03 Oct A Piece of Her Heart on a 40th Anniversary
New York Times – October 1, 2010
By GREG EVANS
IN the late summer of 1968, Big Brother and the Holding Company had nearly finished recording “Cheap Thrills” when Janis Joplin, the band’s singer, slipped the drummer Dave Getz a set of lyrics she’d handwritten to accompany a piano riff he had been practicing. The song, “Can’t Be the Only One,” with words by Joplin and music by Mr. Getz, was something of a parting gift. Within days, Joplin gathered her band mates in a room at the Chelsea Hotel and announced that she was going solo.
This April Mr. Getz, still drumming with Big Brother, released “Can’t Be the Only One,” the first solo album of his career, which includes two versions of the bluesy title song. Mr. Getz had 500 copies of the CD made, selling them through iTunes and other Internet sites.
As he expected, Mr. Getz immediately heard from Joplin’s heirs: “I got an e-mail saying, ‘You can’t do this. Anything involving the Joplin estate has to go through us.’ ” Not for the first time throughout an often contentious four-decade relationship with the Joplin family, Mr. Getz sought legal advice, and he was assured of his rights as the song’s co-author, he said.
Joplin died of a heroin overdose at 27, alone in a Los Angeles motel room in the early morning hours of Oct. 4, 1970. Yet “Can’t Be the Only One” is one of the few projects coinciding with the 40th anniversary of her passing.
“We don’t celebrate her death,” said Laura Joplin, the singer’s sister, who controls the Joplin estate with her brother, Michael Joplin. “We celebrate her life.”
Some Joplin fans wonder whether there has been enough celebrating at all. The singer’s faded cultural presence suggests a failure to groom a legacy lately reduced to pale imitations on “American Idol.”
Consider this year’s tide of memorial offerings sanctioned by the Jimi Hendrix estate for the guitarist, whose own drug-related death occurred 16 days before Joplin’s. Last spring’s acclaimed “Valleys of Neptune” CD of previously unreleased material will be followed by next month’s boxed set, “West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology.”
The dearth of significant, unheard Joplin recordings – a five-CD boxed set in 1999 essentially cleared the vaults – has presented an obstacle to maintaining Joplin’s presence in the marketplace. But now the Joplins have recruited, for the first time, a professional estate manager, Jeffrey Jampol, to develop business opportunities and guide the career of a singer dead since Nixon’s first term.
His firm, Jampol Artist Management in Los Angeles, handles the estates of the Doors frontman Jim Morrison, the country rocker Gram Parsons, the reggae legend Peter Tosh and the ’80s funk star Rick James. Mr. Jampol has an ambitious blueprint to end what he calls Joplin’s “fallow period.” Working closely with the Joplins, he has sketched a one- to three-year business plan that includes Made for Pearl, a Joplin-inspired line of jewelry, accessories and clothing based on items worn by the singer; at least two books (a follow-up to Laura Joplin’s 1992 “Love, Janis” and a critical appreciation); vinyl collector editions of her albums; two reproductions of her Gibson Hummingbird guitar; an iPhone app allowing custom mixes of Joplin songs; and the tour of the Strange Kozmic Experience exhibition of Joplin, Hendrix and Morrison memorabilia, now at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.
Mr. Jampol, a producer of this year’s Doors documentary, “When You’re Strange,” is also working with Spitfire Pictures on a feature-length Joplin documentary, with access to rarely seen footage shot by Joplin’s road manager John Byrne Cooke. In addition, Mr. Jampol said the Joplin estate would next year co-produce “One Night With Janis,” a touring theatrical production of Joplin songs.
In several phone interviews Mr. Jampol emphasized his intention to expand the Joplin enterprise while honoring the singer’s “authenticity.” In choosing projects, he said, “the first question we ask is, Will this stand proudly next to Monterey Pop and ‘Me and Bobby McGee?’ ”
Indeed, Mr. Getz said that when he questioned Mr. Jampol about the estate’s initial opposition to “Can’t Be the Only One,” he was told that a “new” Joplin-penned song, even without her vocals, would be squandered on such a small-scale project. (Mr. Jampol confirmed the phone call with Mr. Getz but declined to discuss details.)
