Discovering the Vulnerable Woman Behind Janis Joplin’s Legend
Janis Joplin is remembered for her brassy swagger, but her true personality was completely hidden from her fans. Inspired to learn more after watching the new Joplin documentary, Little Girl Blue, Sheila Weller interviews some of the friends who knew the singer best.
BY SHEILA WELLER
NOVEMBER 27, 2015 7:00 AM
Drug overdoses distort the essence of a famous person’s short life. The stigma is perhaps even stronger for women, since excessive drug use is . . . well, unladylike. Thus, Janis Joplin has for decades resided in our collective memory as the “60s Belter,” swigging her Wild Turkey with her huge, wide, indiscriminately welcoming smile. Full-on swagger. Famous stories about her include Grateful Dead members ungallantly laughing (in various interviews) about her noisy hookups with their bandmate Pigpen. Janis: the merry, bawdy, rowdy middle-finger-giver to rectitude and thoughtfulness.
This was not all-or even most-of who Janis Joplin was. The prolific nonfiction filmmaker Amy Berg’s new documentary about Joplin’s life, Little Girl Blue-opening in major cities November 27-movingly debunks this patronizing, clichéd, one-dimensional image. Having had my instincts about the true Janis Joplin validated by this film, I spoke with a few of the singer’s friends, who reinforced the picture of a vulnerable, thoughtful, dignified “hidden” Janis that the film brought to life. “Janis was a ‘good girl,’” recalls Viva Hoffmann, who spent the 60s as an Andy Warhol superstar. “I only met her once, at Max’s, where”-at the height of her fame-”she begged me to come to her performance and bring Andy, saying, ‘I want to have some people in the audience!’ I could tell by her plaintive request that she was a sweet, naïve girl.”
“She got a kick out of playing the bad girl but she wasn’t a bad girl,” is how her childhood friend from Port Arthur, Texas, J. Dave Moriarty, put it. And Patricia Morrison, the widow of Jim Morrison (who also died, like Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, at 27, in that same 10-month period) and a music-magazine editor in chief in the late 60s, tells me, “What most people don’t know is Janis was a smart, bright lady. Intelligent, very sensitive, and alive to everything around her-which also meant sensitive and alive to her own pain. She was so vulnerable.”
“We both were hard drinkers. We both swore our brains out, and we would cackle with laughter about stuff,” Joplin’s fellow Summer of Love chick-singer nonpareil Grace Slick told me a few years ago. But, Slick said, there was always a “sadness” to Janis that she never inquired about.
Berg’s film-narrated by Chan Marshall, also known by her stage name, Cat Power-shows teenaged Janis Joplin as the beehived cusp-of-60s girl: a good student, college-bound. (She would enroll at a local college and then transfer to the University of Texas at Austin.) “She ran with a tight group who hung out with books and ideas,” her younger sister, Laura, says in the film. “Janis was an intellectual-she was reading F. Scott Fitzgerald the night just before she died,” says Peter Newman, the producer of the Noah Baumbach film The Squid and the Whale. Newman has been trying to make a Joplin biopic for 20 years. He acquired the rights all those years ago, and he still possesses them, yet the studios’ concern about her drug use is one of the reasons the film has yet to be made. (Of course Ray Charles and Johnny Cash were drug users, too, and recent, highly praised biopics of them stressed their humanity and excused their addictions.)
Joplin was the daughter of college-graduate émigrés from the East Coast who’d settled in Port Arthur, Texas, for work opportunities. (Both are now deceased.) Her father, Seth, was an engineer for Texaco. Her mother, Dorothy, was a business-college registrar. Joplin was a member of her high school’s Slide Rule Club and a gifted artist, whose sketches and bookishness won her a profile in the Port Arthur paper, headlined “Library Job Brings Out Teen’s Versatility.” She was not conventionally pretty, and the most painful thing in her youth was a sadistic “honor” a group of boys conferred upon her: “Ugliest Man on Campus.” In the canon of Janis Joplin’s vulnerability, this was the foundational cruelty.
