Back in the days when we had record albums and turntables, when you had to keep the music at a low enough volume so your sister didn’t bang on the wall from the room next door, I would sometimes bring records to school and swap them out for a day or two with friends. For a few days with Heart’s double live album, I might give up Goodbye Yellow Brick Road temporarily. But I never could part with Janis Joplin’s Pearl for fear it might get scratched, or worse, broken.
Music marks eras in our life, whether it be a teeny bopper idol phase (HELLO Shaun Cassidy) or the moment we conceive of something powerful coming from art (like the first time I heard U2). Janis Joplin’s music was one raw nerve that was so brutally honest, sometimes it hurt to listen to it. I gobbled up every biography I could find, bought all of her albums, then the “remastered” and “lost” editions, and when my album collection had been carelessly lost, I replaced them all with CDs and downloads. And I marveled at how one person could put her bare soul on display. Because I discovered Janis, I discovered Odetta and Otis Redding (it is rumored she modeled her stage act after him). I tried to recruit my friends into the fandom of Janis, but unlike many 1960’s legends like Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, somehow Janis never generated a cult of personality at the same level. This is a shame. Not only did Janis break through the “just a girl singer” mode of the fifties and early sixties (another exception being Aretha Franklin, who is a whole different fangirl blog topic), but because she revered African American artists who are often overlooked for their influence on early rock and roll (Leadbelly, Big Mama Thornton). Today’s female artists followed trailblazers like Joan Jett and the Wilson sisters; before them, artists like Deborah Harry and Patti Smith (moment of silence for the my lost Horses album). But Janis was first.
PBS recently aired a documentary about her life, which of course, I watched. I found the special oddly tame for a woman who was a Texas-sized force of nature, and for the most part, a re hash of old clips that glossed over some important parts of her life and death. All in all, it didn’t quite do justice to a woman who was my first real music idol (not counting Shaun Cassidy, of course).
Somewhere in a dusty bin in a secondhand store, I hope my copy of Pearl is waiting to be plucked from obscurity by an unsuspecting fourteen-year old. I hope he or she will take it home and listen to it beginning to end, then re position the needle to play whichever tune really grabbed him. I recommend Cry Baby.