Janis Joplin presents, the unpopular girl’s lament. This song, if you haven’t noticed, is exceedingly masochistic. Disturbingly so. Especially coming from Joplin, whose entire identity seems to have stemmed from the pain of growing up homely and unpopular in a bourgeois small Texas town, where she was bullied and mocked for her looks. Despite her outwardly tough ‘bawdy blues mama’ persona, Joplin struggled with crippling insecurity, which led to the alcohol and drug consumption that killed her. It was also, of course, what made her such an outstanding blues singer. When Joplin begged for a scrap of love from the stage, she was begging from the bottom of her heart. She famously described her performing life as making love to thousands of people only to go home alone. Which is incredibly sad, as is the fact that Joplin’s success as an artist was unbreakably intertwined with her inability to be a functional person. One can imagine that if she had managed to get the drugs out of her system, come to terms with herself, and found a fulfilling relationship, she may have quit singing and gone back to being a painter. As it were, though, she just spent a brief moment exemplifying the long sufferin’ woman of lore, the one who takes on all the abuse the world gives her and keeps on plowin’, just hoping to earn the love of one good man, or even a shitty one, anybody really, just for a minute. Sad.
No conversation about gifted women who careen into an early grave because they can’t live with themselves is complete without Janis Joplin. Sometimes that conversation focuses so hard on being on a bumpy ride to hell, it begins to overshadow the part about being gifted. Joplin didn’t exactly leave behind a huge library of work, and after so many years, there’s not much left to discover. It can seem like the handful of hits are over-familiar oldies radio fodder, just another cheap touchstone for boomer nostalgia. But it’s still striking to see the sheer ferocity of her performance, even in the antiseptic environment of a TV studio. She reminds us why we remember her. She was somebody who really didn’t have any better place in the world except on stage.
“I’d trade all my tomorrows for one single yesterday…”
Some things we consider ‘classic’ are overrated; some are classics for a reason. Janis Joplin’s Me & Bobby McGee is one of the most touted songs of the sixties. It’s been hammered half to death with anthem-of-a-generation boomer nostalgia. And yet, and yet. It remains impervious to cheap sentimentality. Through the hands of dozens of disparate musicians, it remains a gem. Most people consider Joplin’s bleeding-soul rendition the definitive one. Some prefer Kris Kristofferson’s twangier version. There’s probably someone in Sweden who thinks that Caroline of Ugglas absolutely nailed it on her Joplin tribute album. Whichever way you swing, it’s one of the greatest odes to lost love and road weariness ever written. Somewhat ironic that the idea first came to Kristofferson as a bit of a joke; “The title came from [producer and Monument Records founder] Fred Foster. He called one night and said, “I’ve got a song title for you. It’s ‘Me and Bobby McKee’.” I thought he said “McGee”. Bobby McKee was the secretary of Boudleaux Bryant, who was in the same building with Fred. Then Fred says, “The hook is that Bobby McKee is a she. How does that grab you?” (Laughs) I said, “Uh, I’ll try to write it, but I’ve never written a song on assignment.” So it took me a while to think about.” Not even a good joke, but inspiration strikes in weird ways.
Roundly depressing. I’ve heard Kristofferson wrote this about Janis Joplin, after her death. Janis has inspired an ode or two with her burned-our star. There is, sadly, an undeniable glamor about someone who can’t get it together to survive life. Kristofferson isn’t falling for glamor, though. He’s written a song about a woman who lived, despite her success, a life of misery and died emotionally destitute.
Janis Joplin must’ve been something to see. She sang like she was inside-out. She was full of unhappiness all her life, and that makes her music cathartic and/or painfully depressing. The sad fact that she didn’t live long enough to benefit from her success makes her a not-very-good role model for young ladies plain of face but rich in talent. It’s not a good story unless the ugly duckling wins. Dying rich, sad and stoned is not winning.
First time I’ve hit Janis Joplin so far. Well, if she’d stayed alive longer, she’d have more songs, and I’d have more reasons to post up her purdy face.