Was Janis Joplin Done in by Cheap Thrills and Kozmic Blues?
The late Ellen Willis was one of our most perceptive rock and pop critics. Watch how she unpacks and analyzes the life and hard times of the countercultural star Janis Joplin.
The late Ellen Willis became The New Yorker’s first rock critic in 1968 and her work stood out even in the then largely male world of rock criticism. “No one sounded like Willis then,” wrote Carlene Bauer three years ago in The New York Times, “and no one sounds like her now: wry, playful, humble, genuinely searching, intellectually formidable. Though Willis admitted she had an addiction to being right, that didn’t mean she had an addiction to being correct.” Her work, collected in The Essential Ellen Willis, “carries the sound of a feminist who never forgot the ideals of the ’60s, and who never stopped arguing for what those years gave her and others.”
In Shake It Up, the rewarding new anthology of rock criticism from the Library of America, editors Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmarr note, “Readers valued Willis’s writing for the window it opened onto the spectacle of a brilliant mind at work. Rather than marching lockstep toward a conclusion arrived at in advance, her essays feel as if anything might happen; she always assumed the music was strong enough and important enough to face the truth about itself.”
See for yourself with Willis’ fascinating 1980 essay, first published in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, on the one and only Janis Joplin.
Janis Joplin was born in 1943 and grew up in Port Arthur, Texas. She began singing in bars and coffeehouses, first locally, then in Austin, where she spent most of a year at the University of Texas. In 1966, she went to San Francisco and got together with a rock band in search of a singer, Big Brother and the Holding Company. The following summer Big Brother performed at the Monterey Pop Festival; Janis got raves from the fans and the critics and from then on she was a star. Cheap Thrills, Big Brother’s first major album (there had been an early record on a small-time label), came out in July 1968. By then there were tensions between Janis and the group, and she left soon afterward.
With her new backup band, she made another album, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! But the band never quite jelled, and in the spring of 1970, Janis formed another, Full-Tilt Boogie. They spent most of the summer touring, then went to Los Angeles to record an album, Pearl. It was Janis’s last. On October 4, 1970, she died of an overdose of heroin.
The hippie rock stars of the late Sixties merged two versions of that hardy American myth, the free individual. They were stars, which meant achieving liberation by becoming rich and famous on their own terms; and they were, or purported to be, apostles of cultural revolution, a considerably more ambitious and romantic vision of freedom that nevertheless had a similar economic foundation. Young Americans were in a sense the stars of the world, drawing on an overblown prosperity that could afford to indulge all manner of rebellious and experimental behavior. The combination was inherently unstable—Whitman’s open road is not, finally, the Hollywood Freeway, and in any case neither stardom nor prosperity could deliver what it seemed to promise. For a fragile historical moment rock transcended those contradictions; in its aftermath our pop heroes found themselves grappling, like the rest of us, with what are probably enduring changes in the white American consciousness—changes that have to do with something very like an awareness of tragedy. It is in this context that Janis Joplin developed as an artist, a celebrity, a rebel, a woman, and it is in this context that she died.
Joplin belonged to that select group of pop figures who mattered as much for themselves as for their music; among American rock performers she was second only to Bob Dylan in importance as a creator/recorder/embodiment of her generation’s history and mythology. She was also the only woman to achieve that kind of stature in what was basically a male club, the only Sixties culture hero to make visible and public women’s experience of the quest for individual liberation, which was very different from men’s. If Janis’s favorite metaphors—singing as fucking (a first principle of rock and roll) and fucking as liberation (a first principle of the cultural revolution)—were equally approved by her male peers, the congruence was only on the surface. Underneath—just barely—lurked a feminist (or prefeminist) paradox.
The male-dominated counterculture defined freedom for women almost exclusively in sexual terms. As a result, women endowed the idea of sexual liberation with immense symbolic importance; it became charged with all the secret energy of an as yet suppressed larger rebellion. Yet to express one’s rebellion in that limited way was a painfully literal form of submission. Whether or not Janis understood that, her dual persona—lusty hedonist and suffering victim—suggested that she felt it. Dope, another term in her metaphorical equation (getting high as singing as fucking as liberation) was, in its more sinister aspect, a pain-killer and finally a killer. Which is not to say that the good times weren’t real, as far as they went. Whatever the limitations of hippie/rock star life, it was better than being a provincial matron—or a lonely weirdo.