As Mr. Getz remembers it, “I told him, Look Jeff, I have three boxes of CDs in my house.
“Get me Pink to sing it, get me Stevie Nicks to sing it, get me anyone, and I’ll take my CDs and throw them in the garbage. But I’m 70 years old. I don’t have forever to wait.”
Mr. Jampol’s presence might provide a new avenue of communication between the singer’s family and her old band mates. Profits from the two albums Joplin made with Big Brother, notably “Cheap Thrills” and its hit single “Piece of My Heart,” are split among the three surviving band members (Mr. Getz, Sam Andrew and Peter Albin) and the estates of Joplin and the guitarist James Gurley, who died last year.
The Joplin and Big Brother camps have often been less than friendly. Ms. Joplin described the partnership now as “cordial.”
“They thought we murdered Janis, not to put too fine a point on it,” Mr. Andrew said. “They thought we brought her into a room and shot her full of heroin. They were from Port Arthur, Tex. How would they know what it was like?”
Among the less-considered ramifications of rock star deaths are the mismatched partnerships left in their wakes as grieving families struggle to make sense of careers they didn’t choose.
Laura Joplin was 21 when her sister died and 27 when she and her brother stepped in for their aging parents to run the family business. “I had an incredible amount of grief over Janis’s death,” Ms. Joplin said from her home in Paradise, Calif. Running her sister’s estate “was not something I intended to do, and certainly not something you can get a lot of training in.”
“Neither my brother nor I were involved in the entertainment industry,” she added. “We were isolated from connections.”
And now, Ms. Joplin said, the seismic shifts in the post-digital music industry demand an expertise she and her brother (who lives in Tucson) lack. “At this point I think someone else can do this better than we can,” she said.
One thing that would boost Joplin’s 21st-century profile is a feature film. The Joplin siblings sold considerable song rights and life rights to Sony Pictures during the 1990s, and so relinquished any significant control over their sister’s cinematic portrayal. Sony later sold the rights to the producer Peter Newman, whose credits include the critically lauded film “The Squid and the Whale,” and whose commitment to a Joplin biopic is undaunted after more than a decade of unsuccessful attempts. “We’re in the final stages of closing a deal with a highly respected director who is noteworthy for his innovative approach to rock topics,” Mr. Newman said in an e-mail last month.
Mr. Newman might have competition. Temple Hill Entertainment, the production company behind the blockbuster “Twilight” vampire movies, confirmed in July that it had signed the actress Amy Adams and the director Fernando Meirelles for a Joplin biopic. (Ms. Adams and Mr. Meirelles declined to comment; neither Mr. Newman nor Temple Hill have secured financing for their projects.)
Temple Hill’s announcement set the stage for a potential replay of the 1990s duel between Lakeshore Entertainment’s planned Joplin vehicle for, variously, Renee Zellweger, Melissa Etheridge and Brittany Murphy, and the Sony project, which Mr. Newman was co-producing for, also variously, the actresses Lili Taylor and Zooey Deschanel, and the singer Pink.
Neither film came to fruition, joining other Joplin movie projects killed by script problems, a tangle of legal rights and the ego clashes among the people who claim a piece of the singer. Myra Friedman, Joplin’s friend and publicist, who wrote the 1973 biography “Buried Alive,” said she’s all but abandoned hope that a film would be made from her book. Hundreds of pages of documents – contracts, film option agreements, memorandums, old scripts, yellowing correspondence with agents and producers, some dating back to the 1970s – line the closet shelves of her Manhattan apartment.
Ms. Friedman, perusing the documents one hot day last summer, recalled a June evening 40 years earlier, when she accompanied Joplin to a taping of “The Dick Cavett Show.” Ms. Friedman sat in the studio audience as Joplin, her hair streaked with a rainbow of feather boas, told Cavett of plans to attend her 10th high school reunion in Texas. She’d be dead within months, but at that moment (still available on YouTube) Joplin looked like God’s idea of a rock star.