A fond, heartfelt birthday greeting goes out to the late Janis Joplin, who would have been 70 years old today. Joplin, who died in that unfortunate by-product of heroin and other bad news libations binging in 1970, still remains one of the most, if not THE most prominently influential female artist in all of rock and roll history. She didn’t just influence scores of women rock and roll singers who followed her; her influence split the genders, transcended them, and she was equally revered and innovative to the soulful, dulcet crooning of front men like Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon, and Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell.
She belongs to a very scant group of musicians who put their heart and soul out there for the world to absorb and empathize and groove with. Joplin was one of the few who really sang like she felt; there was a tortured kind of gruffness in her bluesy vocal stance that made her that rare one-of-a-kind, once in a zeitgeist kind of figure, who died as she lived, whose recklessness and feckful approach to being a true hippie and a true artist of the blues and pained devil scorned woman created a musical figure of the highest order. In short, the influence of Janis Joplin still remains a hovering force in any band, woman or man, musician or solo artist, who sings in a manner in which they expose every hidden facet of their true being.
Of course, her works weren’t simply tethered to just updating people she loved growing up when she was fine tuning her personal metaphorical diamonds like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Lead Belly, who remain true artists of the original Southern Blues movement (literally or figuratively) and also walked the musical walk and lived the musical talk – she could also incite good vibes and energy to and from her listeners. In a late 1960s American world that she was at the forefront of, along with her peers like Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, every move Janis made, on stage, off stage in her wild, garishly expressive clothing, her soft spoken yet outgoing kick ass kind of sharp, whip smart chatter, be it to underground newspapers and magazines, or high profile programs like the talk show Dick Cavett had at the time, which was really the only outlet anybody in her type of youth movement could wax about ideas not reserved for Johnny Carson style-talk shows, she excelled. Her image in essence became her; underneath it all, lived a woman tortured and insecure, wrenched with insecurities and self-doubt, which became emotional ingredients that enhanced the output of her music and singing, and enthralled millions of listeners, who were able to get the kind of positive responses within themselves from it that Janis Joplin was never able to achieve within herself.
She had a knack of finding the right people to play with and give her just the right chemistry on record and stage, and in turn bands like Big Brother and the Holding Company, or The Kozmic Blues Band or The Full Tilt Boogie Band helped supply a kind of just right mixture of blues, country, and deep fried horn-laden rock and roll. Songs which play out like an American Rock and Roll songbook for her consist of “Ball and Chain,” “Piece Of My Heart,” “Cry Baby,” “Mercedes Benz,” “Down On Me,” and the great covers of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” (from Porgy and Bess) and her posthumous number one smash, written by Kris Kristofferson and first heard in the cult road trip turned inside out picture Two Lane Blacktop, “Me and Bobby McGee.” All of those songs, her entire catalog actually, which one is urged to explore, yes, she has an amazing Greatest Hits record which has been an album that has sold millions in the wake of her death when released about 40 years ago, but everything by her is just soul deep, like rivers that flood channels with multicolored water, sparkling blinding colors that blast into the emotions and aural channels of the listeners. There’s really no other way to put it; like the best musical artists, one doesn’t just hear her music, they also “see” it in a way, feel it, experience it. It’s a true testimonial that Janis Joplin, who although had a career that was tragically short, with so much more to prove and so much more musical terrain that was still left un-treaded, still managed to dazzle the world to this very day and way, way beyond, with all she did in her short time on this planet.
Most importantly, Janis Joplin remains, when the details of her life are stripped away, a figure to women, an important notch on their timeline, a pioneer, who in a way was as important at her craft as Amelia Earhart, Babe Didrickson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Marilyn Monroe was to theirs. Some may scoff that that statement, screeching about how can Janis Joplin be compared to those aforementioned titans of not only popular culture, but historical culture as well? The answer may remain this simple: anybody who sports and manifests an art or achieving a certain personal apex and can be a measuring stick of influence to generations that follow, can slot into that category. To say that what people have taken and used from the art of Janis Joplin has been disposable, would mean that something was seriously amiss for someone upon first listen. It would be those who are urged to listen again, to the beauty, fragile beauty and heart wrenchingly teary eyed brilliance, that came from the mind, soul and regions only she knew about, of Janis Joplin.
Like any great artist or innovator, man or woman, Janis became an icon of the times, and in her passing, a legend for the ages. Remember her magic and that legend all day today, everyday, and always.