The Tragedy of Janis Joplin

Janis Joplin was born in Port Arthur, TX in 1943. Her years there were very difficult, she was different, had few friends, and worried her parents. In 1960 she went off to The University of Texas in Austin, and enjoyed the freedom it provided. She walked around the campus barefoot and unkempt, carrying her Autoharp, which she’d busk with for cash. It was there that Janis first got to display her incredible singing style and raspy, soulful voice.

Dropping out of the University, where she also was a misfit, Janis headed to San Francisco in 1963, where Hippy was taking root in the Height Asbury district, and the air was filled with great music, frolicking kids and pot smoke. It was there that she teamed up with Big Brother and the Holding Company, a Psychedelic Band, and began to take them in a more bluesy direction. She also moved in with her lover, Country Joe, of the F…song fame, in a relationship that lasted several years. She also almost married a guy in New York, whom she’d been engaged to, but luckily decided it was a bad idea.

There was a lot of drug use in the Height, including speed, pot and acid, but Janis still grew as an artist and gained confidence in performing. Big Brother”s and Janis’s worlds changed in June of 1967 at the Monterey Rock Festival, where she wowed the crowd with her aggressive body language and voice. The resulting Documentary Film and Record Album of the Monterey Festival, spread the word around the world, and Janis and Big Brother were suddenly becoming famous and wealthy, touring and playing shows full of hippie kids from L.A. to Seattle, and partying day and night. She was living what would be a short life to the fullest.

I was on the street in San Francisco in 1969 promoting for Liberty/U Records, and I got to know some folks that hung with Janis and told me some stories. She was making good money and spending it just as fast, living in her own inimitable way. One story was that she had bought a Classic Limo, one of those long cars with an open cockpit for the chauffer, and an enclosed compartment for the Swells. Janis would drive it around town and pickup stray dogs along the way, and the dogs would ride in the back their heads hanging out the windows. She’d also pick up stray hitch- hiking hippie boys and take them and the dogs back to the rented Mansion in Marin, feed the dogs, clean up the boys, and then get down and party.

The other story about Janis I enjoyed also has to do with cars of a special sort. One day Janis strolled into the Rolls Royce dealership in L.A., barefoot and wearing a little summer dress, no makeup, and her hair a mess.. At first the salesmen ignored her, but when she got into one of the Rolls Royce’s and slipped behind the wheel, she said in that funny Janis voice, “How much is it baby?” One of the sales guys disdainfully told her the price, and she said, “O.K., just a minute,” ran out to her car and came back carrying a duffel bag. The whole staff at the Dealership had gathered to watch her open the bag. To their amazement there was tens of thousands of dollars in cash, in crisp $100 bills. Janis was enjoying the scene she’d created, and took her time counting it out, then signed the papers, and drove a new Rolls Royce Cornish out the door and down Sunset Blvd. You could say that Janis Joplin lived the way she wanted, and seemed to be happy, but her life would tragically end with death at 27, much too young, as would be many of her peers.

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