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11 January 2023

How Janis Joplin set the template for rock’s outcasts

The Sixties icon, who would be turning 80 in January, belonged to an era when personal suffering was viscerally bound up in music.

By Kate Mossman

Janis Joplin would be turning 80 on 19 January. What would she be doing now? She might have appeared on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny as the obligatory veteran white-blues turn. Perhaps she’d be living in Santa Fe, selling her paintings – spooky scarecrows and angular nudes – and wearing Navajo jewellery. Or she could have fulfilled her fantasy of buying a bar in Marin County to entertain all her friends – though she’d have to be sober. Joplin’s bar dream was insurance for when she inevitably blew out her voice from singing. When she died in October 1970, she was working with a producer called Paul Rothchild who had encouraged her, to her surprise and delight, to think of her career 30 years hence, and her instrument likewise. In most of her interviews, she’d suggested her voice would last as long as she did, and that might not be very long at all.

Everyone who met and wrote about Joplin during her brief and dazzling exposure was fascinated by how alive she was. She was a human experiment, devoted to the exploration of the moment: an embodiment of the idea that “anything is possible for those who don’t wait”, as the New York Times put in in 1968, and the antithesis of the delayed gratification pushed by the parental generation and the “system”. Everything she felt, she lived, in front of you. The idea of musical authenticity was so powerful in the late 1960s that she became the blueprint for it, though she wrote few of her songs.

Joplin felt most alive on stage as that is where she felt most loved: off stage, she often felt pain, and the pain had to be numbed. At Thomas Jefferson High School in Port Arthur, Texas, she was a bullied beatnik misfit who was sent to a psychologist by her parents. She would spend her life trying to get her family’s acceptance.

As a teenager, Joplin made a decision “to be the person that was inside of me and be true to myself”, which all sounds very healthy, and very now – but it is a complicated concept, striving to live out the very qualities that make you an outcast. To be oneself is one thing, but a damaged self needs constant validation, and that is what Joplin was about – a wild, vulnerable, extroverted, needy, half-formed person developing in real time before millions of eyes. She turned herself inside out for people, on stage and in interviews. One day, she realised how often she mentioned Southern Comfort in interviews: she got her manager’s assistant to send some press clippings to the drink company and received a nice fur coat back in a sponsorship deal.

If you were a rock star in those days, no one from your entourage was likely to stop you self-destructing so long as you were physically able to get up and sing. Before her Woodstock set, Joplin, nervous at the 400,000-strong crowd, did a massive hit of heroin and was unable to perform, until pushed on stage by her road manager, John Cooke, and her lover Peggy Caserta. She smiled glassily, reminded the audience not to take any shit, that music was for grooving to – but still revealed moments of agonising connectedness: listen to her version of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain” (the ultimate version comes from the Monterey Pop Festival).

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My generation came to Joplin through an a cappella skit, recorded in one take and used in the 1990s, without irony, in ads for its namesake, Mercedes-Benz. On her final album she sang Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee”, which gives you a taste of the country record she’d have made had she lived to 80, probably with Rick Rubin.

It is common these days for artists to cancel gigs if they’re not feeling up to it. Amy Winehouse was perhaps the last great singer whose personal suffering was viscerally bound up in the music, part of the very thing people were paying for. Janis Joplin’s story has an unusual resonance because the way she lived her life was the result of her teenage pact with herself. As the “authenticity” became a performance, she was swallowed up by it. In August 1970 she crashed her high school reunion – with a film crew and a giant pink feather headdress – bent on revenge, a lesson for “those kids who are still working in gas stations and driving dry-cleaning trucks while I’m making $50,000 a night”. She died two months later. In one of the many letters she wrote to her parents she apologised for being a disappointment: “Please believe, you can’t possibly want for me to be a winner more than I do.”

[See also: The Britpop nostalgia complex]

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This article appears in the 11 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Burning down the House of Windsor