Life on the Edge: Rock Queen Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin always stood out from the crowd. Growing up in the Gulf town of Port Arthur, Texas, Joplin discovered Jack Kerouac and the blues of Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Lead Belly. She knew she was a misfit, and gathered early on that Port Arthur wouldn’t long remain her home.
The University of Texas at Austin wasn’t much more of a fit for the outsider. “She goes barefooted when she feels like it, wears Levi’s to class because they’re more comfortable, and carries her autoharp with her everywhere she goes so that in case she gets the urge to break into song it will be handy,” wrote the school newspaper in a profile on her. “Her name is Janis Joplin.”
When Joplin made her way to San Francisco in 1963, a new music scene was emerging. Combining folk and country—and mixing in a good dose of the drugs that were just then becoming popular, including LSD, pot and amphetamines—it was called the “San Francisco Sound,” or “Acid Rock.” Joplin met future Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and recorded a few tracks in her distinctive Texas blues wail.
After a brief return to Texas, Joplin came back to San Francisco, where rock promoter Chet Helms introduced her to a band that was seeking a singer, Big Brother and the Holding Company. In June 1966, Joplin joined the band at their first gig together, at the fabled Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco.
During this time, Joplin was a frequent drug user, including heroin, as well as a big drinker. She was living the blues life full-blown, and both her friends and fans could well imagine that this life couldn’t last long.
When Joplin hit the stage, it was as if she was exorcizing all of the demons from her soul. Every high note she hit tore off a little bit of her voice, leaving her and her audiences physically and emotionally drained.
It was in June 1967, when Big Brother appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival, that the world came to know Joplin. Her performance there, and later on at Woodstock, cemented her place as rock music’s first lady. She had a short relationship with longtime friend Rod “Pigpen” McKernan of the Grateful Dead. She had hits with “Down on Me” and Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball ’n’ Chain.”
In 1968, Big Brother issued the seminal Cheap Thrills album, a must-have in every college dorm in the ’60s and ’70s, with cover art by R. Crumb. It included “Piece of My Heart” and “Summertime,” and ended up number one on the charts.
After leaving Big Brother, Joplin had a successful solo career, culminating in the release of her Pearl album. The album had two major hits: Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” and the a cappella “Mercedes Benz.”
No one was surprised when news broke that she had died, in October 1970. The 27-year-old was following the legacy of the other rock “J’s” who burned brightly, than faded out: Jimi Hendrix and Brian Jones. Jim Morrison wasn’t far behind.
When music fans are asked which concert they wish they had seen, a great many will answer a Janis Joplin show. She lived and loved and rocked as hard as any man, and could drink most under the table. She covered her sorrows with liquor and the blues she sang. She left everything she had on the stage.
In her will, Joplin left $2,500 to be used for a party when she died. For her friends and fans alike, her life was too short a party, but one that at least we can still enjoy.