You only gotta do one thing well to make it in this world, babe.
You got a woman waiting for you there
All you ever gotta do is
Be a good man
To one woman
And that’ll be the end of the road, babe
I know you got more tears to share, babe
So come on, come on, come on, come on, come on
And cry, cry baby, cry baby, cry baby.
A friend of mine called me up and said, “Hey, remember that Janis Joplin documentary we read about and wondered when it would come out? Well it’s playing this weekend. Wanna go?” Which is, of course, a dumb question.
So how is it? Well, it’s excellent including interviews with her band members and siblings. But if I had to single out one overriding feeling, it would be profound sadness. She was clearly a very lonely person, pretty much totally rejected in her hometown of Port Arthur, TX.
Basically she made at least three fatal “mistakes” – she was a noncomformist and she wasn’t pretty enough. And she was in favor of racial integration at a time (late ’50’s) when this was not only frowned upon but which was enough to make one a target.
When you see pictures of her as a teenager, it’s pretty clear she was trying to play whatever her pre-ordained role was (good girl, eventual wife and mother). But this fit her about as well as a cheap suit. It wasn’t until she went to Austin and heard live music that she started to fit in. (And she didn’t entirely escape indignities there either).
No, her ultimate real escape was San Francisco with its burgeoning rock and folk scene. She could be free there but she could also unfortunately indulge herself in drink and drugs. But she also had a good relationship with the Grateful Dead, and a romantic one with their keyboard and harmonica player, Pigpen.
(Like Joplin, he died at 27 years old which has turned out to be a significant age for rockers to shuffle off this mortal coil. This morbid “club” includes Brian Jones, Alan Wilson of Canned Heat, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain. I always thought Duane Allman was part of this club but he actually died at 24.)
It was also fun to see a film of her on a train caravan of Canada (“Festival Express”), interacting with Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir of the Dead. (You can see excerpts on YouTube or rent the whole movie for $4 USD). That and being on stage seemed to be her happiest moments. Like a lot of performers, she lived for that hour on stage but then had to somehow fill the other 23. She said she “made love” to 25,000 people on stage but then always went home alone.
Anyway, you doubtless know how this ends up and this post wasn’t intended to be a biography. A couple things that stand out for me were just what a sweet – and in some senses, innocent – person she was and how smart. (And as far as I was concerned, pretty damn sexy. I don’t care what those jerks in her hometown thought.)
Seeing it on the big screen was great because the theater had a pretty good sound system. Good clips from Fillmore West, Woodstock, Monterey Pop, Dick Cavett show, etc. She was an incredibly dynamic performer and she really knew how to shake her ass to the band’s sound and work the crowd.
If it comes to your area, recommend seeing it. It will remind you not only of what a great voice she had but what an amazing performer she was. She got a lot from Otis Redding who similarly was dynamic and captivating.
Documentaries tend not to last at theaters long so they can make room for movies where things blow up and people kill each other randomly. According to this article, this flick will be on public TV (at least in the US) in ‘early 2016.’ Amazon shows it available for rental on May 4.
In the meantime, here’s a great version of “Tell Mama” from the Festival Express tour. Insanely fast and funky, she – and the band – tear into it as if their very lives depended upon it.
“I’m ready man!” (Song starts about 2:10).