A friend just sent me an article about Janis Joplin because a new biography is just out about her. She was a blazing comet on the rock music scene in the 1960’s, but, like all comets, vanished too quickly to be taken in fully. The new biography talks about how much she knew about music and how serious she was about making it. Of course, all her plans and dreams were vexed and then destroyed by her reckless engagement with alcohol and drugs. As I read the article I felt sadder and sadder because her biographer has found records of the constant abuse she endured from an early age. School mates taunted her for being a “:tom boy.” As she entered her teens, those tormenters called her vile names and subjected her to physical assaults/beatings. Her way of coping was to assume personae that cast her even farther from the stifling norms of the times.
Music was her escape hatch. From the start, she sang words in timbres that shocked or excited audiences, depending on how far we were able to travel with her down her rock road. She had a gravely voice with lower registers that distinguished her from her peers. Many of her songs were about being an outsider, a misfit, a rebel with a cause, a putatively free spirit who dressed outlandishly and wore her marvelous hair as a rich but unruly mass of curls that clearly refused to allow a comb or brush on the premise. Over time, she also was unable to disguise how high or hung over she often was until the jarring headlines announcing her death from a massive overdose appeared.
So why am I spending time here in 2019 talking about Janis? Because I came to her and her music in the throes of my own downward spiral. By the late 1960s when Joplin was turning out albums and astonishing audiences, I was teaching literature at the University of Minnesota and sliding further into alcoholism. Her lyrics mirrored how I had felt as a Southern girl, only six years older than Janis. I was a devout tom boy defying my mother’s concerted efforts to groom me into being a “belle” waiting for her knight on his white horse. In high school I didn’t begin primping and talking with girlfriends about whether the right boy to ask me to a football game or the Saturday double feature movies. Failing at all this, I escaped into books rather than music, but the loneliness and desperation I heard in Janis’ singing felt just like mine as I turned those pages in all those novels every weekend.
If I let my hair grow a little longer before having it cut, I could look enough like Janis to fool me if no one else. My singing voice left a lot to be desired but that turned out to be an asset when I sang her lyrics, memorizing one after the other and singing them all in my loudest gravely voice in front of a full-length mirror. My favorite song was not any of the ones now listed as “The ten Joplin songs you want to sing.” It was “Mercedes Benz,” one of her only a cappella numbers. Thinking back on that strange time, I am quite sure I sounded enough like her to have been able to do an impersonation at some fancy cocktail party. The words have never left me, or at least the important ones haven’t. “O Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz/ My friends all have Porsches I must make amends.” That came first, following by these openings of the remaining two verses: “O Lord won’t you buy me a color TV/Dialing for Dollars is calling to me” and “O Lord won’t you buy me a night on the town.” The last line of the song is “Won’t you buy me the next round.” The ad for that record shows Joplin lying on her side nursing a pint bottle of bourbon. Her brand was not mine but I look at that photograph even today and recognize that constructed face and those sad sad eyes.
So I’m very glad I was able to make a different decision from the one Janis could make: at 37, I stopped drinking Jack Daniels and began a long and sometimes excruciatingly slow journey to recovery of sanity first and by this point sheer delight in the life I’m blessed to be living. Reading about her I feel huge sadness that we lost her and even sadder that she was not able to stop her careening course of self-destruction. I just listened to her singing “Mercedes Benz” and the pain is unavoidable under that grave belting. Surely it is also worth noting that it is the “Lord” she learned about in some Texas Christian congregation where, who knows, she may have belted out hymns as a child.