Janis Joplin died forty years ago today.
Forty years? That doesn’t seem possible. But I guess it’s been that long since the first rock’n’roll generation’s stars started dropping like flies – Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Janis. I was but a wee lad when I lived through that carnage, but it was only ten years later a when psychotic gunned down John Lennon in the street.
Janis did everything full-bore, and while her death was tragic it was anything but unexpected. Attractive but not conventionally pretty, she channeled whatever loneliness and pain she felt through her gifted voice and exquisite phrasing and sang everything from deep in her soul. And much like her deceased brethren, she was able to pack a lot of magic into a short window of fame.
Video: “Cry Baby” (live in Toronto)
Hearing her music today is as fulfilling as it ever was, perhaps even more so given the dearth of vocalists at her level over the years. Although I’ve heard the song a thousand times, “Piece of My Heart” still makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck, as does her incredible version of Summertime“. And her lighter moments – “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Mercedes Benz“, for two – still make me smile and sing along involuntarily.
Thanks to the constant flood of unearthed film footage and studio sessions, Janis’ magic isn’t limited solely to her albums and reputation. I highly recommend picking up the Monterey Pop DVD as well as the recently released Festival Express, both of which capture her in a myriad of emotions. Nine Hundred Nights is a documentary focusing on the Big Brother era and is very good, although not objective. I was even pleasantly surprised by the episode of Biography broadcast by the A&E network; it was one of their best.
And, of course, there’s the original catalogue. If you’re not able to gather the originals, either The Essential Janis Joplin or Box of Pearls is a good place to start. Live CDs from Woodstock and Winterland are also worthy purchases, and there are more on the way.
Every generation argues its own timeline, but the last half of the 1960’s might have produced the greatest number of important artists simultaneously at the peak of their game. And even in that competition, Janis Joplin was a beacon.