Her sensitivity and transparent neediness may have been part of her charm, her lore, and her gut-level emotional appeal, but far less known is how articulate and thoughtful she was. Despite all the swearing and raucous laughter that Slick fondly recalled, introspection and abashment were part of the Janis hidden from her fans. “I’m attempting to find a semblance of a pattern in my life,” she wrote in one letter to her parents. In another she wrote: “It is with a great deal of trepidation [that I tell you] I’m in San Francisco.” These college-girl sentences spilled from her pen in private moments-and out of her mouth: her natural speaking voice-as revealed in her interviews with Dick Cavett (a close friend, who may, he says, have also been her lover)-bore a hint of the formal enunciation that the Mad Men actors strove for. Today, in upspeak 2015, it’s charmingly jarring to hear such tonal propriety from the lips of the girl who belted out “Bay-by, bay-by, baaaaay-by . . .” in homage to Otis Redding and who loved nothing more than being compared to Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, and Aretha Franklin. That proper voice reminds us, as does this documentary, that the barn-burning counterculture was, in retrospect, a more modest step away from the past than its stars liked to imagine.
It is in her letters to her family that the secret dignity of Joplin comes through the clearest. “Dear Family,” and, often, “Dear Mother,” Joplin wrote, in missives full of quaintness and obeisance. For example: “Mother, I haven’t heard from you yet. I’m brimming with news,” she wrote, telling of a recording contract. And: “Dear Mother, at last a tranquil day and time to write about the good news. . . . Gosh, I can’t think of anything else to talk about now”-other than her budding romance with Joe McDonald, lead singer of Country Joe and the Fish, a son of sophisticated Communist-party members who was benignly condescending to her. Joplin was “politically naïve, intelligent, hardworking,” he told me. Like many others, he would break her heart; in the documentary, he denies that he ever loved her.
Most young people who rebelled from “straight” parents in those days sullenly treated their parents as clueless at best, enemies at worst. Not Janis. She never stopped craving their approval. “Dear Mother and Dad,” she wrote, in admitting that, despite her father’s firm desire, she was not going to return to college. “I just think this”-music-making-”is a truer feeling.” She ended the letter with: “Weak as it is, I apologize for just being bad in the family. Love, Janis.”
“There was a maternal, feminine side of her that wasn’t allowed to grow,” McDonald muses in the film. Michael Lydon, then a San Francisco–based reporter for Newsweek, told me he was struck by how validated Janis was by those moments when she got to feel like a fully feminine Cinderella. As she told it in an unpublished story Lydon wrote in 1968: “I went down to I. Magnin’s one day, man, sitting in the shoe place with all these chic, model-y girls and all these chic, model-y shoes, and I bought two pairs of gold sandals”-italics added-”[I]felt real strong. Maybe only girls would understand, but it felt almost as good as singing.”
Her fame was short and rocket-like, from 1967 until her death on October 4, 1970. It is well known that her big break came at the Monterey Pop Festival. D. A. Pennebaker caught her in her white pantsuit (a pantsuit!), her little kitten-heel shoes click-click-click-ing-and a star was born. The members of her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, may have been her buddies (and she is said to have considered the sexy, androgynous-looking Sam Andrew, soon to become her heroin-mate, as the fabulous strutting peacock to her ugly duckling), and they crafted an epic intro for “Summertime,” but she was always the star.
“Pain is what pushed Janis into striving for stardom,” Patricia Morrison deduces, on the basis of seeing the same process in her husband, Jim. Once Janis had achieved fame, that pain drove her to “self-medicate for it,” Morrison continues. “Being a superstar didn’t help: even though she craved it, it became very much an approach-avoidance thing, as I think it was with most of the stars back then; I know it was with Jim. They desperately strive for it, they enjoy it, but then they realize how much it’s taking from them-a different kind of pain. They do what they can to escape, for their own protection, just to ease it a little-booze, drugs, sex. And sometimes the only escape they can find, so terribly sadly, happens to be a permanent one. I miss them all still, so very much.”