For Janis, as for others of us who suffered the worst fate that can befall an adolescent girl in America—unpopularity—a crucial aspect of the cultural revolution was its assault on the rigid sexual styles of the Fifties. Joplin’s metamorphosis from the ugly duckling of Port Arthur to the peacock of Haight-Ashbury meant, among other things, that a woman who was not conventionally pretty, who had acne and an intermittent weight problem and hair that stuck out, could not only invent her own beauty (just as she invented her wonderful sleazofreak costumes) out of sheer energy, soul, sweetness, arrogance, and a sense of humor, but have that beauty appreciated. Not that Janis merely took advantage of changes in our notions of attractiveness; she herself changed them. It was seeing Janis Joplin that made me resolve, once and for all, not to get my hair straightened. And there was a direct line from that sort of response to those apocryphal burned bras and all that followed.
Direct, but not simple. Janis once crowed, “They’re paying me $50,000 a year to be like me.” But the truth was that they were paying her to be a personality, and the relation of public personality to private self—something every popular artist has to work out—is especially problematic for a woman. Men are used to playing roles and projecting images in order to compete and succeed. Male celebrities tend to identify with their mask-making, to see it as creative and—more or less—to control it. In contrast, women need images simply to survive. A woman is usually aware, on some level, that men do not allow her to be her “real self,” and worse, that the acceptable masks represent men’s fantasies, not her own. She can choose the most interesting image available, present it dramatically, individualize it with small elaborations, undercut it with irony. But ultimately she must serve some male fantasy to be loved—and then it will be only the fantasy that is loved anyway. The female celebrity is confronted with this dilemma in its starkest form. Joplin’s revolt against conventional femininity was brave and imaginative, but it also dovetailed with a stereotype—the ballsy, one- of-the-guys chick who is a needy, vulnerable cream puff underneath—cherished by her legions of hip male fans. It may be that she could have pushed beyond it and taken the audience with her; that was one of the possibilities that made her death an artistic as well as human calamity. There is, for instance, the question of her bisexuality. People who knew Janis differ on whether sexual relationships with women were an important part of her life, and I don’t know the facts. In any case, a public acknowledgment of bisexual proclivities would not necessarily have contradicted her image; it could easily have been passed off as more pull-out-the-stops hedonism or another manifestation of her all-encompassing need for love. On the other hand, she could have used it to say something new about women and liberation. What makes me wonder is something I always noticed and liked about Janis: unlike most female performers whose act is intensely erotic, she never made me feel as if I were crashing an orgy that consisted of her and the men in the audience. When she got it on at a concert, she got it on with everybody.
Still, the songs she sang assumed heterosexual romance; it was men who made her hurt, who took another little piece of her heart. Watching men groove on Janis, I began to appreciate the resentment many black people feel toward whites who are blues freaks. Janis sang out of her pain as a woman, and men dug it. Yet it was men who caused the pain, and if they stopped causing it they would not have her to dig. In a way, their adulation was the cruelest insult of all. And Janis’s response—to sing harder, get higher, be worshiped more—was rebellious, acquiescent, bewildered all at once. When she said, “Onstage I make love to 25,000 people, then I go home alone,” she was not merely repeating the cliche of the sad clown or the poor little rich girl. She was noting that the more she gave the less she got, and that honey, it ain’t fair.
Like most women singers, Joplin did not write many songs; she mostly interpreted other people’s. But she made them her own in a way few singers dare to do. She did not sing them so much as struggle with them, assault them. Some critics complained, not always unfairly, that she strangled them to death, but at her best she whipped them to new life. She had an analogous adversary relationship with the musical form that dominated her imagination—the blues. Blues represented another external structure, one with its own contradictory tradition of sexual affirmation and sexist conservatism. But Janis used blues conventions to reject blues sensibility. To sing the blues is a way of transcending pain by confronting it with dignity, but Janis wanted nothing less than to scream it out of existence. Big Mama Thornton’s classic rendition of “Ball and Chain” carefully balances defiance and resignation, toughness and vulnerability. She almost pities her oppressor. Her singing conveys, above all, her determination to survive abuse. Janis makes the song into one long frenzied, despairing protest. Why, why, why, she asks over and over, like a child unable to comprehend injustice. The pain is overwhelming her. There are similar differences between her recording of “Piece of My Heart” and Erma Franklin’s. When Franklin sings it, it is a challenge: no matter what you do to me, I will not let you destroy my ability to be human, to love. Joplin seems rather to be saying, surely if I keep taking this, if I keep setting an example of love and forgiveness, surely he has to understand, change, give me back what I have given.
