she claimed to have kicked heroin. “I don’t touch drugs,” she told an interviewer at the time. “These kids who touch drugs are crazy when they can have a drink of Southern Comfort.”

Just recently she acquired her first steady beau, Seth Morgan, 21, an affluent Easterner from Blue Hill, Me., who thrilled Janis by, among other things, paying the dinner checks she always used to have to pick up herself, even when in a crowd. To her friends, she talked casually of the possibility of marriage. Her new back-up group, the Full Tilt Boogie Band, had got excellent notices on a coast-to-coast tour last summer. Recording sessions for Columbia—six-day-a-week affairs, often running from 2 p.m. to midnight—had been going well. Out of ten songs planned for her new album, she had only two left to complete. One was Buried Alive in the Blues by her friend Nick Gravenites. Sample verse: “All caught up in a landslide, bad luck pressing in from all sides/ Got bucked off of my easy ride, buried alive in the blues.” For pop singers, the alternative to a hit is oblivion. Janis Joplin had big hopes for Buried Alive.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com