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Music By Turner: Janis Joplin 'lived the lyrics'

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Three months before Janis Joplin died in 1970, she was asked in an interview “how did you learn to sing the blues like that?”

Janis Joplin (center) performs with her band Big Brother and the Holding Company in December 1969.   FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Janis Joplin (center) performs with her band Big Brother and the Holding Company in December 1969.

Her response makes as much sense now as it did almost 42 years ago.

“I just opened up my mouth and that’s what I sounded like. You can’t make up something that you don’t feel.”

Gee, can you imagine Taylor Swift saying that?

Janis not only felt the blues – she lived ’em! Of course, she had plenty of “mother’s not-so-little helpers” in the form of heroin and Southern Comfort, two vices that she sought and fought years before hitting the charts in 1967 with her first major band Big Brother and the Holding Company.

These substances eventually not only took her life but also stymied her career. Janis was so “out of it” while performing at Woodstock in 1969 that her performances were cut from the original movie and album that would have exposed her to millions more potential fans.

Seeing Janis sing is a totally different experience than just listening. She, as did Patsy Cline and Stevie Nicks, would go into a trance and live the lyrics she was delivering. There’s plenty of fine Joplin vids on You Tube that illustrate just how emotionally fragile she was on stage.

As a longtime observer of classic rock and rollers, I find it fascinating that many musicians, including such disparate artists as Joplin, Jim Morrison and Karen Carpenter, had dreadfully dysfunctional relationships with their parents.

Joplin’s ultraconservative mother and father were horrified at their daughter’s choice of lifestyle, even after her many successes as a recording and performing artist. She, of course, rebelled against them by moving to California at just 19 years of age and joined Big Brother.

Janis would have been 70 this month, and her legacy is as strong now as ever. Two marvelous albums were issued last year – Big Brother and the Holding Company Live 1968 at the Carousel Ballroom as well as the terrific historical expansion of her final studio offering Pearl.

Pearl (Janis’ favorite nickname) was recorded in Los Angeles with Paul Rothchild producing. By most reports, Rothchild had fallen hard for the Texas singer and was so smitten by her that he stopped work on his then-current project L.A. Woman with the Doors to work with Joplin.

The Pearl album featured her biggest chart hit as well as perhaps her signature song Me and Bobby McGee. Penned by another old flame, Kris Kristofferson, the song was her first single released after her death in October 1970.

The Pearl sessions is full of classics in addition to Me and Bobby McGee. Move Over, Get it While You Can and the blues chestnut Cry Baby are among the stellar selections on the disc.

On Oct. 1, 1970, Joplin recorded her final two songs. The first was a happy birthday greeting to John Lennon using Dale Evans’ song Happy Trails as a musical template. Lennon’s birthday was just eight days later, and one can only “imagine” how Lennon must have felt as he received her gift to him just a scant few days after her death on Oct. 4.

Her second and last song recorded that day was Mercedes Benz, a tune that Joplin had helped write with two Bob Dylan cohorts, the poets Bobby Neuwirth and Michael McClure. Joplin (who actually owned a psychedelically painted Porsche!) sang the 106-second tune a capella. As the Pearl sessions indicates, she then chuckled and said “that’s it!”

And it was. Four days later, Joplin was found dead by her bed after missing a vocal recording session for what would have been the final song of the sessions. The name of the song? Buried Alive in the Blues.

Did Joplin know her end was near? No one knows for sure, but how many 27-year-olds leave a stipulation in their will that provides $1,500 for a wake for their friends to attend just in case? Yes, Joplin did, and some three weeks after her death that’s exactly what happened. It’s been said that every cent was spent.

Joplin is a member of the “Forever 27” Club that includes Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, along with the newest “inductee” Amy Winehouse. Sure, it’s a club filled with extraordinary talent but that initiation fee remains way too steep.

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BirdyGirl 01/19/13 - 02:30 pm
Reader Chris Ndeti writes:


My name is Chris Ndeti I'm a local musician solo acoustic and front the band Mama Says. As a female myself and particularly a musician I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article on one of my favorite singers and songwriter Ms. Janis Joplin. I completely agree she sang about the life she lived even with the eerie essence of what would have been her final song Buried Alive in Blues.I played a gig last night and before I did my rendition of Me and Bobby McGee - I mentioned some tidbits from your article. Though I'm not the biggest fan of today's pop music I think it's part of my civil duty as a musician to remind listeners about the real heart and soul of music. I just wanted to say thanks for the article and for not forgetting about one of the greatest musicians (at least in my book) in history.

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