red lights


Her voice still rips the wallpaper
off the wall

Aug. 26, 2004

Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin

Story by John Halverson

Sometimes you need distance to know what you've missed.
I recently bought a Janis Joplin CD. I hadn't listened to her seriously in years. I know Aretha and a whole lineage of singers have touched a deep cord in their own ways, but I'm here to declare Janis Joplin the greatest soul singer ever. Some will say she's rock, but rock is fun and Janis was deadly serious. Some say she sang the blues, but the blues are a celebration of resignation. Soul is resurrection, and Janis always sang like she was coming back from the dead...and the devil better get out of her way. When she sang "take another piece of my heart" she meant it but the song also says "each time I tell myself that I, well I think I've had enough...But I'm gonna show you, baby, that a woman can be tough."
"Seeing her live," said one observer, "was like watching a boxing match. There you were living your nice little life in the suburbs and suddenly there was this train wreck...that train wreck was Janis." "I'm no good if I hold back," Janis said. Janis never held back. We don't know if there's a soul. It's never been photographed. Of course, neither has God. But there's a deep place in all of us-whatever you want to call it. Most of us cover it, control it. Probably just as well. Those who see it without blinders often follow dead artists to their graves.
Live fast; die young.
Vince Lombardi said we shouldn't honor the losers. We should honor the winners instead. He was right, but he also missed the point. The same emotions that drove his running back Jim Taylor to actually seek out tacklers came from the same place Janis drew from. It was also the same place that has fueled heroes forever, that leads to great and impossible rescues, that allows small women to lift large cars to save their children. It's why we cry when we see Humphrey Bogart walk away from Ingrid Bergman at the end of "Casablanca"-sacrificing the love of his life for a greater cause, the soul cause.
Artists are blessed and cursed with having gone to places we haven't and then find the language to tell us about the journey. Sometimes it's pretty. Sometimes it's not. Those who go there aren't necessarily the most upstanding citizens. I wouldn't want my kids to hang around with Janis Joplin or her emotional brother James Dean. You want to protect your kids.
Janis' career lasted three years; James Dean made three movies. Then they died. An open heart. An open wound. It depends which way you turn on a foggy highway.
Janis was a pimply outcast in high school. Each song sounded like an act of revenge. Thirty years later, her voice still rips the wallpaper off the wall.
Not everything Joplin and Dean did was great, or even all that soulful. But in bits and pieces they've plumbed depths few of us have ever seen. And it's wrong to label them as misfits and bums. They were certainly misfits, but both had a gift and both worked hard at their craft. Janis walked away from her first band because they didn't want to work as hard as she did. James Dean immersed himself in his roles. It's also easy to be turned off by the intensity and volume of Janis's singing, especially her early work with Big Brother and the Holding Company. If it's just not your type of music, you may not be able to get past that. But if you listen closely, it grows on you as all originality does. Her Texas accents and inflections make her voice as unique as Lena Horne's and superior to all the sound-alike artists we're stuck with most of the time. Her screams draw attention away from the way she could modulate words for different effects and be playful and tortured by turns.
Still, it was her screams, where her soul really came out as something almost otherworldly compared to the fake emotions of a Tom Jones or Michael McDonald. Unlike the made for TV emotions other singers show, Janis lived her truth in her music. Dean, too, was anything but a lazy bum. He could be a ham, but as legendary movie critic Pauline Kael once said about another actor. "I don't know what it was, but it wasn't acting." Watch Janis and Dean and you'll know what she meant.
In "East of Eden" Dean so felt the angst of his character that long after the scene ended stagehands had to pry his crying, withering body off the actor who was portraying his father in the movie.
A Janis concert was a catharsis.
No wonder they die young.
So why do we want to listen to such music, watch such movies? Many people don't. It's the type of raw emotion our parents kept behind closed doors. But there must be something intoxicating down there. Some blinding beauty people die for.
Both Janis and James Dean died accidentally-Janis with a heroin overdose, Dean in a speeding car. In away, both died at their own hand but I wouldn't call either a suicide. Whether it was the thrill of driving 130 mph or the rush that apparently comes with heroin, they were both seeking to get back to someplace they had been before. Janis said: "The more you live the less you die."
We can argue with that and say there are other ways to touch the soul, but we each have to find our own. The road they took isn't for all of us, but let's not judge too harshly their destination.
They were seekers, and they died seeking.

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