Her pursuit of pleasure had the same driven quality; what it amounted to was refusal to admit of any limits that would not finally yield to the virtue of persistence—try just a little bit harder—and the magic of extremes. This war against limits was largely responsible for the electrifying power of Joplin’s early performances; it was what made Cheap Thrills a classic, in spite of unevenness and the impossibility of duplicating on a record the excitement of her concerts. After the split with Big Brother, Janis retrenched considerably, perhaps because she simply couldn’t maintain that level of intensity, perhaps for other reasons that would have become clear if she had lived. My uncertainty on this point makes me hesitate to be too dogmatic about my conviction that leaving Big Brother was a mistake.
I was a Big Brother fan. I thought they were better musicians than their detractors claimed, but more to the point, technical accomplishment, in itself, was not something I cared about. I thought it was an ominous sign that so many people did care—including Janis. It was, in fact, a sign that the tenuous alliance between mass culture and bohemianism—or, in my original formulation, the fantasy of stardom and the fantasy of cultural revolution—was breaking down. But the breakdown was not as neat as it might appear. For the elitist concept of “good musicianship” was as alien to the holistic, egalitarian spirit of rock and roll as the act of leaving one’s group the better to pursue one’s individual ambition was alien to the holistic, egalitarian pretensions of the cultural revolutionaries. If Joplin’s decision to go it alone was influenced by all the obvious professional/commercial pressures, it also reflected a conflict of values within the counterculture itself—a conflict that foreshadowed its imminent disintegration. And again, Janis’s femaleness complicated the issues, raised the stakes. She had less room to maneuver than a man in her position, fewer alternatives to fall back on if she blew it. If she had to choose between fantasies, it made sense for her to go with stardom as far as it would take her.
But I wonder if she really had to choose, if her choice was not in some sense a failure of nerve and therefore of greatness. Janis was afraid Big Brother would hold her back, but if she had thought it was important enough, she might have been able to carry them along, make them transcend their limitations. There is more than a semantic difference between a group and a backup band. Janis had to relate to the members of Big Brother as spiritual (not to mention financial) equals even though she had more talent than they, and I can’t help suspecting that that was good for her not only emotionally and socially but aesthetically. Committed to the hippie ethic of music-for-the-hell-of-it—if only because there was no possibility of their becoming stars on their own—Big Brother helped Janis sustain the amateur quality that was an integral part of her effect. Their zaniness was a salutary reminder that good times meant silly fun—remember “Caterpillar”?—as well as Dionysiac abandon; it was a relief from Janis’s extremism and at the same time a foil for it. At their best moments, Big Brother made me think of the Beatles, who weren’t (at least in the beginning) such terrific musicians either. Though I’m not quite softheaded enough to imagine that by keeping her group intact Janis Joplin could somehow have prevented or delayed the end of an era, or even saved her own life, it would have been an impressive act of faith. And acts of faith by public figures always have reverberations, one way or another.
Such speculation is of course complicated by the fact that Janis died before she really had a chance to define her post-San Francisco, post-Big Brother self. Her last two albums, like her performances with the ill-fated Kozmic Blues band, had a tentative, transitional feel. She was obviously going through important changes; the best evidence of that was “Me and Bobby McGee,” which could be considered her “Dear Landlord.” Both formally—as a low-keyed, soft, folkie tune—and substantively—as a lyric that spoke of choices made, regretted and survived, with the distinct implication that compromise could be a positive act—what it expressed would have been heresy to the Janis Joplin of Cheap Thrills. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” is as good an epitaph for the counterculture as any; we’ll never know how—or if—Janis meant to go on from there.
Janis Joplin’s death, like that of a fighter in the ring, was not exactly an accident. Yet it’s too easy to label it either suicide or murder, though it involved elements of both. Call it rather an inherent risk of the game she was playing, a game whose often frivolous rules both hid and revealed a deadly serious struggle. The form that struggle took was incomplete, shortsighted, egotistical, self- destructive. But survivors who give in to the temptation to feel superior to all that are in the end no better than those who romanticize it. Janis was not so much a victim as a casualty. The difference matters.
From Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z, edited by Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar and published in hardcover by Library of America. Copyright © 1980 by Ellen Willis. Used by permission. All rights reserved.