Janis Joplin: Stories And Life Of The Woodstock Generation's Queen
Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company perform onstage at the Fillmore East circa 1968 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Julie Snow/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
When it comes to Janis Joplin, stories about about the one-of-a-kind singer's freewheeling life and personal struggles. She was a kind of hippie goddess of the Woodstock era, a hard-partying gypsy with a raw voice and the best wardrobe this side of a New Orleans cathouse. But she was also a severe addict, an extremely lonely person who turned to drugs to fill the void in her life. Joplin saw triumph and abuse -- she was teased by frat boys at the University of Texas, then wowed Mama Cass at the Newport Folk Festival. Throughout the ups and downs, she channeled her feelings into her music, leaving us with songs that are somehow painful and joyous at the same time.
Joplin Did Her Own Thing In High School
Janis Joplin was born in 1943 in Port Arthur, Texas, the town that houses the largest oil refinery in the U.S. Her rebellion began in high school, where she eschewed feminine fashion, choosing instead to wear men’s shirts with tights or short skirts.
While she was in high school, she became friends with a group of boys who shared an interest in music with her. They listened to musicians like Leadbelly and Bessie Smith, showing an interest mainly in jazz and blues. She was a brash and bold tough-talking drinker by the time she left high school. During her time in high school, she struggled with her weight, a struggle that she would face throughout her life. She dropped down to a mere 88 pounds in 1965.
Her Time At The University of Texas
Janis Joplin was an art student for a brief time at the University of Texas in 1962. She didn’t fit in very well there. While she was there, the frat boys had voted her the “ ugliest man on campus.” This was not the first time she faced that kind of abuse, having been called “pig” in high school when she was also the target of gossip that she was promiscuous, even though she reportedly was a virgin when she graduated. However, she refused to stop being herself and channeled the pain into her performance, and in college, She started performing at folksings on campus and at Threadgills (a gas station that had been transformed into a bar) with the Waller Creek Boys.
She left school in 1963 to head to San Francisco and performed at the Monterey Folk Festival, and when her career didn’t take off, she went to New York City, but that to didn’t work out as her drinking and drug use (she was using speed as well as other drugs at that time) hindered her career. So she headed back to Texas where she took time off from partying and music and tried to create a more conservative persona. While she was there, she enrolled as a sociology student at Lamar University.
The Return To Music
In 1966, music reentered Joplin's life when Travis Rivers invited her to audition for a San Francisco based psychedelic rock band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. Her role in the band was minor at first, singing a few songs and playing the tambourine, but she began to have a more significant role, helping the band to gain acclaim. The band performed at the 1967 Monterey Folk Festival, where her performance even impressed Mama Cass, who was captured on film by D.A. Pennebacker mouthing “wow.” At this show, she was also noticed by Clive Davis, the president of Columbia Records. However, there was tension in the band in part because she was getting so much attention, which was driven by her use of heroin, amphetamines, and the bourbon she drank straight from the bottle while on stage and her performances which were gutsy and sexual. Despite the sexual nature of her performances, she was lonely. She was quoted as saying “On stage I make love to 25,000 people—then I go home alone.”
Success And A Solo Career
With the first record released for Columbia, Cheap Thrills, the band found greater success, and their song “Piece of My Heart” hit #1. At that point, though, Joplin decided to pursue a solo career, performing with Big Brother for the last time in December 1968. In 1969, she performed at Woodstock. In September, 1969, she released her first solo album, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, which received mixed reviews. Her final album, Pearl, was her most critically successful, and was released posthumously in 1971. However, it was not her songwriting skills that got her noticed; most of the songs that she sang were written by other people. It was the way that she interpreted the songs while she sang them.
Her Drug Problem And Her Death
When she signed on with Albert Grossman, she signed an agreement to not use intravenous drugs, but she did anyway. He took out a life insurance policy in case of accidental death worth $200,000 rather than confronting her about her problem. He indicated that he took out the policy “with air crashes in mind.” He had to fight to keep the money in court and claimed that he did not know the extent of her addiction.
The last two things she recorded were “Mercedes Benz” and a birthday message for John Lennon, the song “Happy Trails.”
Her drug problem led to her death at 27 in 1970 at the Landmark Motor Hotel in West Hollywood. She was found in her underwear with heroin and alcohol in her system. She had fallen over, probably violently, breaking her nose and bloodying her lip.
She threw her own funeral, setting aside $1,500 to pay for it. The Grateful Dead performed.
There Was More To Her
She continues to inspire, being the one to forge a path for female performers. In 1995, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 2005, she was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Her persona was just as real as the music she sang, and her toughness was not just a persona.
Joplin had a third degree black belt in Kenpo Karate. And there is a story that when Jim Morrison hit on her at a party, she smashed him over the head with a bottle of Southern Comfort.
She Left A Mark
Janis Joplin had a tattoo before they were popular. Her tattoo was of a Florentine bracelet on her left wrist. And, before she died, she left just one more mark on the word: a gravestone. Because her hero Bessie Smith was buried in an unmarked grave in Philadelphia, Joplin bought Smith a tombstone that read: "The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing."
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