Or, as Joplin herself wrote toward the end of her life: “Dear Family, I managed to pass my 27th birthday without really feeling it. I’ve been looking around and I noticed something: how much you really need to be loved. Ambition isn’t just a desperate quest for positions or money. It’s just love-lots of love.” Go see Little Girl Blue. There’s more than a little piece of Janis Joplin’s heart in it.
Indie Focus: Jam With ‘Janis: Little Girl Blue’
Musician Cat Power narrates this documentary about Janis Joplin’s evolution into a star, based on letters that Joplin wrote to her friends, family, and collaborators.
‘Janis: Little Girl Blue’: Inside the New Joplin Doc
How Amy Berg got singer’s friends, family and forgotten lovers to open up about the legendary Sixties blues singer
BY DAVID BROWNE November 17, 2015
This fall marks the 45th anniversary of Janis Joplin’s death from an overdose in a Hollywood hotel room. Since then, she’s been the subject of books, reissues, a boxed set, an off-Broadway show, and a still-in-development biopic, possibly starring Amy Adams. Everyone from Kim Gordon to Pink has given Joplin props for paving the way as a woman in a male-dominated rock climate, and the singer’s raw delivery continues to resonate. “Even when I was 10 or 12 years old and first heard her sing,” recalls Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power, “you knew she was feeling what she was singing. And I knew she was funny, because every picture I’d seen of her growing up, she was always laughing, like she was having a good life.”
In all those years, Joplin has only been the subject of one documentary, 1974′s Janis. That changes on Novenber 27th, however, with Janis: Little Girl Blue, filmmaker Amy Berg’s look at the driven but vulnerable woman who packed more adventures into her 27 years than many musicians do in a lifetime.
Those who remember the long-out-of-circulation Janis may recognize some of the clips in Berg’s movie, including director D.A. Pennebaker’s footage of the recording sessions for Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills and clips of Joplin attending her high school reunion in Texas. Unlike the earlier doc, though, Little Girl Blue (produced by another noted documentarian, Alex Gibney) includes newly conducted interviews. Seen and heard in the movie are Joplin’s family (including her siblings Laura and Michael, who oversees Joplin’s estate), members of Big Brother (including guitarist Sam Andrew, who died earlier this year), the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, and close friends like Country Joe McDonald and Dick Cavett.
One genuine treat: an outtake from Festival Express, the documentary about the 1970 train-ride tour that featured Joplin, the Dead, the Band, and other musicians playing and partying across Canada. In the outtake, Joplin is seen singing and strumming “Me and Bobby McGee” with Jerry Garcia accompanying her on guitar — several months before Joplin recorded the song for her posthumously released Pearl.
For Berg, who’s directed acclaimed docs like Deliver Us From Evil and West of Memphis, Janis: Little Girl Blue was a labor of love dating back to 2007, when she first met with Joplin’s estate to discuss a documentary. Even though it would take another eight years (and $1.5 million) for the film to come to fruition, Joplin’s impact didn’t diminish with time. “When I talked to Pink and Melissa Etheridge for the movie, I saw this theme of Janis starting their careers for them,” Berg says. “Her existence gave them the courage to do what they wanted to do. In the Sixties, women were expected be mothers and secretaries — and Janis wanted to be more.”
Over the course of her research, Berg met and interviewed Cavett, who implies he and Joplin were closer than their roles as talk show host and guest would imply, as well as some of Joplin’s never-before-seen male and female lovers. “She mostly preferred men,” Berg says. “But when she got really close to somebody, she was fine with that. She was just looking for love. She wanted to be adored and comforted and loved.” After a year and a half of searching, Berg tracked down David Niehaus, who met and fell in love with Joplin not long before her death. A loving letter from Niehaus was awaiting the musician at the front desk of her hotel on the night she died. “The question is, had she received that letter that night, maybe she wouldn’t have shot up,” Berg says. “That was so tragic.”
