Janis Joplin: Queen of Rock, An Intimate Talk

01 Nov Janis Joplin: Queen of Rock, An Intimate Talk

by The Uninhibited Janis Joplin, an interview with Mark Wolf – Down Beat Magazine
November 1, 1968

“Don’cha understand? Music is just about feelin’ things and havin’ a good time! And people have forgotten that, I think. They’ve got to lay all these big cerebral trips on it. What we’re trying to do in our music is just get back to old-time havin’ a good time, jumpin’, gettin’ stoned, carryin’ on…you know, “Hey baby! Come on up here an’ let’s do it! Out on stage!”

With that straight-forward statement, Janis Joplin proceeded to gulp down another capful of one of her most publicized pastimes, Southern Comfort. the short, powerful singer sat in a padded chair in front of an open window overlooking Lawrence Avenue and the Lawrence “L” station in her dressing room at Chicago’s Aragon-Cheetah. As the drink hit her, she scrunched up her expressive face. Then she relaxed, with a kind of satisfied half-smile on her face.

Janis Joplin, lead singer of Big Brother and the Holding Company, was born 25 years ago on January 19th in Port Arthur Texas. She always felt great contempt for the conservative manners of her home town, but doesn’t regret having lived through the hypocrisy of the small-town environment. Her childhood sensitivity and ideas were drowned in a sea of hurt and hate, and a hard shell formed in her mind against the people who almost stunted her inborn insights.

“When you’re a kid,” she said, “you’re all full of things, and you don’t know what it’s about.”

Janis fled first into a secluded life, during which her time was filled with listening to Leadbelly and Odetta on records, and, at other times, painting and reading and writing poetry. But she could not find inner peace. So, after graduating from high school, she left her comfortable middle-class existence, with the dubious blessings of her parents, to make peace with and find her true self.

Janis, onstage: Her gold mini-dress and matching garter around her left thigh gleam in the spotlight as she begs, “Take another little piece a’ my heart, now, baby!” A pleading urgency makes her stomp, as if sloppily marching in place to the beat. The quivering of her lips seems to spread thoughout her entire body, as she writhes and shakes. She screams, yells, demands, and then becomes passive.

An almost innocently child-like smile creases her lips.

Digging astrology as I do, I had my F.N.A. (Friendly Neighborhood Astrologer) look up Janis’horoscope. It Turns out that Janis is a Capricorn, with her sun in Capricorn and her moon in Cancer. I don’t really know what the symbols stand for (except that Venus stands for love,) but her horoscope shows many similarities with the real Janis. She has great sensitivity and insight into others, coupled with an overabundance of intuition (to quote: “I don’t want others to let me get away with b.s. and I don’t expect others to, either.”) She has a great deal of pride, and a protective shell into which she crawls when hurt (as evidenced by her early childhood defensiveness.) And, as a final point, she has a great appeal to the members of her audience. The only thing in her horoscope that I can’t picture her doing is being domestic…

Janis is a display of emotional fervor as she moves through a performance, relying on only her innate ability to move an audience, to make them feel as she feels; to weep to scream, go insane, and regain a semblance of sanity. Again in the dressing room: “When you’re performing, it’s like you’re aware of the fact that you’re that you’re standing on a stage and that people are looking at you, so what you do is, like, I suppose an actress; you put your head in a place where you recall all these emotions, ’cause you can’t really feel ’em standing out on stage at the Aragon Ballroom, with a thousand spotlights in your face.” Why not? “Well, because you aren’t in love right then, are you? You aren’t being hurt right then, are you? You aren’t being kicked in the teeth right then, are you? You’re standing on stage. So you recall all this, and, like, you don’t say, “Well, now I’m going to remember January the 14th, when so-in-so kicked me in the teeth,” I mean, you don’t really do that. But you just, when you’re singing the tune, you sort of like put your head in a place, in an emotional place that is apt to that tune.”

After dropping in and out of four universities, Janis, with a blues-listening background which by then included Bessie Smith and Otis Redding, began to sing in folk and blues bars around Venice Beach and San Francisco. After bumming around for a while, she went back to Texas, but only as far as Austin in the southeastern part of the state. After playing the Austin hillbilly bars, someone who could only have been her fairy godfather discovered her and brought her to San Francisco to join Big Brother. The group consisted, at that time, of its present three string players (Sam Andrew, guitar and bass; James Gurley, guitar; Peter Albin, bass and guitar) and a drummer, soon replaced by David Getz. The group was the first musical environment in which Janis had a real chance to open up. [Shortly after this interview, it was announced that Janis was splitting from Big Brother to go out as a single, with a Columbia Records contract of her own.] Yet it makes the listener wonder, after hearing Janis, what she will sound like in her later years if she continues to strain her voice to its limits at every performance. But, according to Janis, “You have to sing loud and move wild with all that (the electronic volume and rhythm of a rock band) in back of you…I’ve tried cooling myself and not screaming and I’ve walked off feeling like nothing.” So if the music incorporates all of the facets of rock coupled with blues singing, what can the music be called? Janis: “How ’bout Blues-rock-soul-rock-blues? I don’t know. It’s all those things. Loud…It’s “blues-rock,” if ya gotta call it anything, call it that. “Blues-rock.”

Janis nears the end of a performance. Her hair is free, unkempt, she is sweating profusely, and she breathes heavily as if she has just run the four-minute mile. And in many ways, she has done just that. She has tried to grasp the 3,000 spectators watching her personal orgy, tempting them,

tantalizing them, trying to make them consume her as she has presented herself onstage in a most sensual way to make them accept her offering. She has reached inside each one and twisted them into realizing that they can control her by only asking. The males are tormented: “I need a man to love me, don’cha understan’ me, baby” The girls cry to see one of their own sex giving all that she has to offer in such a primitively ritualistic way. But Janis is not yet satisfied. She sings another song: “I’m gonna leave you baby, I can’t help myself. I gotta leave you, baby…” She stomps, flails her hair, points at each member of the audience, and screams! Not from terror, but from sheer delight. The music rushes on as the group tries to keep up with its tiger. “Hate ma baba, baba, hate ma baba, baba, I gotta go right now…” A final piercing wail cuts through the auditorium, as the music fades behind Janis’single held note. An ovation greets the end of the performance as Janis takes the coffee mug that has been carefully placed on an amp behind her and drinks to her conquest…

After the interview, as I packed up my tape recorder and prepared to leave, this woman, who had proved to be such a beautiful person, not only as a performer but as a human being, asked me in her strong, husky voice, “Could you send a copy of your article to my manager? Here’s his card.” And then, I swear, the child-like innocence that she keeps in reserve under her protective, hard exterior, appeared in one of the most wistful smiles imaginable. “You see, I’m keeping a scrapbook.”