In the process of learning about Joplin’s death, Berg also heard — and discounted — some of its attendant conspiracy theories, like stories of “two Mafia guys” seen leaving Joplin’s room with suitcase that night. “It was all, ‘Well, I heard they were trying to kill all the counterculture musicians and that’s how they did it,’” Berg says, shaking her head. “We looked into all of them. Just crazy conspiracy theories.”
Threaded throughout Blue are Joplin’s letters to her family, written right up until just before her passing. Berg was not only able to get permission to use some of them in the film but also hired Marshall to read them. “I was listening to an interview with Chan and I couldn’t believe how much she sounded like Janis,” Berg says. “It blew me away. I knew the minute I heard her speak that she was the person. Her personality is so sweet and vulnerable, and she understands what Janis was going through. She got it so quickly.”
To her surprise, Marshall, who knew little of the intimate details of Joplin’s life, found many parallels: “being southern, hanging out with a bunch of dudes, and feeling she was in an era where she was like the only rock & roll chick. It was like that for me in the Nineties — alone with a guitar, a female touring the world all those years. I saw right away when I was being treated in that way. I can’t imagine the social pressures Janis felt.”
For Marshall, reading Joplin’s correspondence was especially cathartic. “I moved to New York when I was 20, so I saw things in her letters about wanting that acceptance and validation from your family,” she says. “I’ve written letters like, ‘I was on tour with Sonic Youth and they like me!’ I saw the parallels. I kept wanting to kill myself in my twenties. To read out loud her having to apologize to her family for wanting to be herself was like slapping me in the face. When I was reading her last letter, I had to whisper it because the first three times I tried to do it, I was bawling and crying. It was intense.”
“She was ahead of her time as a woman in a man’s world,” Berg says. “It’s still a battle to do what you want to do, have a family, make people happy and not be judged. She was constantly worried about messing up. I saw this vulnerable young woman who was just trying to find herself. Women in the entertainment business are taking charge of their lives. But we’re still fighting for a lot of the same things.”
Janis Joplin’s siblings look back on the Summer of Love in Little Girl Blue exclusive clip
BY OLIVER GETTELL
Posted November 11 2015 – 11:00 AM EST
The raspy-voiced blues-rock singer Janis Joplin died 45 years ago after a brief but influential music career. This month Amy Berg’s documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue is poised to illuminate her life, her music, and the legacy she left behind via interviews with close acquaintances, personal letters, performance footage, and other archival treasures.
In a clip exclusive to EW, Joplin’s younger siblings, Laura and Michael Joplin, look back on a trip to visit her in San Francisco during the fateful summer of 1967 – when Joplin was at once a vulnerable 20-something and an ascendant rock star.
“We went out to visit her, the Summer of Love, as a family,” Laura recalls. “My brother and I were the only teenagers who probably went out with their parents.”
“We went to the Avalon Ballroom,” Michael continues, “and [Joplin's band] Big Brother was not on the bill that night, but they went on and did three or four songs. Moby Grape let them have a set because Janis’ parents were there.”
“When we were getting ready to leave,” Laura adds, “I remember overhearing one of my parents tell the other one, ‘You know, dear, I don’t think we’re going to have much influence anymore.’”
Janis: Little Girl Blue will screen at the DOC NYC festival Sunday before opening Nov. 27 in New York and Dec. 4 in Los Angeles and additional markets. Watch the full clip above.
TK Maxx – Neighbour, Set to Otis Redding’s version of White Christmas
TK Maxx – Neighbour
Set to Otis Redding’s version of White Christmas, TK Maxx encourages us all to buy an additional present for our neighbours, with the words ‘they may not be your dearest, but they’re your nearest.’ It’s a sentimental tug at the heartstrings, but the cynics among us can’t see past the discount fashion store simply trying to get us to buy more.